Geotouring game fun way to see city

Weekly GPS contest opens Seattle's sights in a couple of hours

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SEATTLE -- As precious minutes ticked away, we seemed to be stumped.

Our GPS receiver had 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 in 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 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 lose 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 decided in 1997 that after 10 years at Microsoft, 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.

"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.

His official title: Big Kid with the Old Soul. When Jeannette Davidson was hired as director of sales 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 you when you die. It's about how much fun you have between here and there."

Our team had a GPS receiver, a map of the area and 26 questions. The odds of reaching all of the caches in two hours were low, so we needed 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.

We fell into roles as a team. My mother-in-law, Gayle Fox, handled the map and the clues. My father-in-law, Ed, a veteran geocacher, handled the GPS receiver and pointed the way. My dad handled research on his smartphone. 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 organizations and corporations each year, and estimates he's had more than 80,000 participants.

He believes fusing adventure and technology in a competitive atmosphere is an exciting and fun way to strengthen a team and build morale. The feedback from corporations is positive.

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.

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.

As we scurried about and the deadline loomed, the experience started to take on the feel of CBS reality TV show "The Amazing Race" minus the exotic travel.All three teams arrived on time and turned in their answers. We'd found 12 caches, covered more than three miles and scored more than 7 million points, so I thought we might still 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.

We all laughed.

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.