Sometimes, wonderful things happen when two worlds collide. Take the fundraising arm of the world-class University of Ottawa Heart Institute (UOHI) and the world record-holding Escape Manor. Together, they’re rolling out a fresh new fundraiser this February full of pandemic-proof outdoor activities.
Hunt for Hearts aims to draw thousands of people out of their homes to explore downtown Ottawa in a fun, safe and engaging way while solving a series of cryptic clues and head-scratching puzzles.
Participants will have to put on their (woollen) thinking caps if they hope to win some of the $20,000-worth of prizes that have been donated by local businesses. Keeping in line with government regulations, the activities are designed with health and safety top of mind, to exercise the mind, the body and the heart.
The planning process has been in the works for months, with organizers having to adapt – in a heart beat – to the ever-changing COVID-19 rules and restrictions. Come Feb. 1, they are launching the month-long fundraiser and inviting the public to join in at any time, especially as awareness of the event grows (and it surely will, once required selfies get snapped, recorded videos get shared, and social media posts garner likes or, better yet, hearts). Registration is now open at a cost of $25 per person.
The UOHI Foundation, like many nonprofit organizations in Ottawa, has seen the cancellation or postponement of countless third-party events since the start of the pandemic last March. It relies on money raised from the community to buy specialized life-saving equipment, to support medical research and to improve patient care at the Heart Institute.
The organization liked the idea of hosting an outdoor scavenger hunt during its annual February is Heart Month campaign but knew it lacked the experience and know-how to pull it off.
“It had to be done well,” explained UOHI Foundation executive director Lianne Laing. “This couldn’t be an amateur job.”
How lucky for the UOHI Foundation that it could turn to Escape Manor, an Ottawa-based entertainment company that just so happens to hold the coveted top spot in the Guinness World Records for the largest scavenger hunt. The record was achieved in Ottawa on Sept. 10, 2017, during Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations. The official number of participants is listed as 2,732.
It also helped that UOHI Foundation’s Lindsay Firestone, director of community engagement, events and development, and Steve Wilson, co-owner of Escape Manor, are long-time friends from having worked together in the Ottawa restaurant industry together many years ago. She was able to sell him on the promising idea.
“We went to the professionals,” said Laing, who knew Escape Manor would be able to incorporate the UOHI Foundation’s brand messaging into the event in order to raise awareness and inspire support.
So, expect to see that red little symbol of love popping up all over the place next month.
February can be a tough month to face, especially during a pandemic that’s gone on longer than expected.
“Hunt for Hearts provides an escape from the boredom,” said Laing. “It’s a reason to get outside, get some fresh air, get some exercise, and be a little bit more adventurous.”
The game is designed to keep the public safe at all times. Participants are asked to play individually or with their household, and to wear a mask. There’s no specific order for solving questions, so it’s highly unlikely everyone will end up at the same spot, at the same time. The public has the option to play virtually, physically or both.
The scavenger hunt will draw people to interesting locations around the downtown core, including to some of the storefront windows of its business sponsors. Other supporting businesses, that lay outside the hunt parameters, have been creatively woven into the game. Land Rover Hunt Club, for example, will have one of its Land Rover Defender SUVs involved in the game.
Escape Manor, which was founded in 2014, is known for offering team-building experiences, family-bonding events and casual nights out with friends in one of their many themed escape rooms, which require players to find hidden clues, crack codes and solve riddles in order to return to the real world. It currently has five locations in Ottawa and, since branching out, has opened Hamilton and Toronto locations that boast the full entertainment experience, with restaurants, bars and additional games. They also have locations in Saskatoon, Regina and Brisbane, Australia.
Wilson said one of his biggest regrets about their enormous scavenger hunt in 2017 is that they neglected to add a charity component. Escape Manor has a strong history of giving back to the community.
“We're really happy to be able to get a mulligan and do this again,” he said of their involvement with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Foundation. "After an arduous year, it is refreshing to have such a fun project to sink our teeth into and to look forward to."
For the record, the pandemic has been brutal for Escape Manor, which was forced to temporarily lay off its staff of 180 at the start. What’s saving the business is its new virtual-experience option.
“The only reason why we’re still alive is because we pivoted to digital,” said Wilson, who's also on the board of Ottawa Tourism. “We had talked about doing it for years but always thought it would be too much effort. But, when push came to shove, we had to do it.”
The digital experience has proven to be very popular, with corporations and institutions using the challenges as a team-bonding experience for their staff, most of whom are working from home, in isolation from one another. Groups from Kinaxis, Shopify, PwC and Queen’s University are just a few of the organizations to take advantage of Escape Manor’s new online option.
Reflecting back on the past year, Wilson said that he and his partners – Neil Schwartz, Chris Bisson and Billy Rogers – have invested the same level of sweat and tears as when they were first starting out, but with young families now in the picture. They're working long and hard hours for less money.
“The one silver lining to all of this is, it got us back to being really lean, really scrappy and really nimble,” said Wilson.