1999: Watson Adventures Is Born

Our founder continues the tale

In 1993 I staged my first scavenger hunt at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which teams followed clues to find art and answer tricky, humorous questions about what they discovered. No previous knowledge of art was required: to win, you just needed sharp eyes and comfy shoes. See Part 1, “1993: A Scavenger Hunt Is Born.”

In 1999, Watson Adventures was formed. What took so long?

I moved to Los Angeles for my job as a writer at Entertainment Weekly. Hunt-free years passed. When I left EW and returned to New York, friends asked, “When are you going to do another one of those scavenger hunts?”

So in 1998 I ran the Met hunt, for free, for friends and friends of friends. One question, for instance, sent hunters into a particular room in the Lehman Wing to answer the question, “What wise guy can’t get his wife off his back?” They needed to find the aquamanile pictured above, of Aristotle and his wife Phyllis.

Next, for grins, I created a hunt at the American Museum of Natural History. People kept saying, “You know, you could charge money for these things.” For me, the best part was getting to do a deep-dive into a museum. It was a game for myself: How much could I look at? How many weird or cool things could I unearth? How could I make clues that would make people laugh?

The night of 100+ hunters

This unusual hobby took a turn thanks to an extraordinary friend named J.D. Schramm. He takes up the story: “Bret created these amazingly cool and incredibly witty scavenger hunts in museums all over the city. I had done a few of them with friends and always had a great time. In 1999 I set the audacious goal of doing multiple AIDS fundraising bike rides in one year. I asked Bret if he would run a pro-bono hunt and let all the proceeds go to the rides.

“The event was a huge hit: we had nearly 110 people attend the hunt (and after-party at a friend’s home). The hunt was the best way to bring so many people together to have a great time raising money.”

A participant named Dan happened to work for a major financial firm. The following Monday he was sitting in his office when he overheard a woman in a nearby office who was in charge of planning activities for the summer associates. She was telling someone that she was looking for something competitive, but not a sport, something with a level playing field, something that would also challenge their brains, maybe something with a cultural aspect…

The first corporate team-building lead!

Dan stepped into the other person’s office. “Excuse me, I overheard what you were talking about just now, and it sounded just like you were describing this scavenger hunt I went on at the Met this weekend.” She was interested! Dan passed along my contact info, and to my astonishment one of America’s largest companies called to ask if I could create a scavenger hunt in the Wall Street area for about 100 summer associates.

Recent hunters doing the Secrets of Wall Street Scavenger Hunt on Stone Street

I had never heard of corporate team building. I never suspected that companies would want to do scavenger hunts. The hunt for the financial firm was such a hit that it led to many more hunts for other divisions within that company. By the spring of 1999 I acquired a certificate of incorporation for Watson Adventures LLC. Now the game was to see whether such a thing could be a viable business.

J.D.’s delightfully biased opinion

“Years later,” J.D. says, “whenever I hear people talk about Watson Adventures, I love saying, ‘Well…I knew him when it all came into existence.’ The scavenger hunt empire he has built is a great credit to his energy and passion and vision…and just plain fun.”

Aw shucks.