Tuesday, April 7, 2009 by Dave Blum

Yesterday was a rare scouting day for me — one of the pleasures of being a professional creator of scavenger hunts and corporate team building activities.  My “task” (if you can call it that) was to walk every street and alleyway in San Francisco’s Union Square area, in search of interesting/unique/funny locations for treasure hunt clues.  I tend to really enjoy my scouting missions — poking my head into shops and restaurants, looking closely at plaques and statues, reading historical signage…  It’s basically being paid to get out and explore a neighborhood in a very detailed way.

Not that it’s always easy.  Sometimes it’s cold and rainy during your scouting, and it’s an effort just to keep your notes dry.  A good scouting run takes a minimum of 4 hours, often more.  Your feet get tired.  Your back starts to hurt from all the standing and writing.  As the day goes on, your patience wanes and your stamina diminishes.  You think, “Do I really want to walk up one more forlorn alley?”

And then there’s the suspicion factor.  Think about it: here you are, walking around with a clipboard, peering into stores and jotting down notes. Your average shopkeeper is quite naturally wondering, “Who is this guy? Is he a spy from the competition?  An agent from the board of safety and hygiene?”  I can’t tell you how many times people have aggressively confronted me, demanding to know why I’m here and who sent me.  It was even worse just after 9/11, when I would often be mistaken for a terrorist!   Note to self: stay away from federal buildings with a digital camera and pocket tape recorder!

One thing I appreicate about scouting for scavenger hunt ideas is that you tend to get a sense of the current economic situation and its impact on your community.  While taking notes yesterday in front of an Irish Bar, a patron came out and asked me, with some concern, “They’re not going out of business are they?”   Clearly he had mistaken me for a business assessor or real estate agent, sizing up a future foreclosure.  During yesterday’s journey, I noticed an uncommon number of closed and boarded-up establishments, displaying “going out of business” signs.   Things are tough out there in the economic downturn, even in the heart of San Francisco’s bustling shopping and theater district.

I recommend you give treasure hunt scouting a try–even if you’re not actually looking for team building ideas.  The next time you’re playing tourist — either in your own town or in a foreign city — try taking some notes for a scavenger hunt list.  I’m guessing you’ll see the area with brand new eyes.