Successful Meetings Magazine

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January 9th, 2008

By Corrie Dosh

“Teambuilding event” can be an agenda item that sends shivers down the spines of meeting attendees, who may envision building towers out of office chairs, trust falls, or other often pointless efforts to bond. So in October, when a member company of insurance giant AIG brought a group of newly promoted managers into New York for a two-day
training meeting, the company meeting planners decided to do things a little differently. Blending business goals with a competitive game, attendees were sent off on an elaborate scavenger hunt through the streets of lower Manhattan.

A far cry from clue-driven hunts of years past, modern scavenger hunts are multi-layered challenges designed to entertain and educate participants. “Hunts may be the next fad in teambuilding exercises, following the popularity of ropes courses and rock climbing activities,” says Dr. Pam Brill, a Boston-area consultant who provides senior-level coaching for
business and sports organizations.

However, though vendors may tout them as a perfect blend of fun and business, corporations would be well advised to consult a professional when incorporating a competitive activity into their meetings, Brill says. Otherwise, competition can naturally bring out the worst sort of behaviors in participants. (See sidebar.)

“They market the illusion of people working together in teams, but for people to really work together, it’s far more complex than doing a scavenger hunt. Even the best-designed scavenger hunt that takes into account the team’s goals and development is not addressing the challenges of working together as human beings,” Brill says.

Taking it to the Streets
For AIG, the appeal of a scavenger hunt came simply through its nature as “a fun, outdoor activity,” says Gail LoPinto, marketing coordinator for AIG Executive Liability and American Home. “Part of what attracted us to this event was that it was October, it was still fairly warm outside, and because the scavenger hunt would take the group outside and through the streets of the city, it was a ‘breath of fresh air.’ We wanted to get them out and not be in front of a PowerPoint presentation all day long. It was intended to get them to interact with the public as well as their teammates.”

The hunt was the final activity of a management development program at corporate headquarters for the AIG Excess Casualty division. On the first day of the event, the 15 participants met with human resources and senior management, attended classes, and heard presentations promoting leadership goals of creativity, professionalism, and “thinking
outside the box,” LoPinto says. The organizers then wanted an activity for the second day that would encourage attendees to put those goals into practice.

Facilitating the activity was City Hunt (www.cityhunt.org), a Manhattan-based “experiential adventure agency” that specializes in building custom-designed scavenger hunts for groups. The hunts are designed to combine competitive fun with overall corporate goals by giving teams a series of clues, challenges, and picture tasks to complete to advance
through the game.

“The goals often involve generating cohesiveness, getting the group to understand the culture of the company—and that’s where we come in. We try to help the attendees feel as if they are part of a team,” says City Hunt CEO Ben Hoffman.

For example, to achieve a goal of creativity, City Hunt may challenge attendees to take a picture of a team member under water, Hoffman says. How the team chooses to complete that task, such as by holding a glass of water above their heads, helps attendees understand to look for creative solutions to problems and challenges they may face in their jobs.

LoPinto says attendees were not told the specifics of the scavenger hunt ahead of time, in order to build anticipation.
“The only thing that we told them was to wear comfortable walking shoes,” LoPinto says, and that generated speculation among attendees that the activity would require anything from sneakers to combat boots.

“Their interest was piqued. They are a very competitive group internally and they wanted to be prepared. They took it on like they were going to be on an episode of The Apprentice,” she says.

Fifteen attendees participated in the activity, and were split into five teams of three. City Hunt provided then the teams with digital cameras, a list of clues, and a phone number they could call for help if a team became stuck on a difficult task.

“Everybody had the same list of tasks, and a lot of it was taking a picture of your team or an individual on your team doing one thing or another in the downtown area,” says Jillian Alger, senior marketing manager for the company and a participant in the City Hunt program for AIG. “Everybody was off and running in different directions.”

The teams had two agendas: to follow clues leading them around the Wall Street area to the finish line, and a list of tasks to complete, such as taking a picture with a police officer,or taking a picture of a team member cooking at a local restaurant, some of which could earn them additional points.

Many of the pictures the teams were challenged to take reinforced the lessons they learned the previous day during classes, Alger says.

“We had to take a picture of our team overcoming boundaries, so we went into a bookstore and took a picture of ourselves with a map,” she says.

The hunt was also fun for attendees that were unfamiliar with New York, as it led them around to well-known sights such as Wall Street and South Street Seaport.

“Two of my teammates were from the West Coast,” Alger says, “and I work in New York but I haven’t done too much exploring, so it was good for all of us. One thing we had to do was go to Battery Park and take a picture of the Statue of Liberty.”

After the event the teams regrouped at AIG Executive Liability headquarters, and were served refreshments as City Hunt took 15 minutes to upload the teams’ pictures for a presentation.”They really knew what they were doing. The project leader for the day had studied acting at NYU [New York University]. The way he would ad lib going through the photographs,despite not knowing the people personally, was so entertaining and refreshing. It was really on the money, being able to ascertain what had gone on and how the interactions had been,” LoPinto says.

Alger, a member of the winning team, received an engraved Tiffany platter from AIG as well as a “super sleuther” coffee mug from City Hunt.

