Professional Services

Corporate teams play one of Venture Up’s most popular games—DB Cooper: Who am I?

Venture Up

Playing the Game

The benefits of corporate team building

By Vanessa Orr


etting people to work together as a team can be a challenge, especially if those people have different learning styles or don’t process information the same way. Trying to find a way to teach employees how to respect each other’s differences while maximizing each team member’s individual strengths isn’t a game—but maybe it should be.

What many business owners have learned—and what team-building companies promote—is that learning should be fun. “When employees feel that something is an obligation, like a lecture or listening to a keynote speaker, they tend to zone out,” says Todd Rice, director of THEY improv. “But when something is more interactive, they open themselves up to it; they have fun, they are engaged, and their brains are working at peak efficiency.

“In many cases, it instills confidence in people, especially when they feel like they are part of a team,” he continues. “Many of our workshops are comedic in nature, so people get applauded for laughing and joking. That positive feedback is so vital in learning; it makes them feel that they are doing something right.”

Playing Is Learning

Team building can take many different shapes—employees may perform improv, work together to get out of an escape room, build robots, try to best each other in races, take a ropes course, or even work together for charity. Depending on what a client wants, games can be designed to meet specific learning goals or to provide tailored experiences.

Venture Up, which has been offering team building services for more than thirty-five years, offers clients a choice of three different categories of activities: strategic games, competitive programs, and charity-based events.

Venture Up’s strategic games build collaboration among team members. They also offer competitive games and charity-based activities.

Venture Up

“Our strategic games, which can be held in any conference room or meeting space, are designed to build collaboration,” explains David Lengyel, managing director of Venture Up. “Teams split and re-split, which creates different dynamics and encourages cross-collaboration.”

Venture Up’s newest release, Case-Based Training, is a good example of a strategic team-building exercise. “This is a reverse escape game-type challenge, which is great for all abilities and can easily be set up in a general session conference room, utilizing a two- to three-hour window,” says Lengyel. “Instead of trying to break out of a room, teams try to break into locked cases, and this ultimately brings everyone together while they are sharing information.”

The company’s competitive games include Amazing Races, which take place in downtown Anchorage, and Minutes to Win It/Teams Survivor, which can be played in a conference room, meeting space, or park. Charitable games include a case-based game called The Turing Challenge, which was inspired by the computer science pioneer who helped crack the German enigma code in WWII. When the game ends, teams donate laptops or computer notebooks to local schools.

Corporate teams may also build bikes to donate to local children, create 3D-printed hands for disabled kids, or build canned-good sculptures before donating food to a local shelter or food bank. “These challenges show employees that it’s not just about the company—all of us are connected directly or indirectly,” says Lengyel. “And when you do things for others, it promotes social responsibility.”

Left: The THEY improv team: (left to right) Todd Rice, Maryann Tatum, Ethan Smith, Valerie Zach, James Carrey, Andrew Sottilare, and Ed Zeltner.
Above: THEY improv team: (left to right) Valerie Zach, Andrew Sottilare, Ethan Smith, and James Carrey.

THEY improv

Skill Building while Team Bonding

According to Lengyel, most companies share similar issues that can be improved through team building. “No matter what industry you’re in—real estate, healthcare, law—there are a number of common areas where companies have difficulties,” he says. “Communication is one—when there’s a lot on the line, like a job, people can become very rigid communicators. But bosses can’t read minds.

“Certain people also tend to solve problems in the same way every time, which is counterproductive to innovation,” he adds. “Playing these types of games can encourage employees to take risks, so that even a person who is resistant to change can begin to realize that opening up to new ideas results in new solutions.”

When teams are separated by divisions or even locations, it’s also a great way to introduce them to each other and to get them to work together, which creates efficiency and encourages everyone to learn from each other.

Lengyel gives the example of a senior employee and a younger employee on the same team. “The younger employee may think that the senior is a dinosaur, and the older employee may not respect his coworker’s lack of experience,” he explains. “But working together gives them the opportunity to discover each other’s strengths, create innovative ideas, and even develop a friendship.”

Teams gain self-confidence when they solve an Alaska Escape Room puzzle.

Alaska Escape Rooms

While so many diverse opinions can cause conflict, Lengyel doesn’t see this as a negative. “We all like people to agree with us, but if a company does not respect diverse opinions, it won’t be very innovative,” he says. “Conflict and discussion are good; it drives ideas. Just because someone is a Type A or in senior management doesn’t mean that their ideas are always best.”

