Scav Hunt, Incorporated: Four alumni of the world’s largest scavenger hunt turn a hobby into a business

Courtney Prokopas, Sebastian Ellefson, Steven Lucy, and Jonathan Williams (Emilie Shumway)

The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt (“Scav Hunt”) is frequently touted as the world’s largest scavenger hunt. The hunt is a four-day long event, famously ridiculous and fun, with teams made up of university affiliates–mainly undergraduates, but with some representation from graduate students and alumni. Last year’s list of 277 items included an El train quartet, an invented “Queens” cocktail, and a blog entry in clay, wood, paper, and electronic forms. And these were a few of the tamer items.

Scav Hunt inspires such devotion and obsession among its participants that it makes sense that it would motivate offshoots. And it has birthed at least one: the brainchild of Sebastian Ellefson (BA’04), Courtney Prokopas (BA’06), and Steven Lucy (BA’06), Finders Keepers is a company that brands itself as “the premier organization for scavenger hunts, road trips team building, and event planning.”

Ellefson, Prokopas, and Lucy formed the company in the wake of Scav Hunt 2008, into which they poured their creative labor as judges. They had a unique resume for their enterprise, having crafted an entire Las Vegas expedition for a few lucky members of the hunt–one from each team–who were flown to the city on Scav Hunt’s dime. There, the trio planned three days’ worth of activities, always planning one day ahead of schedule. On the last day, with nothing left to put together, someone proposed an unstructured road trip to the Grand Canyon.

High off the bliss of a well-organized and nearly finished scavenger hunt, and influenced by the serendipity that comes with making the acquaintance of a glass-encased preserved dog named Pepper in the restaurant of an Arizona ghost town called Chloride, the team naturally looked for ways to extend their bliss. “The whole time we were talking about how fun it was to be doing this,” Prokopas says wistfully.

While they never found the Grand Canyon (they did, however, reach the Hoover Dam), the three drove back to Las Vegas with a framework for Finders Keepers in mind. Upon returning to Chicago, they recruited fellow Scav judge Jonathan Williams (BA’07, MA’08) and set to work on their first event, an expansion on an earlier Scav Hunt item: a real-world “Where’s Waldo?” on the Magnificent Mile, featuring the four beloved characters from the books (including Woof, a stripe-sweatered dog). Open and free to the public, the November search–the day after Thanksgiving, for maximum shopping capacity–was the inaugural event for Finders Keepers, putting them on the map of team-building organizations and whetting their enthusiasm for unique event-planning.

While a small group, Finders Keepers falls into the niche of scavenger hunt companies (yes, there is such a niche) that create events mainly for purposes of team building. Think of the hunts as the next generation’s trust falls. One such company, Scavenger Hunt Anywhere, adopts a professional tone on its website: “Of particular relevance to corporate groups, participants are more successful in our programs if they use business skills such as problem solving, creativity, time management, prioritization, and decision making.”

Corporate Scavenger Hunt, another nationwide service, uses similarly resume-heavy language: “People are the biggest asset of any company and the efficiency and reliability of the persons at different positions determine the successful completion of a project and the general growth of the company.” (Intriguingly, Corporate Scavenger Hunt also insists, further down on its website, that “you don’t want to make your corporate scavenger hunt akin to the one organized by the University of Chicago.”)

The bizarre mix of corporate jargon and manufactured group “fun” is absent from the website of Finders Keepers, as well as from their attitude in person. Ellefson illustrated the gap well when he described the preparations for the Waldo event–having acquired a set of second-hand bowling trophies, he set to painting little red and white striped sweaters on the bowlers at 3am the morning before the hunt. “This is what makes us a little bit better than those other scavenger hunt companies,” he says, laughing. “It’s the love.”

It’s the love that comes through when the group talks about the scavenger hunts. “One girl who participated in today’s event said she was looking for a cheap date with her boyfriend,” Prokopas says, beaming. Williams adds that one of his favorite moments throughout the company’s short existence was at another event in which the adult participants “reverted to little kids.”

Since the public Waldo hunt, Finder Keepers has expanded its reach into planning a handful of events. Chicago Public Radio chose the organization to plan a Daniel Burnham-themed scavenger hunt in honor of the architect’s impact on the city, and the Chicago Public Library already has Finders Keepers on hand for an event in the near future. The four have been contacted for smaller private events as well, although they’ve experienced a minimum of corporate joylessness. “It’s usually been creatively-minded groups who’ve contacted us,” Prokopas explains. “Quirky, eccentric institutions.”

While Finders Keepers has hardly experienced an overwhelming demand for hunts, their balance of public and private planning allows them to spread the word and involve the public in their events. The manageable demand also gives all four time to devote to their incredibly varied interests and jobs. Ellefson has his own law practice and offers free legal consulting out of Backstory Café; Prokopas is Youth Programming and Arts Coordinator at Backstory and works for a partnership called Backyard Bounty, working to develop private gardens; Lucy runs Open Produce, a Hyde Park grocery; and Williams works a 9-to-5 job in a consulting firm downtown. As Prokopas says, “[Finders Keepers] is flexible to our capacities.”

While the demand for Finders Keepers may still be light, it’s definitely growing. Their list of interested organizations has been steadily on the increase, Chicago Public Radio wants them back for a new event in the fall, and they have been contacted about more varied events–even birthday parties–in recent months.

As far as the future is concerned, the organization does hope to expand as more interest comes their way. They also have plans tentatively in the works for an Easter egg hunt (based largely on the fact that the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Easters fall on the same day this year), and are considering reviving the Where’s Waldo event–but this time, at the Taste of Chicago.

While Finders Keepers may carry out a mission similar to that of the notorious University of Chicago Scav Hunt, they take themselves no less seriously for it. As I prepared to meet with the group following their most recent event on Thursday, Ellefson made me promise, in the sacredness of a hushed whisper over the phone, that I wouldn’t tell a soul the final location to which I was headed.