Geotourism — similar to geocaching — is part treasure hunt, part quiz show and a whole lot of fun

SEATTLE — As precious minutes ticked away, it looked like we were stumped.

Our GPS receiver led us to a busy Seattle intersection to find the answer to a simple question: "What year was this famous Seattle artist born?"

The problem was, a search of all four street corners turned up no signs of art or artists. My dad and parents-in-law scoured a bus stop for clues. In a final desperate attempt, I dashed across the street and shoved open the doors of Benaroya Hall.

There it was. An enormous glass chandelier crafted into the shape of an elegant golden booger. It could be the work of only one man.

I stepped back on the sidewalk and shouted over the street noise.

"Dad, when was Dale Chihuly born?"

Almost as quick as my mother-in-law could proclaim "Hey, he's from Tacoma, not Seattle," my dad had found the answer and we were off in search of the next clue.

The four of us were one of three teams participating in Seattle's weekly Geotouring contest. Geotouring is a high-tech scavenger hunt that usually shows off a city's interesting and sometimes odd features. While Seattle has an event almost every weekend, cities such as Gig Harbor hold annual events.

Participants are given a list of GPS coordinates and corresponding questions to answer or pictures to take at each location. Participants amass points for each correct answer but risk losing points if they don't arrive at the finish line on time.

We had two hours to solve 26 questions around Pike Place Market, but if we didn't return by 3:19 p.m. we'd be docked half our points.

John Chen is the founder and chief executive officer of PlayTime Inc., the company that stages Seattle's weekend Geotours. The game has helped him find something more important than artist birthdates. He's found himself.

Chen is a former Microsoft employee who decided that after 10 years he wasn't very passionate about his work. "I was falling asleep in design meetings," he said with a laugh.

What he enjoyed most were the leadership and team building activities.

In 1997, he flew to Huntington Beach, Calif., to seek counsel about his future from a friend. "That's where I had my Jerry Maguire moment," Chen said, referring to the 1996 movie about a sports agent who has a moral epiphany. "I wrote my entire business plan in two days."

He's been happy ever since. In fact, as CEO he asks each of his four employees to write their own job description.

His official title: Big Kid with the Old Soul. When Jeannette Davidson was hired as director of sales earlier this year, she declared herself Queen of Making It Happen.

"We are only the most fun company in the world to work for," Chen said. "It's not about how much money you have when you die. It's about how much fun you have between here and there."

A mother-in-law and son-in-law working together toward a common goal.

It's just not natural.

But it actually happened on the streets of Seattle.

Moments before the competition started, our team was handed a GPS receiver, a map of the area and our 26 questions. The odds of reaching all of the caches in two hours were unlikely, so we needed to build a strategy. Travel farther to the caches with higher point values but risk getting fewer caches. Or try to pick off more of the closer, easier caches with smaller point values.

After a slow start we quickly settled into roles. My mother-in-law handled the map and the list of clues. My father-in-law, a veteran geocacher, handled the GPS receiver and pointed the way. My dad handled research on his smart phone. I double-checked our answers on the event website.

We all looked for clues.

This idea of teamwork is what Chen says makes Geotouring special. The biggest component of his business is Geoteaming.com. Since he founded the company in 1997, he has staged team-building events all over the country and in more than 12 countries. He holds as many as 140 competitions for organization and corporations each year, and he estimates he's had more than 80,000 participants.

He believes fusing adventure and technology into a competitive atmosphere is an exciting and fun way to strengthen a team and build morale. The feedback from corporations is positive, and Chen says he always sees an uptick in business at the bottom of a recession.

"Teams are battered, and recovery starts as simply as improving morale," Chen said. "That's when they call us in."

After an hour we'd answered nine questions, visited the original Starbucks and the Gum Wall, and walked on the waterfront.

As we walked up University Street, Gayle said, "I've heard of a lot of these places. It's fun to see them."

"That's one of the comments we hear the most," Chen said. "You'll see places and things you might not otherwise."

One of the teams we were competing against stumbled into a photo shoot. Another team said they crawled through the bushes at a city park.

We were still visiting places that were new to us during the second hour, but our productivity had dropped considerably.

The hang-up at Benaroya Hall cost us at least 10 minutes and we were slowed even more by a geocacher (a similar but different GPS game) who offered to help but unintentionally led us off in the wrong direction.

As we scurried about and deadline loomed, the experience started to take on the feel of CBS reality TV show "The Amazing Race" minus the exotic travel.

We came up short on two questions, then decided to use the last 12 minutes to get back to Pike Place Market.

All three teams arrived on time and turned in their answers. I knew our second-hour struggles would probably cost us, but we'd still found 12 caches, covered more than three miles, and scored more than 7 million points, so I thought we might have a chance.

I was wrong: The second-place team found 15 caches (10.5 million points) and the winning team found 19 (12.9 million).

We were last.

"Hey, we finished third," said somebody in our group.

To borrow Chen's philosophy, Geotouring isn't really about how many points you score. It's about how much fun you have between here and there.


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