A creative, logical mind, a love of fun, a challenge from her dad and lots of hard work have made Julia Poler, 17, a business owner and provider of entertainment to all of Grays Harbor. The Montesano High School senior recently opened her business, Escape the Harbor, in downtown Montesano to rave reviews.
The hour-long entertainment experience provides a mystery scenario with all the clues needed to solve it in a specially designed room. A relatively new phenomenon, escape rooms come in different types with Julia’s falling under the puzzle genre. “We never actually lock you in,” clarifies Julia, whose other interests include drawing, painting reading classical literature and playing second base on a traveling fastpitch team, the Lady Bulldogs, based out of Montesano.
The oldest of Steve and Hillary Poler’s four children – with her twin, Peyton, just 13 minutes younger, followed by Ava, 15, and Bode, 12, – Julia said the idea for this business actually came from her dad, who is a financial advisor for Edward Jones with an office just steps away from Julia’s new venture.
“We did a couple escape rooms as a family, when we were looking for something fun to do while visiting other areas,” explains the striking brunette. “After the first one, my dad says, ‘We could do this! Why aren’t we doing this?’ We just thought this seems like a great way to open a business and have something new and fun for Monte – and all of Grays Harbor.”
Although a MHS senior, Julia is currently pursuing her Associate of Arts degree at Grays Harbor College through the Running Start program. Knowing Julia’s natural gifts and that her college schedule would mean less in-class time, her father approached her at the beginning of the summer with a challenge to design an escape room to be opened by the fall.
“It’s been a bit of a challenge. My mind has been working hard on it for four months,” says Julia. “I hit the discount and antique stores looking for all sorts of combination locks, as well as unique props for the room. Family and friends also donated items.” Her dad found a good location with parking and then it was time to get busy with finishing touches, including inviting guess to try it out.
After a run-down of the rules on a recent stormy Saturday, Julia told an eager family of four the story of private investigator Arthur Masters and the clues he left in his office to find an evidence file, which he hid before his untimely demise. She lets the family into the room and then watches by camera as they attempt to solve the mystery, staying in contact via a Walkie Talkie and providing extra clues as needed.
“People may not think an entertainment activity where you use your mind would be fun, but it’s an adrenaline rush when you get in there. It’s fun and it gets your mind off other stuff in the real world,” she says. Speaking of the real world, Steve Poler is glad that his daughter is getting a taste of it by setting up a business. When he was a child, his family co-owned the Batter’s Box, a baseball card shop in downtown Aberdeen.
“It’s good for a young person to be around a business, to learn to talk with adults and see how a business operates,” he says. Julia owns 51 percent and her mother 49 percent of the QJ Holdings, LLC, which operates the business. Julia had to get the business license, sign insurance papers and figure out how a business works. “It really is her deal,” Steve says. “She will be talking to the accountant, paying the rent, learning how to use QuickBooks.”
“Julia is more business minded than most kids her age and her way of thinking just fits with the creation of an escape room,” adds her mom, Hillary.
While it’s clearly Julia’s venture, her whole family has helped to get it going. “Dad’s been helpful as I figure out business plans, marketing plans, goals and strategies,” explains Julia. “Mom was able to pick up certain items for me at stores and my siblings were good Guinea pigs. I’d ask them, ‘Hey can you figure this out?’ My brother also helped a lot with the cleaning.”
One of the trickier aspects of the business is marketing, Julia said, because many people don’t even know what an escape room is. Another challenge is that once someone has gone through the experience, it really isn’t suited for repeat customers – they’d already know all the answers.
However, depending on how the business catches on, Julia will likely offer new scenarios every six months.
In the meantime she’s enjoying sharing the mystery with fresh groups and is thinking ahead to college next fall. Right now, Montana State University is her top prospect, perhaps to study business. By then she hopes Escape the Harbor will be a well-tuned success that she can hire a sibling or friend to run.
While families, teams, youth groups, birthday parties, groups of teens or even senior citizens are all good potential customers, Julia suggests that groups of kids be 12 or older because the puzzle is pretty challenging. (However, if a younger child comes as part of a family, he or she would still have fun and contribute.) She also learned in a test run with some older people to remind them to bring their reading glasses.
While two people could enjoy Escape the Harbor, Julia says it’s typically more fun with a group.
“It’s just good family fun, a unique way to spend some time together as a family,” explains Steve. “Even if there’s a squabble, anytime you work together as a team and accomplish something, that’s positive.
Escape the Harbor is at 215 East Pioneer St., located in the Pick Rite Thriftway grocery store building, above Bulldog Lanes and Café in Montesano.
The experience is by appointment only, with customers booking online or by phone. The hour-long experience costs $20 a person or $15 for those 18 years and younger. To book a time, contact Julia Poler via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, through her Facebook page, Escape the Harbor, or by calling or texting 360-489-4345.