September 18, 2019 – Authentic, innovative experiences are plentiful in Croatia, but it takes the right person to bring them to life. One of the stars of fabulous tourism content, Iva Silla from Secret Zagreb, tells us a little more.
Zagreb has really come alive, both as a city and a tourist destination in the last ten years. And while Advent in Zagreb has perhaps become the capital’s most recognisable brand in recent years, there is plenty to see and do all year round.
One of the pioneers of Zagreb tourism is Iva Silla, whose Secret Zagreb agency did things a little differently from the moment of its inception several years ago, and continues to evolve in new and innovative ways. Iva kindly found some time in her busy schedule to explain to TCN a little more.
I have never told you but you have been a hero of mine for some time with your ability to constantly come up with new and very innovative tours. Tell us a little about Secret Zagreb and how you got started.
Secret Zagreb started as a little blog, and over the years, it has grown into a collection of tours that explore the different faces of Zagreb.
To tell you the truth, in the beginning, I didn’t really have a full picture or a true strategy. I just started off with an idea of a thematic tour and a certain determination. At that time, I wasn’t thinking of any possible obstacles or risks. Even if they occurred to me at times, I successfully ignored such thoughts. Today, I’m grateful for that blissful ignorance. When I look back, I don’t know what got into me, just holding on to a project, focusing on what I needed to make it work.
At first, I was observing how thematic tours work in other cities, and tried to figure our why no one really made a living out of thematic tours in Zagreb, even though some interesting tours already existed. At the same time, I wanted to prepare a basis, an online space that could later be used for the promotion and sales of the tours. That’s how I started writing the Secret Zagreb blog, and becoming active on some social media, especially Twitter, which was an amazing tool back then.
My first idea was to start a dark tour about a particular part of history. I still have some funny sketches from 10 years ago with the stories and the route all set up. While I believed I had the final product, I didn’t have a licence to work as a tour guide. So I went to get all the necessary licences and imagine my surprise when, during the course, I found that another company had just started a tour of that same topic! That tour doesn’t exist anymore, but it was a great lesson even before I started. The first thing I learnt is that I would regret it if I kept setting my creative projects aside. More importantly, that the situation at the market changes fast and unpredictably… and so must I.
The decision was already in my mind that I was going to start storytelling city tours. I just couldn’t start with something that wouldn’t be original. That’s when I realised that I already have so many stories collected, old legends and spooky tales, that there are patterns in my town, pieces of puzzles just waiting to be put together into a charming whole. So I waved farewell to my first project and started crafting two new magical tours – Sleeping Dragon and Zagreb Ghost Tour (now known as Mysterious Zagreb).
At first, I thought it was going to be a side-project. In the first months, while I was still working on the content for the blog, I realised that wasn’t possible. I needed to dedicate myself to it to make it work. So I did, I quit my job, opened a business and simply started the tours. The first tours were in the month of June. Till the end of that year, I earned around 20.000 kunas gross. This wasn’t really in tune with my original “business plan”, where I assumed it would be easy to have 7 tours a week, times 15 people, times 85 kunas a ticket, which was supposed to be more than 8.000 kn a week. Very realistic to start with, don’t you think? But when I realised that I managed to earn money out of something that’s been there all the time… the stories of my home town and a little spark within… that was so incredibly motivating and it still is. When the first ticket was sold to Barbara, I was out of my mind. It was so surreal.
Your tours are a little different to the normal agency. Give us a flavour of what is on offer?
Secret Zagreb started with the mysterious-themed tours, based on local lore, legends and the secretive side of the city. I soon realised that seasonal tours, just as any seasonal event, make a great promotional tool. In the very first year, I already had special Halloween tours and the Zagreb Christmas Carol. The latter was inspired by the Dickens’ Christmas Carol and the fact that we just don’t have time to think of the real Christmas spirit. By remembering end-of-year customs, winter troubles and fun times of old, we’re giving a deeper meaning to the Christmas festivities that Zagreb has become famous for. There’s not much going on in Zagreb in February, so I had time to develop a Valentine’s special tour for locals, Dark Romance in Zagreb. Some tours are costumed, all of them are wrapped around a certain topic.
Since 2015, gamified tours came as an innovative addition to the Secret Zagreb offer. It was quite challenging and very fun to set up tours that would combine true history with riddles. They’re different from other gamified activities because they still have a human component – they rely on a guide, who makes the whole thing more entertaining and helps turning carefree fun into a learning experience.
