How I started Secret Zagreb: Inspirations and Opportunities

By 23 April 2020

April 23, 2020 - TCN is delighted to welcome the legendary Iva Silla from Secret Zagreb to the team. Iva starts with a lovely account on how she started the iconic and innovative agency, and where she is with plans at the moment. Welcome, Number 149! 

It is simply impossible to take Secret Zagreb out of the context of everything that’s going on around us. Just a few weeks ago, this article would probably have a very different note, light and inspiring. Even now, in the midst of the coronavirus craze, I am still irritatingly positive, and I still believe that Croatia needs even more creative products for our future guests. However, I also think that people should be more careful between the dream phase and the creation phase. I’ll admit it, when the revenue dropped to zero and the lock-downs started, for a blink of a second, even I thought of shutting it all down. For a blink of a second. But that blink passed and I’m back working on the new Secret Zagreb for the times after coronavirus. I will answer the title question, but I also wish to acknowledge that this story might have been a good example seven years ago. Today, just like everybody else in the tourism sector, I’m starting Secret Zagreb over again. Despite my previous experience, I simply can’t tell for sure whether it is going to succeed again. Hopefully, I was right all this time, and the key steps to success, no matter the circumstances, are as follow: dream – wake up – start working – dream some more. I’m back to this old recipe.

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Just like all the birthday girls and boys these days, Secret Zagreb spent its birthday in isolation. I officially launched the city tours company in April 2013. Unofficially, it existed some years prior to that, in all of the books, sketches, maps, post-its all over my house. I made a sketch of a first ghost tour some 15 years ago but I truly accepted it as a project in 2010, when I started the  Secret Zagreb blog. Very early on, thanks to my blog, I was recognised as one of the “New Faces of Zagreb” in the article of the same in easyJet’s inflight magazine. That felt like a very big success and it still does. In that article, Secret Zagreb found itself in the distinguished company of Broken Relationships Museum, InMusic Festival and Esplanade Hotel. This proved to me that it wasn’t impossible to reach an audience and that Zagreb was on the rise as a tourist destination.

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In 2013, I kicked off with two themed tours: Zagreb Ghost Tour (now Ghosts and Dragons Tour) and Sleeping Dragon. As you can imagine, I love myths, legends, mystery and dark tales so those two tours were a logical start. But when it comes to Zagreb, there’s plenty of other things to love. Little by little, I started developing all of my interests and all of the parts of Zagreb that enchant me, into tours. By now, there’s a tour about tragic love stories, steampunk-inspired Zagrebarium, Novi Zagreb tour, Zagreb Christmas Carol, and more. The creation of each and every tour has a lifespan of its own with two most important moments. One of them is when I discover something new that amazes me about my city and makes me feel like I want to share it. The other one is when I suddenly get the feeling a tour is indeed a complete product. It usually happens when it’s already bookable, but a special moment needs to appear out of nowhere to show me that I’m really on the right track.

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For example, at the end of 2018, I started the Badass Women of Zagreb tour. It delights me to see that this tour attracts people from all over the globe. However, I didn’t have big expectations - I simply wanted to celebrate the female side of history through what I do well. When I felt the tour was ready, I published it on the Secret Zagreb website. I didn’t build the tour around spectacular stories and unprecedented cases. I simply wanted to show the invisibility of herstory in the streets of this city or any city, and at the same time, the number of amazing women right here in this small country. I wanted to make people think for a second, connect around similar thoughts and memories, identify with some of the heroines. I wanted the visitors to think about their home town and their local badass women. There’s no costume, even though that would be more touristically attractive. Since the whole theme is about special women being true to themselves, there was no point in dressing up another woman as one of them. It’s not designed to be superattractive. Instead, it was meant to be honest and thought-provoking.

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People started calling in and arranging private Badass Women of Zagreb tours. It was already active when this special moment happened back in 2018. I talked about Diana Budisavljević, a woman who organised an incredible action to save thousands of children in WWII. She was still a rather unknown personality back in 2018. This injustice was corrected in the meantime, when a powerful movie about her “The Diary of Diana B.” came out. As we talked about her on the tour, a lady approached us and just stood there in awe. When I finished the story, she told us: “I personally knew Diana and every single word you said is more than true. I’ve lived here in Zagreb my whole life, but I have never heard anyone speaking of her. Thank you.”

