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The rise of 'secret tourism'
Covert cinema evenings, surprise dinners and now clandestine hotels -- why some people are happy to pay before they know what they're going to get
I’m on a bus and I have no idea where I’m going. Next to me is an equally clueless young man.
My name, by the way, is Al McCoy, and I’m a stablehand from Charmy, Pennsylvania.
That’s not the full truth, but I’m going with it for tonight.
We’re at the very first Secret Hotel, an extension to Secret Cinema, the London-based production that mashes art and cinema by showing punters a film in a building set up to recreate the world of that film.
Ticket holders are sent identities to play for the night, but until they arrive at the secret venue, the movie is a mystery.
And it's the same for Secret Hotel -- we have no idea where we’re going to sleep, until we arrive.
Secret Hotel is just the crest of a rising tide for mystery events with themes as secret as their locations.
In fact, this particular run (of a movie I’m not allowed to disclose, as Secret Hotel is ongoing till December 2) also sees the company launch Secret Restaurant -- all I know is there’s a mysterious four-course meal on offer.
“If people have no idea what they’re going to experience, it makes the whole experience richer,” says Secret Cinema creative director Fabien Rigall. “People want to be challenged and they’re looking for an experience away from the mundane.”
Audience participation required
In London, a theater production called "You Me Bum Bum Train" hinges on audience members and reviewers not revealing what goes on.
Like Secret Cinema, the audience helps create the show, and the element of surprise -- or lack of expectation -- is key to customers getting out of it what the YMBBT crew want them to.
The love of secret thrills is not confined to Great Britain.
In Hong Kong, Rachel Frost is the organizer of Secret Island Party, a private party of about 500 people on an island unreachable by public ferry.
At its launch on November 17 ticket holders took water taxis arranged by Frost, guaranteeing that even after the event, partygoers would be unable to find their way back.
She sold tickets by cycling to interested buyers and taking their cash in exchange for entry to a party whose venue she wouldn’t reveal.
“It takes a certain type of person to want to come to an event like this -- trusting, adventurous and looking for something exciting,” she says. “For them, the secret location is part of the fun.”
Lorraine Puttick is a primary school teacher who has been to two Secret Cinema events, one of which she found so intense, she left before the film even showed.
“I do it because I like the surprise element and, if I’m honest, it’s a talking point with your friends afterward, no matter whether it’s been a good or a bad experience,” she says.
In an age in which we have it all -- and can download whatever’s missing -- something unpredictable can be the antidote to the perfectly packaged, satisfaction-guaranteed movies, shows and restaurants to which most of us are accustomed.
There’s also the excitement of the "in" crew.
Melbourne guerilla foodie group Zingara is so underground that it only accepts diners with referrals, while Lolla’s Secret Suppers in Singapore boasts secret chefs as well as secret venues.
In Hong Kong, underground supperclub Once Upon a Table holds monthly dinners and sells out its 15 or so places in less than a minute. Co-founder Argha Sen is a chef by night and marketer by day, but he says regular rules go out the window when you throw a secret venue into the mix.
“In marketing, the customer has to be given the right information, so he has control. We market Once Upon a Table by not giving them any control -- and seats at our table go in seconds.”
Sen describes his guests as adventurous, open-minded foodies after an experience as much as the food itself.
“The guests are all food lovers from different backgrounds that you wouldn’t be able to meet otherwise,” says Once Upon a Table regular Karen Leung.
“And the food is amazing -- dishes are influenced by different cuisines and methods because the chefs all have full time non-cooking jobs.”
Did I order this?
In London, The Pale Blue Door is a largely unadvertised restaurant that pops up twice a year in an artist’s home.
Unlike food-focused supperclubs, it’s very much about your experience in the space, which is divided into several tiny rooms, each meticulously created to an old world, burlesque aesthetic.
Diners book a three-course meal in one of these rooms, based on a brief summary, no pictures.
Photographer Stefan Klenke describes it as the most unconventional restaurant he’s ever been to. But for the first-timer, isn’t a £40 (US$64) investment in an unknown quantity a bit risky?
“The food’s OK, but you totally pay for the experience,” he says. “I love discovering and exploring. The point is to go somewhere that feels different from your everyday life.”
Psychologist Katie Sparks says part of the thrill of the secret event is that it’s a safe way of stepping outside the comfort zone.
“You’re giving up a bit of your control -- and that keeps your imagination going,” she says.
Whether you’re traveling or just looking for the next big thing at home, the secret event is becoming known across Europe, Asia and Australia.
“There’s a massive cultural shift happening,” says Secret Cinema creative director Rigall. “People are looking to be shaken a bit. And they also like feeling part of something secret.”
Secret Cinema will be opening in New York and Paris next year and Rigall doesn’t intend to stop at hotels. “I really want to do Secret Airlines. It’s taking the idea of Secret Cinema and turning it into a travel experience,” he says.
Buy a ticket to a destination unknown, then board an unmarked plane. You’ll be met by a man with a suitcase containing your new clothes and your new identity. When you land, you probably still won’t know where you are.
If knowledge is power, you’ve surrendered yours to the Secret team. But then, that’s where the fun begins.
Secret Hotel runs until December 2.
To book tickets to Secret Cinema:
Tickets from £33.50-43.50 (US$53.30-69); www.secretcinema.org/tickets
From £30 (US$48) per bed. Rooms hold from two to 10 people, must book only on day of your attendance to Secret Cinema, valid for evening productions only; Book via www.secretcinema.org/hotel.html
Tickets £100 (US$160) including cinema ticket and three-course meal; www.secretcinema.org/restaurant/reservations.html