My original intention was to show that Zagreb has so many hidden memories worth sharing. But, the stories that were “secret” when I first started, all of a sudden became part of many other tours. What used to be unexplored seven years ago, is now recommended in every other guide book or app. People started rediscovering the city with the rise of tourism, always searching for new perspectives and locations. Information about Zagreb and its little treasures became more accessible.
That’s when I started going even further off the beaten track. Not just in terms of stories, but by creating tours with a very unexpected route. The Real City tour or Into The Forest are examples of that. As you can imagine, these are not the most visited tours, but these are the ones where I can really see the transformational effect on the visitors. They find true a connection with the city after wandering in the woods of mount Medvednica, or between the grey buildings of Novi Zagreb.
The latest tour, Badass Women of Zagreb, is currently my favourite one. I wanted to create something meaningful and show that tourism doesn’t need to be all about pure entertainment, that each of us has the power to educate, inspire and to move hearts.
Now I realise that it wasn’t just about expanding the tourism routes, as I believed back then. It was about capturing the spirit of the city and help others appreciate it, not just putting it on sale.
Zagreb is perhaps one of the fastest changing destinations in Croatia, especially with the success of Advent in Zagreb. How would you assess the changes since you started Secret Zagreb/ Are you happy with the current direction of Zagreb tourism?
It has affected me and Secret Zagreb in many ways, yet it was easy to see it coming. Zagreb seems to be going in the exact same direction as many other European capitals and popular city-break destinations, so it hasn’t been very hard to predict what was going to happen.
The number of tourists here is growing, and so is the variety of the offer. Except for the months of January and February, there’s always something happening for us who work in tourism – conferences, school trips, international project meetings… And then Advent, which has become so popular. I’m especially thrilled to see people from other continents coming to Zagreb in December. Even though weekends are the craziest with all the day trips from nearby countries, there are people who travel from far away to enjoy Zagreb at that time of the year.
Another big change that I’ve noticed, is a rise in number of people that stay here for a week or so. I’m really eager to see the statistics for this year to see if what I’ve noticed is true, or just a coincidence. This year, I’ve met so many people who decided to stay in Zagreb for a whole week or more. And they always say they’re here for “only a week”, and they will have to come back.
It seems that the overall attitude still prevails, that the tourists are welcome and even that their increasing number is a great sign of the city’s development. However, local tour guides spend so much time with both tourists and the locals from historical parts of the city. We’re probably the first ones to notice when opinions start clashing. For a few years, I enjoyed hearing lovely comments by the locals. Everything was all roses – we witnessed people getting to know their own town again, being proud of the interest it aroused, enjoying the company of the tourists…. But last Christmas and this summer season, for the first time I started noticing increased annoyance amongst the locals. This is not serious yet, and I hope smart strategies will prevent true irritation from happening. It would be really sad if we weren’t able to turn the knowledge that is out there, from theories to examples of other destinations, into our tool to build a sustainable destination.
I personally believe that the locals have the right to claim their neighbourhoods and their cities. I once read an article about Amsterdam, and one simple thing really hit me: a local resident said that she just couldn’t stand seeing that same tour guide in front of her doorway with the same punchline each day anymore. Gosh, I thought, am I that tour guide? Is Zagreb slowly catching up on Amsterdam? It got me thinking and eventually, I limited the number of the tour participants even more, especially for the night tours that can feel really invasive for the quiet neighbourhoods.
You know that saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. I think it literally describes tourism. Each of us is a little tile that makes the journey to the destination look inviting. Everyone wants to do something good, something valuable. But when you finally get there, you realise we’ve all turned the place into fabricated hell, and have lost its authenticity that used to make it heaven on Earth. Let’s hope this is not going to happen to Zagreb.
I think that’s what makes various urban civil initiatives that are “re-claiming” the city very important. And education of each and every person who is involved in tourism. Too many people are involved, without the awareness about the long-term effects. It’s important to put tourism in the service of heritage, and not the other way around.
Authenticity and experiences are words which are often used in tourism. Do you think Croatian tourism has enough authentic experiences, or is it still over-reliant on the sun and the sea?
I actually believe that the sun and the sea are pretty authentic:) Authenticity is often about the simple stuff with deep meaning. Our incapacity to preserve the simplicity is striking. All we need is to recognise the spirit of destinations and pass that feeling on to our guests. It’s a shame we often lose that feeling in the quick, “easy” and very temporary money.
