Surprises abound on a European team travel competition

By Norman Dailey
This article appears on page 29 of the March 2020 issue.
Susan paragliding in front of the Matterhorn.

My wife, Susan, and I have always been fans of the TV show “The Amazing Race,” but we never felt that we had the right “hook” to get us through the audition process. However, an article in the Wall Street Journal from March 8, 2018, titled “Why Even Control Freaks Are Opting for ‘Surprise Vacations’” led us to Competitours ( The tag line from their website captivated us: “The Amazing Race for Regular People.”

We also looked at The Global Scavenger Hunt ( as an option, but the cost ($12,500) and length of that trip (23 days) didn’t really suit us.

Get ready

We signed up for the competition in December 2018. The only things we knew were that we had to be in Geneva, Switzerland, before July 14, 2019, and the trip would end somewhere in Europe on July 21.

The cost of the trip was $2,975 per person, which included seven nights in a hotel, breakfasts and transportation during the trip. Airfare to Geneva and transportation to the exact starting point were not included.

Prior to finalizing the booking, we were asked where we wanted to travel to after the competition. We requested Bologna, Italy, and were told simply that to get there, it would require a 2-hour train trip and airfare of $75 per person. For those not continuing on in Europe after the tour, flight reservations were made into and out of Geneva.

For the July 2019 competition, there were 12 teams competing, consisting of three rookie teams (including us), two teams with a little experience with the challenge and the rest, seasoned competitors. The age range of the group members was from 17 to 79.

I have to admit that we felt a little put off by the pre-trip communication, wondering if things might be slanted toward the seasoned veterans of the group. It wasn’t until we met all of the other teams and saw Steve Belkin, the evil genius behind Competitours, in action that we realized that everything was on a level playing field.

There were no challenges where strength or physical ability was an advantage, although being able to use both your right brain and left brain at the same time was advantageous.

In late May, Steve set up group and individual WhatsApp chats to establish communication between him and the group members. At times, this got confusing, as Steve would send out messages to everyone that were to be replied to privately, but it was easy to automatically hit “reply” from the group chat and the response would go to everyone, sometimes leading to group shaming and other times revealing secret votes.

Get set

Two challenges were required to be completed before the competition began. The first was to make a 45-second introductory video revealing your team name, and the second was to create a team logo. Our team name was CircumnaviTwo, reflecting our membership in the Circumnavigators Club.

Also prior to the start of the trip, each team had to guess in what location they thought we would be on each day of the trip. Since the whole point of the tour was being surprised at our destinations, this really was a shot-in-the-dark challenge.

Points were given each day for those closest to the actual location; however, closest was usually hundreds of miles off. This type of challenge was also repeated every day while we were traveling. We’d guess where our next hotel would be or where a challenge would take place. We were rarely right.

At this point, I should also mention scoring. For most tasks, you had the choice of “regular” or “risk reward” scoring. With regular scoring, if your team came in as one of the top five, you got 10-20 points, with zero points awarded if you were not in the top five. But if you chose the risk reward scoring system, you earned 25-50 points if your team was in the top five but minus 15-30 if it was not. Many times, you had to choose the scoring method before even knowing the day’s challenge.

Tour organizer Steve Belkin riding the alpine coaster at Glacier 3000.

Over the course of the trip, it seemed like when we chose risk reward, we came in at the bottom, and when we chose regular scoring, we surprisingly came in among the top five. For the intro video and the logo contests, we were not top five and had selected risk reward, so before the trip even started we were at minus 30 points!

Just prior to the trip, we were only told that Geneva was the nearest airport to the start of the competition. In fact, we had to be at Hôtel Les Sources in Les Diablerets, Switzerland, on Saturday night, July 13, so we could leave at 8:30 the next morning with bags packed and ready to go.


On the bus on day one of the competition, it was announced that we were heading to Glacier 3000, home to the world’s highest alpine coaster. We all got two tickets to ride the coaster and were told that the challenge did not involve how fast you completed the course. The goal was to have fun.

It wasn’t until after everyone had ridden the coaster that we were told the challenge: we were to guess how low long it took from the low point of the course to the starting point. Our guess was 2 minutes; actual time, 4 minutes 47 seconds. It just goes to show you that time does go fast when you’re having fun! (Regular scoring, zero points.)

We got back on the bus about noon and proceeded to our next hotel, the Grand Hôtel des Bains, in Lavey, Switzerland, where our next challenge was to build eco-cars from recycled cardboard in teams of two. Our design and marketing were great, but, sadly, during the final race, our car broke in two and we didn’t finish.

(A video of our day was prepared by Susan and can be found at

Our score at the end of the first day, -15.

We checked out of the hotel the next morning and traveled by bus to the day’s first challenge. We got to play sheepdog — not with sheepdogs but as sheepdogs — with two herds of six sheep each.

