Catherine Skeggs is an expert in organising events for groups that have an unusual questing goal! Val Baynton finds out more about Catherine’s fun and sociable programmes.The events Catherine Skeggs creates for her groups are based around clue solving experiences such as murder mystery games, treasure hunts and quizzes and take place at a variety of venues, mainly in Greater London.
Catherine and her husband Ian personally research and write the script for each activity and, drawing on knowledge gained over several decades, they know just what works to engage and entertain the members of their group.
With a background as an accountant for some three decades, in 2011, after completing an event management degree at London Metropolitan University, Catherine set up Invitation To Events and through this and her ‘free to join’ social membership groups such as the City Adventurers Club, she now has over 800 members aged between 25 and 75.
Many members return time after time to take a fresh challenge – perhaps introducing other members of their family to the fun – such as their parents or grown up children. But her experience in setting fun challenges for people to solve dates back to the 1980s.
Catherine’s own Journey
Catherine Skeggs started writing Adult Murder Mystery Dinner Party Games with her husband, Ian, as a sideline to her full time role as an accountant and auditor some 30 years ago. The games were available online and included mystery games – suitable for teenagers – and puzzles for fundraising events.
Over the years they also began to organise treasure hunts, quizzes and meetups, and in 2007 Catherine decided to change her career focus and enrolled at London Metropolitan University to study event management. On qualifying in 2011, Catherine set up Invitation To Events and the following year started a free to join social membership group to whom she offers a planned programme of visits and events.
She also arranges Treasure Hunts for corporate clients and can tailor make clue solving adventure packages for private groups. Realising that sharing experiences is one of the reasons that people join a group she wrote a book on the subject entitled, What Are We Going to Do Next, which was published in 2015.
Learning the Trade
Catherine began her interest over 30 years ago by creating Adult Murder Mystery Games that could be enjoyed as an activity at dinner parties. Initially these were available as boxed sets from retail stores, but the advent of the internet meant their popularity soared as people could download the games.
More recently she has included mystery games for teenagers (without murders) and fundraising events within her offer and a good selection of this type of game is still available online.
Murder Mysteries are also offered as an organised event for private groups and Catherine plans these to take place in hotels or restaurants – although nowadays she says that it can be hard to find the right venue that’s quiet enough to allow the participants to interact and follow the mystery.
“Murder Mysteries are still popular, but I was increasingly asked what else I could do and so I came up with the idea of treasure hunts and decided to evolve my offer more to ‘clue solving’ activities and now also organise trips to Escape Rooms. This coincided with graduating from my university course and with the knowledge, skills and confidence my degree gave me I set up the specialist service Treasure Hunts in London and started the City Adventures Club to grow my membership base.”
One of Catherine’s key aims is to gather people together so that by interacting and sharing experiences they build good memories. She adds,
“The process of trying to solve clues and the sense of achievement this brings, irrespective of getting the correct solution, is what is important and is what creates the shared memory.”
Tailor made Adventures
An aspect that Catherine is developing is to create tailor made events for private groups beyond her regular membership. These may be Hen Parties or groups of friends and family and can often include visits to Escape Rooms – a relatively new type of experience aimed at small groups of up to six people, meaning larger groups would have to split into smaller teams and utilise different escape rooms at the same venue.
Generally each activity lasts an hour during which the group is locked in a room. Solving a mixture of clues and puzzles the objective is to solve a mystery, achieve a goal such as collecting cash or just escape from the room. Following the task then typically the group would go for a meal. Catherine has found, however, that a party of six does not qualify as a group booking at many restaurants so she is unable to book preferential terms for her members. She would be pleased to hear from restaurants that would be prepared to discuss group booking terms for this number of people.
Hunting for Heritage
Catherine’s treasure hunts are themed and take place in top museums, art galleries or around the streets of London. They are generally for groups of around 20 people, which are divided into smaller groups or teams of four to six people, partly as this works better for many of the venues she is using. Generally people sign up in pairs or in pre-existing groups of family or friends.
Researching the clues for a Treasure Hunt or the plot for a Murder Mystery is something Catherine really enjoys. She says,
“I like the challenge of discovery and I am naturally very curious. So as I research a place or a theme I follow all threads, however ephemeral they may seem, and then I like to weave a story combining all this diverse information so that I can share my findings with my members in an enjoyable and fun way.”