Our whole group went teary-eyed. That was the exact moment that showed me that meaningful tours should be on the market and as available as can be. I took this as a sign to set the public dates so it could be easily accessible for travelers. And it worked. People started joining and enjoying the stories about incredible Croatian women. It’s not the bestselling tour with dozens of people, but a handful always gathers, and we have a great time together. For me, creating a tour with a strong message, such as the Badass Women, is slightly more fulfilling than creating an entertaining tour. I distinctively remember each and every guest and feel like we’ve shared special moments together.

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Behind all of my tours lies the same drive – to show there’s something worth discovering in Zagreb. But let’s not be pathetic, I also love pure fun and games. That’s where Secret Zagreb Quests come into play. Wacky tours with riddles and challenges for visitors are a great choice for families or teams. Gamified activities make for another growing sector, especially in the city break destinations, and I’ve been offering them in Zagreb for 5 years now.

Inspiration for new tours lies where I least expect it and I feel it’s important not to let go. If I feel something would make for a good tour, I have to make time and work on it. As you can see, Secret Zagreb is a set of tours and activities that keeps growing and changing. It brought another unexpected benefit to my life. Ever since I started Secret Zagreb, I was blessed with so many cool collaborations that helped me discover a whole new world. Worlds of artists, creative entrepreneurs, enthusiasts that can bring any idea to life.

That was the short story of Secret Zagreb so far. I’m sure you’re going through this article waiting for another inevitable question to be answered: What’s next?

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But you already know my answer: I just don’t know. By now, most of us in the tours and activities sector decided to stop trying to predict the future after coronavirus. When it comes to Secret Zagreb, I decided to focus on those predictions that work best for me and plan ahead according to that. I choose to believe that tourists will slowly start coming back. That micro businesses have the best chance to “hibernate” and survive. We still can’t predict the way travellers will behave once they start travelling again. I have to admit that I worry whether they might decide to limit the time spent with tour guides or any locals that are unnecessary. Only time will tell. As much as I hope that’s not going to happen in the long term, I’m currently developing an app that will enable a self-guided exploration of Secret Zagreb.

In Zagreb, we’re not just facing future consequences of coronavirus, but also of the recent earthquake that will definitely affect Secret Zagreb and other themed tours. Obviously, it will be harder and sometimes even insensitive to stick with the topic of a certain tour when there will be so many questions about the earthquake. I’m already redefining all of my tours and activities, because at the moment, only a few of them can stay as they were in terms of route and content. All of the Secret Zagreb tours will still have to make sense after the disaster. I had to completely erase three of my tours for safety reasons and prolonged construction works, including the Mirogoj – Whispers of Eternity cemetery tour. I’m rethinking the Sleeping Dragon tour and quest. It used to be fun and informative, even educational in terms of possible earthquakes. However, at the moment, it could be insensitive to build a product around the earthquake-related legends. I’m sure there will be new products at the market with the recent earthquake in mind. I’m also sure that our wounded cathedral will be the top attraction until they cover it up with scaffolding. However, I’m not so sure I can personally build stories around such a recent tragedy without guilt feelings. Overall, for this year, it will be very hard to promise a certain itinerary in the city center with the expected amount of renovations.

I’d like to share a few thoughts with anyone who is thinking about visiting Croatia: now that I mentioned the earthquake, don’t let this stop you from coming to Zagreb. Before the coronavirus and the earthquake, that is - just a few weeks ago, my city was an example of the diversity of cultural tourism offer and it was an inspiring example for other destinations.

Most of us, who are involved in creative tourism, are driven by a higher goal, such as the desire to show a lesser-known part of their destination or preserve some rare customs. This is why you will always find us collaborate with each other on various projects, and the more we work together, the more productive and creative each of us gets. As long as our visions and motives align. So many people in Zagreb found new opportunities in the rise of tourist numbers, and so many of us were interconnected through many joint projects. When I look back I can’t believe how much genius content do small businesses create. There’s a huge creative force, and I don’t know what are they all doing right now with this extra time. But I do know that, when we all show up back on the streets, we’re going to be better than ever. Zagreb has been through a lot, but it’s going to be more worth visiting it than ever.

And something to share with anyone who wanted to get involved in creative tourism: I honestly believe a deep change in travel is coming. I hope there will be more people who will choose slow travel over bucket lists. It sounds utopian, but if it happens, it’s worth developing new innovative products. If there’s even the slightest possibility that there will be more people who will prolong their stay in offbeat destinations, we should give them reasons to do that. Now is the time to redefine our offer. When tourists come back, let’s give them a chance to discover the true hearts of our hometowns.

Follow Iva's journey and the post-corona Secret Zagreb on the official website

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