Human Resources and Small Business & Startups

The hunt for employee bonding

Grand Rapids startup offers companies the chance to team-build through scavenger hunts.

May 13, 2016
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Distel Wolfe
Could this be two Van Andels together? It might be for the purposes of a team-building scavenger hunt. Courtesy Distel Wolfe Events

At a time when many companies are looking for ways to build teams between departments and generations of employees, one Grand Rapids startup has a two-word answer: scavenger hunts.

That’s the method behind Distel Wolfe Events, an event design company that produces corporate team-building events, most of which are scavenger hunts. Participants are given a list of challenges worth different amounts of points. They then have a short amount of time — usually 90 minutes — to complete as many as possible, and it’s all done through a smartphone app.

Distel Wolfe also hosts “Amazing Race” hunts in which participants need to solve one clue before they go on to the next challenge. Teams usually have between four and six people, with a lot of mixing of departments and the various generations that work in them.

“Millennials tend to love these kinds of activities, but if you have a baby boomer and a Gen X on your team, they bring their own perspectives and creativity to completing the challenges. Same goes with accountants and graphic designers, who bring different skills and mindsets to earning as many points as possible,” said Jill Wolfe, who co-owns the company with Carol Distel.

“Before the hunt, we have participants download our free app that they use to complete the hunt. We have a short kickoff ceremony where we explain the rules and how to use the hunt. When the hunt goes live, participants see a list of challenges, and then they're off to try and complete as many as possible before time runs out. They can choose which order they want to complete the hunt and, meanwhile, we stay at a central location with our laptops and monitor the hunt.”

The challenges for these team-bonding hunts range from taking team selfies to writing down answers to trivia questions or finding hidden QR codes, Wolfe said. At the end of the hunt, participants meet at a central location, usually a bar or restaurant, where they can watch a slideshow of all the photos taken during the hunt before an awards ceremony that involves prizes for the winners and other participants.

“The scavenger hunts are incredibly fun. Traditional team-building activities can often feel lame because everything feels so forced and inauthentic. But the scavenger hunt format really lends itself to naturally building leadership skills and problem solving,” Wolfe said.

“On its face, the goal is to earn enough points to win a prize. … But really, it's a way to build trust and bridge differences among team members. In a way, these hunts take the best parts of networking — forming connections with people you otherwise wouldn't — while leaving out the worst parts, like the fakeness and trying to figure out what to talk about. The hunt gives people permission to reach out in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Team-bonding activities are at the crux of each hunt, some of which include things like asking the team to write a haiku about the company founder. But challenges can also be more physical and localized, like having everyone on the team strike a yoga pose in front of their favorite ArtPrize entry.

“For corporate teams we can create challenges that reinforce learning — like ‘Find a stranger who would be an ideal customer for our new product and ask them what could be improved,’ or ‘Ask the most senior person on your team what it takes to be successful in your organization,’ Wolfe said.

“Next month we're working with a large local charity's employees, and we're having them visit some of their big corporate donors to complete various challenges. That’s actually where we got the idea to offer free hunts to nonprofits — these organizations do such good work and we want to support them in their mission.”

Distel Wolfe Events was born in January. The two owners met about a year and a half ago at a networking event. At the time, both had businesses that were similar in nature. Wolfe was running backpacking and hiking tours for women who love books and she was doing beer and historical tours of Grand Rapids. Distel was the owner of Life Eventually LLC, which also offered tours of Grand Rapids. After meeting, Wolfe emailed Distel later that night about doing scavenger hunts in Grand Rapids.

“After some brainstorming, we came up with a business plan and spent last summer and fall running a few hunts that were open to the public, a joint venture we called GR Scavenger Hunt. But we got so many businesses asking to do team-building events that this year we decided to pivot and work almost exclusively with companies and nonprofits. We've also branched out beyond Grand Rapids to run hunts in Detroit and Traverse City,” Wolfe said.

“GR Scavenger Hunt still exists, but it's morphed into a website,, where you can download pre-designed hunts and play with a smaller, private group, like a birthday or bachelorette party.”

Wolfe said many of Distel Wolfe’s clients are companies that have experienced some sort of transition — like wanting to bond new hires and interns with existing teams, break down barriers, bridge differences, or as an add-on to training. Sometimes, however, teams just want to blow off steam, Wolfe said, citing one example of where a hunt was created for an accounting firm at the conclusion of tax season.

Scavenger hunts are also a good way to build a healthier work culture and reach a company’s hardest-to-engage people: “the ones that typically roll their eyes and sneak off to play golf at any mention of team building,” she said, adding about 60 percent of employees lack the elements required to be highly engaged, such as trust, according to a Towers Watson study.

“Right now many companies are struggling to engage millennials. The perception is that this generation is too self-involved, doesn't want to work hard and has the attention span of a goldfish. Personally, I don't see it with the millennials we work with; in fact, they have an almost endless ability to multi-task and quickly learn new things, which is a huge asset to companies that are willing to engage these up-and-coming leaders in the right way,” Wolfe said.

“Deloitte did a study that said only 28 percent of millennials feel their current organizations are making ‘full use’ of the skills they currently have to offer. This generation just surpassed baby boomers in terms of size, so smart companies would do well to start making full use of their skills. We can help them start to bridge that gap with a well-designed scavenger hunt.”

But it's not only the 20-somethings who benefit from this type of experiential learning, she said. Almost all of the participants walk away from the hunt feeling more connected to their colleagues and more sure of their roles back at the office. That’s because something like a scavenger hunt makes room for surprise and vulnerability in a way that just can't be replicated in a conference room.

“We once had a woman who was eight months pregnant lie down in the middle of the road, while her teammates watched for traffic, to earn points toward a ‘do something you've never done before’ challenge. We're always very clear that teams will be immediately disqualified if they do anything illegal or inherently unsafe,” Wolfe said.

“One team squeezed their whole team — wearing only towels — into the sauna at a local downtown hotel. Another convinced a Grand Rapids police officer to let her kiss him on the cheek and take a photo of the resulting kiss mark.

“There's something magical about getting a group of people together, giving them a list of fun challenges to complete in a race and having them compete for prizes.”

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