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Blue-Chips Goofs

Sometimes, corporate retreats emphasize quick wits and entertainment, not dexterity and bravery.

September 18, 2003
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Training & Development

Dangling on ropes from treetops, walking on fire, climbing walls and running whitewater clearly aren’t the only ways to build teams or re-energize a workforce. Off-site outings in New York or Boston might take the form of a scavenger hunt. Most big cities have a standup comic ready to give rollicking lessons in improvisational theater. In these pursuits, the emphasis is on quick wits and entertainment, not physical dexterity or bravery.

    Bret Watson, a magazine writer and editor and sometime standup comic, learned he was on to something good after he organized a scavenger hunt for friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The idea was simple. Have everyone meet at the museum and give them tricky and humorous clues. At the gallery of Asian art, for instance, they might be asked something like: Which guy looks like he might have gone too far with the Slim-Fast? Answer: a fasting Siddhartha.

    His friends liked it. One day he did a benefit for a nonprofit group that got the attention of someone who worked for a Wall Street investment firm. That led to his first paid gig as a professional scavenger-hunt organizer. Since that day in 1999, his firm, Watson Adventures, has led 12,000 people on hunts. He has put on hunts for about 75 companies, among them NBC,, Colgate-Palmolive and JP Morgan Chase.

    The hunts are organized around a theme and might be held in places such as locations featured in the HBO series Sex and the City, or at cultural landmarks such as New York City museums, the Freedom Trail in Boston or Hollywood Boulevard. The hunts can involve 10 people or 200, and last from 90 minutes to two hours. Costs vary with the size of the group and the timing. A two-hour midweek hunt for 20 people costs about $1,200.

    Watson says his corporate clients understand the benefits of letting their hair down. Law firms use the events to introduce new hires to each other. Groups are divided into teams of five or six that race each other to follow up clues, adding an element of competition. In Washington, D.C., a White House-themed scavenger hunt stops outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The clue: "Why does Ike’s place make you think of a bad haircut?" The answer can be found on a sign: the architect was a man named Mullet.

    Improv comedian comic Gary Kramer, who runs Wits (Workplace Interactive Team Building Seminars) in San Diego, uses a different approach. He likens corporate team-building to a nightclub act, and has participants play roles in impromptu skits. "You try to get everyone comfortable, thinking alike, laughing together, moving in the same direction," Kramer says. "We make sure no one is singled out and made fun of."

Workforce Management, September 2003, p. 46 -- Subscribe Now!

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