What Type of Team Building?

THEY improv offers team-building workshops as well as murder mystery events during which employees work as teams to interrogate subjects and solve crimes. While most of the improv’s groups have ranged from 20 to 100 employees, THEY improv recently put together an experience for 12,000 people at a racetrack in San Antonio, Texas.

“Through our workshops, participants learn presentation skills, overcoming objections, conflict resolution, and simple salesmanship,” says Rice, who worked as a CEO at a tech company before starting THEY improv. “They also develop the ability to have empathy, or the emotional intelligence that is required in any field, really, to be successful. Sometimes they learn by osmosis, just by participating, but we occasionally also hit them over the head, saying, ‘This is what you learned today.’”

THEY improv has worked with ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and companies all over the world and will travel to clients to custom-make a team-building experience. “For one of our oil and gas companies, we created a Family Feud-style experience focused on safety,” says Rice. “We asked questions like, ‘Name a safety device that you wear on your person,’ and made it entertaining, which is what you need to do to make sure that people are paying attention.

“Workers tend to become numb to things going on around them—you can only look at a gauge for so long,” he continues. “And when one accident can cost a company millions of dollars, you need to figure out how to offer a refresher course that they’ll remember.”

While the cost of a course like this may range from $2,000 to $4,000, other programs can cost up to $20,000, depending on the amount of people involved and the program’s length of time. “When a client calls us, we ask about how much time they have, the dynamics of the employees involved, and what they’re trying to accomplish,” says Rice. “We want to know whether they’ve done team building before and whether the group knows each other or not.”

Alaska Escape Rooms’ games are designed for many
different thinking styles.

Alaska Escape Rooms

Alaska Escape Rooms opened in Anchorage in June 2017, and, from the very beginning, designed its games to offer value to corporate clients. Prices range from about $35 per person, and companies can rent the facility for full or half-days. Many have taken advantage of its Alaska location, including the Municipality of Anchorage, GCI, Wells Fargo, and the Alaska Railroad.

“When we were building our escape rooms, we spent a lot of time researching different thinking styles in order to figure out how to build puzzles and sequences to pull out the attributes that companies were looking for,” says CEO Graeme Deishl. “Because people approach problems in different ways—some are linear thinkers, while others are associative or visual learners, for example—we built our games with respect for different thinking styles.

“We also built in leadership opportunities so that if someone sees the bigger picture, or maybe a faster way to do it, they can lead the team forward,” he adds of the games that promote idea sourcing, communication, and respect. “There’s no way to prepare for these games, so it puts the janitor and the CEO on the same playing field.”

Working together helps teams bond and learn about each other’s strengths.

Alaska Escape Rooms

Not only do games like these help already established employees gel, but they can be used to see how potential hires might fit in. “We’re building in metrics now that will allow us to report back to a company’s human resources department about how a person engaged with a scenario,” says Deishl. “Our software will show who solved which types of puzzles, how people worked together, and give employers a deeper view of their staff’s interactions.”

According to Deishl, the results of these experiences are not what everyone expects. “One of our groups was made up of engineers who had very spatial and linear thinking styles,” he explains. “They brought their receptionist along, and she solved more puzzles than anyone else because she thought differently than they did. There are a lot of ways to be smart. Companies benefit from diversified teams that can idea source together.”

Steve Rader, the general manager of the Hilton Anchorage, took a group of managers and supervisors to Alaska Escape Rooms to help them bond. “So many of our people have different roles and work different shifts that it’s hard to get them all together,” he explains of the group that included front desk, food and beverage, and housekeeping employees, among others. “It was so cool to watch them work together toward a common goal.

“They all brought different skill sets to solving different puzzles, and it was really a surprise, because you have a preconceived notion of what people are good at,” he continues. “It helped uncover a lot of talents that maybe were not what you would expect; overall, it was an incredibly positive experience.”

In addition to bringing people closer together, it also helped instill a sense of pride in the teams when puzzles were solved. “When people are out of their element like this in a foreign environment, it shows them how essential teamwork really is,” adds Rader.

According to Lengyel, creating strong teams can only benefit a company’s bottom line. “People like to stay with teams that they enjoy working with; for most employees, it’s not just about the money,” he explains. “People leave companies because they don’t feel valued, and it’s much easier for a company to keep a good employee than to replace them. We help to create alignment, and that makes businesses more successful in the long run.”