BY ROBERT A. CRONKLETON
Breakout KC is making a name for itself in live-action escape rooms — where players enter themed rooms and have 60 minutes to “break out” by figuring out clues, puzzles and riddles.
In less than two years, the Kansas City-based company has expanded to four entertainment centers, including one in Waikiki.
On Christmas Eve, the Hawaii location was thrust into the limelight when a celebrity booking turned out to be someone totally unexpected — President Barack Obama.
It wasn’t until the U.S. Secret Service arrived about 40 minutes ahead of the scheduled afternoon booking that the staff at Breakout Waikiki realized they would be hosting Obama and his daughters, who were vacationing in Hawaii.
“That’s when things became really, really interesting,” said MacGregor Greenlee, general manager of Breakout Waikiki. “Of course we flew into a flurry of excitement about this crazy, crazy opportunity and did everything we could to prepare well and be ready for him.”
Hosting celebrities is not something new for Breakout Waikiki. Shortly after it opened in November last year, members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team played the escape game.
Perhaps it was a tweet following the athletes’ visit that got Obama’s attention. The tweet challenged him to try the game while he was visiting Hawaii a year ago.
— Breakout Waikiki (@BreakoutWaikiki) December 23, 2015
“Nothing happened of it,” said Matt Baysinger, CEO of Breakout KC. “They didn’t come that week, which was fine. It was fun just to have the thought that they might show up.”
Fast forward to the morning of Christmas Eve — afternoon Kansas City time — when someone called Breakout Waikiki wanting to book all four rooms for a celebrity client that day, Baysinger said.
“They didn’t say who it was,” Baysinger said. “Fortunately we had some availability. We had to move some things around to accommodate their requests.”
The Secret Service vetted all of the employees and checked their identifications. Police dogs made a pass through the business to make sure it was safe.
“Our employees were all having panic attacks out of sheer excitement,” Baysinger said. “It’s a real special thing to meet a president, especially to be able to interact with them for a full hour.”
Baysinger said he first learned of the president’s visit while he was in the middle of Christmas dinner. He got a call from Breakout Waikiki. He responded with a text saying he was busy. He got a response back, saying he needed to call — that it was important.
Baysinger called and said the exchange went something like this:
Waikiki staff: Hey, the president is coming.
Baysinger: You’re really funny.
Waikiki staff: No, seriously. The president is coming.
“That’s when it started to sink in, and so I tried to make all the phone calls of our folks out here that needed to be on standby just for whatever reason,” Baysinger said.
One of the phone calls was to Greenlee, who was in Alabama for the holiday.
The duties of dealing with the Secret Service and making sure everything was set up and ready to go fell to Mitch Massey, on what was his first day as shift leader.
“From that time forward, we were glued to our phones because we got to watch part of the experience and listen to the president interact with our staff,” Baysinger said.
“My family might tell you that it ruined Christmas dinner,” he said with a chuckle. “Obviously not all of us were really excited that they were glued to my phone as much as I was.”
With 12 seconds remaining, the president was able to escape from the Mission Manoa room, which is one of the two most challenging rooms across Breakout KC’s facilities. It has a success rate of about 21 percent. It’s similar to the Szechuan Secret room in Kansas City. Both were designed here.
“They are nearly identical,” Baysinger said. “There are just a couple components that we tailor to be more Hawaiian for our Hawaii location.”
The cost for the Mission Manoa room is $28-$40 per person, depending on how many people are in a group, according to Breakout Waikiki’s website.
As news spread that Obama played the escape game, Breakout Waikiki has been hearing from others through social media about their experiences, comparing their time to the president’s.
The visit has also caused a surge in business, prompting the Waikiki location to start offering overtime.
“Our bookings almost doubled overnight, and our web traffic is up 700 percent in light of all the news coverage we have gotten out in Hawaii,” Baysinger said.
This kind of Christmas present, Greenlee said, will last for a very long time.
“Thanks, Obama,” he said.
Robert A. Cronkleton: 816-234-4261, @cronkb