For the last few years, Catherine has organised a Halloween themed Treasure Hunt around the British Museum. She meets her group in the Museum’s Group Entrance Foyer and after briefing the teams she hands out the question pack and sends them off to discover the clues. She’s on hand in the Museum to check everyone is okay but then arranges to meet up in a nearby hotel – usually one of the restaurants in the Imperial Hotel overlooking Russell Square – around three hours later. Here she organises an afternoon cream tea for members to enjoy while she runs through the answers to find the winners and award the prizes.
“I’ve found that it’s important on Treasure Hunts to make sure I am very obvious so I usually dress up. For the Halloween hunt I take the guise of a witch but for others I might wear a colourful costume or a distinctive hat!”
Catherine goes on to explain that often museums will not allow her to put up a ‘welcome sign’ and that reception staff can be reluctant to point to her as her members arrive, so she’s found the solution is to stand out.
A typical Treasure Hunt has 15 to 20 questions and sometimes clues are cryptic, others are puzzles and some straight clues. All involve finding an object, reading a description and then answering a question about it rather than looking up the answers online.
The Halloween Treasure Hunt includes finding a witch, scales and a cauldron. Catherine also has to check before each Hunt takes place that the clues are still accurate because objects do get moved around in museums or go out on loan. Another popular Treasure Hunt is at the National Portrait Gallery and is Christmas themed around the ‘12 Days of Christmas’. Prizes for these events can include a bottle of wine, or chocolates as well as notebooks or other small themed items from the relevant museum or gallery gift shop.
The Power of Group Activity
Catherine Skeggs has been as much motivated by the social and personal pleasures of getting people together on shared activities such as going to places as a traveller or tourist.
There is some research on the benefits of group activity for health and wellbeing, the latest major study having been conducted by NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts with the Health Foundation. Its project ‘Realising the Value’ was funded in 2016 as part of a programme to improve overall national health and wellbeing.
The project concluded that group activities can contribute to wellbeing, feelings of social inclusion and in changing behaviour to benefit individual health. ‘People report increased feelings of wellbeing from taking part in group activities,’ it said. ‘It also seems that being involved with group interaction with others with a shared interest can aid feelings of wellbeing.’
Catherine says that the themed Museum and Gallery Hunts appeal because they allow her members to explore, to visit places they might not have considered going to and to see things in more detail than they might otherwise.
She says that after the group has gathered for tea and the prize ceremony, individual members might choose to go back to the museum to explore further on their own. While one might expect museums to be keen to welcome groups of this type, Catherine has experienced several challenges in organising them.
“Museum staff have begun to get used to me and the way I organise. To begin with they were reluctant to provide an area that I could brief my group. Because we were a group the bookings team assumed we arrived in a coach and therefore I could do the briefings on board! Now I am experiencing a new challenge because of security concerns.”
Some museums restrict the amount of luggage or size of bag she can bring with her – she needs to carry a costume, the question packs and the prizes – and again booking teams assume she can leave all her props on a coach! One museum helpfully suggested she used left-luggage lockers at Euston Station – a good 15 minute walk away – so not really an option she could follow up.
She also plans Treasure Hunts around the streets of London and these take in different themes and villages for example there’s ‘Explore Park Life and Green Spaces’ in Vauxhall and a ‘Discover Street Art’ In Brixton.
A popular one is the ‘Naughty or Nice Treasure’ Hunt around Piccadilly, and in this the hunters have to find plaques on buildings or statues relating to historic characters such as Joshua Reynolds – who was a Royal Academian but also the painter of many notorious women of his times. The Treasure Hunt starts in the courtyard of the Royal Academy and ends in one of the listed buildings on Piccadilly where Catherine organises a drinks reception with food.
Catherine is branching out to offer Treasure Hunts in different cities and already has a quirky trail that groups can follow in Cardiff and in Nottingham. And, as we went to press, she was heading off to Portsmouth to research for a treasure hunt around this historic harbour.
Read more in Catherine’s Book
Catherine believes in the concept of social team building. We all know about corporate bonding and learning events, which can be fun but are mainly intended to further business objectives. It was apparent to Catherine that something similar for purely social and personal reasons is not only fun to do but builds memories and happiness.
She looks at everything from new ways of enjoying cities and discovering elements of history and culture that you might otherwise miss, taking on challenges, role playing and acting out plots, solving mysteries, treasure hunts, dressing up, finding escape routes from ‘locked’ rooms and other activities that enrich individual lives and enable participants to share pleasure with others.
Her book is full of ideas and ways of putting together different versions of her key themes and every group organiser is sure to be able to use at least some of her suggestions. The book is also a key to new kinds of group proposition and could be the start of many social adventures. Retailing at £15, it can be ordered online at whatarewegoingtodonext.co.uk