Pleasing the “Internal Client”
Viki Steenhuis, training director for AIG Executive Liability, recommended City Hunt to the head office after using their services for another corporate training event earlier in the year; she discovered the company through an Internet search and booked the vendor with just three-weeks lead time. Steenhuis says she has used other scavenger hunt activity
organizers as well in other cities, and likes the way hunts can be built to tie into corporate goals.

“A lot of my responsibilities include manager meetings,” Steenhuis says. “In those, I build different kind of activities for teambuilding or whatever the skill set we’re looking to build into our management team.”

Putting the event together didn’t take long, though Steenhuis says the crucial component was whether City Hunt had availability. The company organized a hunt through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for her group, using a theme from the movie The Da Vinci Code. LoPinto says she is considering booking the museum hunt for when her attendees return to New York for a follow-up program this spring, based on the popularity of the activity with attendees.

“When we do a meeting like this, we consider our own internal staff the client. We aim to please our clients as best we can and I think they were very happy with this. It was a good ending to a very productive meeting,” LoPinto says.

City Hunt’s Hoffman says the company has been commissioned to organize hunts throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Hoffman and his business partner Jaymes Dec launched the business in 2001, after organizing similar events as a hobby for friends. The concept of hunting for clues translates well into a corporate teambuilding event, he says,as they can be customized and tied to corporate objectives.

“I personally don’t think scavenger hunts are fun on their own,” Hoffman says. “It’s important to have a clear idea of what the goals of the meeting are to create a hunt that will add flow to the company and get people working together. We spend a lot of time with the client to figure out who the group is, who they are, and what they’re passionate about.”

Goal Oriented

For AIG Executive Liability, some of the tasks required the teams to take a picture of a New Yorker holding an AIG umbrella, and Steenhuis says a task during her event with City Hunt required teams to take a picture of someone who resembled the company’s CEO. Three weeks prior to the event, a City Hunt representative spoke with the event organizers to clearly define the goals of the activity. A third set of tasks was then given to groups during the hunt that were directly tied to the overall mission.

“They clearly had us provide what [training director Gayle Gilliam's] goals were at that time. Her goals were that she wanted a team atmosphere to be encouraged, to promote team spirit, and that she wanted attendees to take away that they were learning to think outside the box,” LoPinto says, adding that other goals for attendees included taking on a sense of personal entrepreneurship and to be a team leader.

City Hunt translated those goals into five “key principals,” around which they designed the challenges that comprised the hunt. City Hunt also assigned a point value to each challenge based on its difficulty level. Some point-earning tasks were optional, such as taking a picture of the team in a boat, so that teams could win the overall game even if they
weren’t first to the finish line.

“They gave us a list of five key principals, and told us to take a picture of our team doing them or showing them in some way. One was overcoming boundaries, and another was being versatile,” Alger says.

Prior to the scavenger hunt, teambuilding events at the company had been activities such as cooking classes or bowling outings. While these events had been fun for attendees, they weren’t related to the overall goals of the program, LoPinto says. Previous activities were also held in the evening, and AIG needed an activity that could took place during the afternoon for attendees that needed to catch flights home later that day.

Building a Customized Hunt
City Hunt’s Ultimate Adventure package, priced at $160 per attendee for three hours, has three elements, Hoffman says. Clues lead the participants around a designated neighborhood or location to discover treasure chests with additional clues or phone numbers. Those clues then point the teams toward challenge activities with City Hunt “adventure guide” staff members. Teams are also given a set of picture challenges to earn additional points, Hoffman says. For example, a team could earn three points for taking a picture of a team member with a police officer, and double points for taking a picture of a team member in the back of a police car. Public transportation is avoided to keep up the pace of the hunt.

“We want to keep them moving so they can get as much done as possible,” Hoffman says.

The advantage of the scavenger hunt model is that unlike other team building exercises like bowling or cooking, that may only interest some attendees, the hunt can be built to appeal to the entire group, he says. The company offers a “fun or it’s free” guarantee.

“The hunt becomes part of the background. They forget they’re on a hunt because they’re just doing things that they love,” Hoffman says. “Anything that they want to do we can figure out a way to integrate it in.”

City Hunt is able to accommodate groups of 10 to 1,500, Hoffman says, and the ideal team size is four to six attendees. A minimum of two-weeks lead time is best, Hoffman says.

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Dr. Pamela Brill, a Boston-area consultant who works with professional athletic organizations and corporations on teambuilding, says while competitive games can play a role in teambuilding, planners should consider negative behaviors that can be reinforced inadvertently.

“It’s an efficient and cost-effective way for a company to build a sense of team. But for a group to really be effective they have to work way beyond a scavenger hunt,” Brill says.

“My experience, having watched clients before and after doing it, is that it doesn’t have [a transformative] impact. In fact, what generally happens is that people on the team that already had clearly defined roles like ‘the tellers’ [those who order action] became stronger at telling. It became very competitive.”

Brill says she has even witnessed subversive action such as one team endeavoring to get their competitors (who were fellow employees) drunk to put them at a disadvantage during the game. To avoid such undesired behavior, companies should keep fun activities separate from their serious goals of teambuilding, she added.

According to Brill, it’s important that the classroom component of the training teaches the attendees how to work together in the face of fierce competition. “Planners should combine a competitive event, such as a scavenger hunt, with some real training about how to team, strategize, and coach when working in a group.”

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