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Chapel Thrill Escapes: A Story of Success and Resilience

September 5, 2023

By Sophia Raspanti

I recently sat down with Riley Harper and Nolan Welch, the respective Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Chapel Thrill Escapes, a first-of-its-kind, student-run and nonprofit organization located at the heart of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. Our conversation was one that brought smiles, laughter, pride, and even a few whispered exchanges between the two executive team members, while reflecting on the organization’s history, successes, and future directions. As Chapel Thrill Escapes opens its doors to students looking to participate in “Rameses in Wonderland”, the current escape room of Fall 2023, both Riley and Nolan gave insight into the remarkable history and journey of the organization, their mission and core values, and their future.  

Found in the bottom of Cobb Residence Hall, nestled between Country Club Road and Jackson Hall, the student admissions office, Chapel Thrill Escapes is a novel innovation: a student built, run, and maintained project that is also a nonprofit corporation, a recent acquisition that granted the organization 501c3 status. With exception to the Gamemasters, the hosts of the escape rooms, all members are dedicated volunteers that work diligently to create a memorable and impactful experience using revenue for creation and maintenance of new and current rooms. At the core of it all, Chapel Thrill Escapes champions creativity, collaboration, diversity, and innovation, and believes that these values lead to student success and the unlocking of their fullest potential. Additionally, Chapel Thrill stays true to its other mission statements, which can be found on the front page of its webpage, and creates accessible, and most importantly affordable, entertainment for on-campus residents as well as all UNC students and members of the local community.  

In many ways, Chapel Thrill is the ultimate embodiment of the UNC student spirit, encouraging partnerships, innovation, and an opportunity for multi-disciplinary students to work together. By acting as an outlet for student creativity, entrepreneurship, diversity, and collaboration, Chapel Thrill Escapes has found immense success as a first-of-its-kind student organization. Furthermore, bolstered by current successes and triumphs, Chapel Thrill looks forward to becoming a novel business model for other University systems and plans to expand the joy of unique escape room concepts not only statewide, but across the region and country.  


"In a lot of ways, we are standing on the shoulders of giants."

—Nolan Welch, COO

In 2018, two UNC students and Morehead-Cain scholars, Cam Champion and Phillip Smart, founded the organization in hopes of creating a permanent on-campus escape room for on-campus residents and the surrounding community. Smart and Champion headed the first project, the building of “The Belltower”, an escape room that would unfortunately come to fruition only a few weeks before COVID-19 forced the University to send students back home due to significant health and safety concerns. However, before the room closed its doors, 300+ students had already enjoyed the challenging puzzles The Belltower had to offer.  

Following the graduation of Champion and Smart, Julia Dudick took over as the new CEO and worked to create an online version of The Belltower, aiming to provide a source of virtual entertainment as the pandemic persisted. Dudick’s leadership and innovation kept the organization afloat until Spring 2022, in which Sameer Rao assumed leadership as CEO and radically transformed the organization, hiring a full leadership team and many new members. Now back on campus, Chapel Thrill rekindled and created partnerships. The organization now partners with BeAM, the Meantime Coffee Co., and Carolina Housing. By late January of 2023, a new room had been created and doors opened for “Rameses in Wonderland”, a creative idea headed by Mariana Chavez, who serves as Executive Director (ED), and the building team. Within a week, metrics for Room-Over-Room (ROR) growth reached 146%, indicating that students and community members profoundly enjoyed their experiences.  

(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Soon, discussions of expansion began, and the organization looked for a space on Franklin Street. However, in compliance with fire code standards, the space required a new installation of an overhead sprinkler system which would cost the organization $80,000. Expansion was temporarily paused, but in October 2023, CEO Riley Harper, COO Nolan Welch, ED Mariana Chavez, and other team members created a strategic plan to highlight progress thus far and detail a formidable expansion plan to take place over the next 5 fiscal years. As stated in the strategic plan, and reinforced by my conversation with Riley and Nolan, a new location on Franklin St. will open soon, as a second location for curious students and escape room enthusiasts alike to enjoy.  

Why is it Worth It? 

"“Looking at it, it is not what anyone expects, but so pretty when it ends up coming out”."

Riley Harper, CEO

At the time I conducted my interview, I must admit that I was a bit naïve to escape rooms, never having the time to explore Chapel Thrill Escapes in my final semester at UNC due to academic demands. However, upon walking into the room, seeing puzzles first-hand, and learning about the concept from the room’s dedicated members, I soon became curious and excited. Harper stated that “looking at it, it is not what anyone expects, but so pretty when it ends up coming out”, a quote that truly encompasses my experience, and I’m sure many others as well. Every detail of the room, from the décor to the individual puzzles, is meticulously hand-crafted and uniquely entrancing. While I am sworn to secrecy and don’t want to reveal any spoilers, STEM students may look forward to a loud, slightly terrifying, unbalanced centrifuge. However, for those of you like me who have seen centrifuges fly off the lab bench, don’t worry because this one is perfectly safe, having been added and constructed for the room by STEM-inclined team members. 