The challenge was to move the sheep out of a pen to a gathering place, then through a gate into another pen and back through another gate. In practice, with one herd we did great, but when it came time to compete, we moved to the other herd, where Oscar, a rogue sheep, refused to be herded by us.

After another short bus ride, we arrived at Labyrinth Adventure Park, near Collonges, Switzerland. This challenge was to get through the labyrinth as quickly as possible, finding clues along the way. We were the second fastest, but with regular scoring, of course.

Besides the labyrinth, the park had lots of games. Though they were geared to kids, our group had a lot of fun, no matter our ages.

Back on the bus, we headed to Zermatt, Switzerland, where we stayed at Hotel Walliserhof. We had guessed Lucerne, Switzerland, but our choice still netted us an additional 25 points. At the end of the day, we were at +60 points.

Day 3

We were told that night that there would be an optional activity in the morning if we were game.

It wasn’t a challenge, so no points awarded, but, on our own, we could go paragliding to enjoy spectacular views of the Matterhorn. Having seen people paragliding in other parts of world but chickening out ourselves at the last minute, this time both Susan and I took the plunge. It was awesome! The natural beauty and the great thermals through the valley made this a fantastic experience.

Another experience offered, also for no points, was hiking a via ferrata — basically, mountain climbing. We walked to the base but decided that flying was enough of an adventure for the day.

The one challenge for points that day was a laser skeet-shooting competition, with real guns and real clay pigeons, but no live ammo. (The guns were retrofitted with lasers.) I couldn’t hit a thing during the practice rounds, but in the actual competition I came in third! We ended the day at 120 points.

During the course of the week, two teams each day had to compete in preparing a video summary of the day. It was our day to compete, and Susan prepared a winning video for 20 points (

On to Italy

The next morning, we were on the 7:35 a.m. train out of Zermatt, connecting with a bus to Como, Italy. From there, a short boat ride delivered the group to Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Como, where we stayed at Hotel Bellagio.

The afternoon’s challenge was probably one of my worst nightmares: painting and sculpting. We had to mix paint as they did centuries ago by using egg yolks and dye, then paint a landscape of the mountains that were across the lake. Part two of the task was sculpting the lips of Michelangelo’s “David” out of clay.

How we came out in the top five on both of those challenges is beyond me.

By the end of the day, our score was 200 points.

Susan and Norm sampling the tiramisù batter.

The next day, the teams split into two groups. Each group did the same challenge — one in the morning and the other in the afternoon — with time off to explore Bellagio. The challenge should have been right up our alley: cooking. (Susan is a fantastic cook.)

The twist for the first part of the challenge was that we each had to wear one oven mitt while creating fresh tomato sauce and homemade tortellini together, including chopping the ingredients and kneading/rolling out the pasta. We must have done OK, as we did get points.

The second half of the challenge was making tiramisù and zabaglione. Our dish looked good, but apparently it was not good enough for points. (I learned that hand-whisking cream when the weather is hot and humid is nearly impossible.)

At about 9 p.m., we left Bellagio and hopped on a bus headed to Milan. No word on whether that would be the location of the next day’s challenge or if we would be heading in another direction. Near midnight, we learned that we needed to be at the airport at 7 a.m. for a flight to Amsterdam.

End of the day score, 230 points.


Susan and I have always known that we have individual strengths and weaknesses and work well together when one of us can take the lead in those instances. However, it has been revealed that when we are equals — usually equally weak — we need to collaborate better. Day 6’s first challenge, a scavenger hunt in Den Haag, Netherlands, proved that point.

We had to find landmarks; read and translate Dutch; get locals to sing; build sand sculptures, and find tall men and women. (Did you know the Dutch are among the world’s tallest people?) Being introverts and not well organized led to our achieving zero points. Only finding a 7-foot-tall Dutchman saved us from negative points.

After completing the first challenge and a quick dinner (too quick, I would find out overnight), we headed off to our second challenge: flying drones in a gymnasium.

We are too old to have grown up in the video game age, and my left brain doesn’t work well at the same time as my right, so playing with the two joysticks at once was next to impossible.

Somehow, when working with another team, we managed to gain 20 points, ending the day at 250.

That night, we checked in at the Babylon Hotel in Den Haag.

Dinner the night before did not agree with me, so we did not participate in the morning’s challenge. The description sounded like it was a lot of fun. The group went blokarting, or beach sailing, at IJmuiden aan Zee.

A final challenge of guessing the midpoint of the northernmost part of the trip (IJmuiden aan Zee) and the most southern point (Milan) lost us 20 points, bringing our final score to 230 points — good enough for eighth place. (The highest score was 510.)

The top three teams each received $1,000. However, everyone was a winner, making new friends and experiencing activities that we would never have tried on our own.

On Sunday morning, as promised, we headed off on our 2-hour train ride to Brussels, followed by a short flight to Bologna.

Competitours 2020 will be held July 2-12 and July 21-31. (The 10-night adventure is priced at $3,995 per person, double.) Maybe you will see us there!