"It’s just playing around with the idea that anything can be a puzzle, even something that looks like it might be décor."

— Nolan Welch, COO

The puzzles, room, and gameplay are aesthetically pleasing and curated by Chavez, one of her key roles as Executive Director. Welch and Harper highlighted the excitement of the team, informing me that so many puzzles were created that gameplay was extended to 75 minutes. As Welch puts it: “We did a little too much”, flashing a mischievous glint in his eyes. The pride team leaders and members have for the organization they have built and maintained is a fantastic part of the experience. To see the core values and mission of the organization not only put in place, but truly encouraging innovation and creativity amongst the student community, is astonishing. “We make all these ideas as a team,” Riley responded, when asked about the story of how puzzles, décor, and gameplay become reality. More than fascinating, the success of Chapel Thrill, both external and internal, is incredibly unique and serves as a model for future business models, both UNC and beyond.  

Looking toward the future, Chapel Thrill aims to expand its model to other local spaces and University systems, near and far. As stated in their strategic plan, “Chapel Thrill Escapes will expand its product offerings across physical and virtual spaces, implement sustainable, cohesive programs for organizational units to foster high-impact experiences and shared community, and position itself to adopt novel business models for statewide expansion” – (Strategic plan pg. 7). However, Chapel Thrill not only wants to focus on the expansion of their program, but also work to strengthen their organization internally. Remaining true to the core values and mission, the heart of Chapel Thrill’s strategy is listening to its members and visitors. Using data collected from anonymous surveys and interviews, team members look to increase engagement amongst team members, a move they believe will not only benefit the members of their organization, but the final product as well.  

Chapel Thrill Escape utilizes a team-based approach to create innovative spaces. Currently, the organization’s staff is divided amongst an executive, business, and building team. While each serve different purposes, the three units are essential to creating a working whole. However, in many ways, members believe that these teams can be strengthened and become more engaging. Amongst the ten strategic initiatives listed in the comprehensive plan, four initiatives directly target engagement and cohesiveness of the organization’s teams, while many other initiatives support these same goals. Communication and cohesiveness are increasingly important as the organization seeks to expand beyond Chapel Hill’s campus, and working to create a tight-knit community of dedicated team members is a primary goal. Chapel Thrill Escapes looks to increase leadership opportunities on the building team by introducing critical roles that include design, technology, storytelling, and makerspace coordinators. The organization also plans to increase social connectedness through a multi-component approach: increasing cross-collaboration through sub-teams in both the business and building teams to create virtual products like The Belltower virtual experience. Additionally, Chapel Thrill Escapes will implement Personal and Organizational Development Squads, known as PODS, that they hope will increase social cohesion and engagement. PODS will be informal groups of 3-4 people of similar interests that offer in-person events, such as coffee and boba hangouts, game nights, and dinners at local favorites found on Franklin Street. Furthermore, Chapel Thrill doesn’t just want to create these programs and leave it at that: plans are in place to continually evaluate perception and experience of the new initiatives, once again demonstrating the care and compassion the team has for all its members.  

As for the future of escape rooms themselves, Chapel Thrill looks to expand using a phase-based approach to other university systems. Phase 1 will be an expeditionary phase, in which the team looks to expand their business model to local universities including Duke and NC State. Following the successful implementation of Phase 1 expansions, the organization hopes to expand even further, starting with other state universities before moving regionally, and eventually expanding across the country, with both private and public institutions.  

Looking To the Future 

As a first-of-its-kind student organization, universities across the country have much to learn from Chapel Thrill Escapes’ model, mission, and business model. As Chapel Thrill continues to expand its presence to new and exciting frontiers, Carolina students should look forward to an organization that will continue to blossom and grow to meet the needs of the student body. Creativity, collaboration, diversity, and innovation are not only the cornerstone of Chapel Thrill Escapes, but the glue that binds the Carolina community together, and what makes UNC-Chapel Hill such a vibrant student experience. 

For more information about Chapel Thrill Escapes, check out our podcast below!

Carolina Housing updates policies and protocols regularly. Information found within this blog may not reflect our current standards and procedures. If you have any questions, please contact Carolina Housing at for the most up to date information.

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