This will sound really cheesy, but I believe that the authenticity is in our hearts. We can’t make people create authentic experiences if they’re driven by the desire for instant business success. What we could do, is give full support to the ones who keep the authenticity alive and carefully work on developing destinations. All the tourism bodies should work towards that.. I’ve seen what it looks like to have a passionate person with a vision as a head of a small tourism board. We will easily blame the destination management for various faults. However, you have to be a super-human to rise above all the mud that surrounds you, be able to ward off all the opinions that are not in tune with your destination’s strategy, and follow the goals. I don’t think that anyone can be prepared for what awaits for you as a head of a local tourism board, especially if you’re trying to preserve the authenticity. It’s difficult to set heritage and authenticity as a priority even if you’re one of the “rich tourism boards”, because who cares about that when money’s pouring in one way or the other. It’s even more difficult for a small tourism board when they believe that this could actually be the way of development.
With the tours you have put together, you obviously see the opportunities from creating original content tours. How have your clients reacted, and how much more potential is there here to offer authentic experiences?
All I offer is a little shift in perspective in the hope of revealing something that the guests wouldn’t realise themselves. There’s still a lot of potential, but there are also many lost opportunities. It’s hard to offer authenticity when we try to fabricate it. We’re reading about new designer shops, at the same time letting the old artisan shops shut down forever under the radar. We’re talking about the “new creative awakening” of Zagreb, completely ignoring the city’s history of creativity, serious art movements, not even noticing that we’re slowly losing the tradition of social engagement. It’s so hard to keep our focus even here in the capital, where there should be most opportunities. I’m the first one to fail here. I have the desire to promote some special pieces of the town’s memory, but I don’t always succeed in delivering it to the market as I’d love to.
Right now, on TripAdvisor, there are 190 tours listed for Zagreb. That’s a lot, and it’s hard to dig through all that and discover what’s truly authentic. However, I think there’s still space for new tales, it’s just the matter of finding your way to the market. Airbnb Experiences could be a good platform to offer something new. There are some very unexpected creative experiences offered there.
A few years ago at a Zagreb conference, you showed a wonderful video of a Belgian pig walking tour as an example of innovative tourism using the traditions of the location. Can you give us a few examples (not your own agency) of similar things that you have seen in Croatia?
Haha, the pig tour was so revealing for me, too. The point is, not everyone will come to my village. But my village doesn’t have the capacity for everyone. People who do come, on the other hand, will be able to experience something very authentic. There are so many good examples throughout Croatia, I’m going to give a few that I’m personally familiar with.
Just a few weeks ago, an enthusiast Tihomir Želimorski organised an event called “Šetnja kroz naivu” with the support of Central Podravina tourism board in a village of Hlebine. Soon enough, the whole community joined – many households participated one way or another, helping the visitors understand that art is a part of who they are. This is a wonderful start of something that could turn into a true art destination in the future. I’m personally so enchanted with Podravina right now, that I can’t help it but mention at least one example from that region.
An amazing example of heritage, community and tourism, working together, is an event called Tunafest in Bakar, organised by the Bakar Tourism Board and Via Mea agency. So many locals – producers, performers, folk associations, business owners, get together to put up a very authentic event for big organised groups of tourists.
I really admire Jelena Holenko of Lynx and Fox, who is doing such an amazing job with her tours in the region of Gorski Kotar. Through her passionate work on social media, I feel she is the single force that’s directing the attention to her destination. We’ve met less than a year ago and we already had a chance to work together on some educational projects. But I remember first noticing her online, thinking “What is this? Self-destruction next level:)” It must be so difficult to reroute people to come to Gorski Kotar, and what an organisational task it must be to set up each of her tours. When anyone of us, who works to keep the local heritage alive, feels down and not sure about what we’re doing, just one click on Lynx and Fox, and we find Jelena, bursting with energy, creating connections throughout her region, her desire to make us come and visit every single incredible sight, and meet every single person who works hard to keep a part of heritage alive – that’s pure inspiration and a drive for all of us.
I also love Culsperience project that clearly points fingers to what’s really authentic. I appreciate that it’s focused on continental Croatia.
An Istrian town of Savičenta is an example of passion and focus growing big and community working together towards greatness. It took time, and it’s still an ongoing process, but for years, this small town has been developing around the identity they agreed on. If a place of a few hundred residents is becoming a sustainable destination, it wouldn’t hurt if every small city council meeting should start with presentation of that example.
These are just a few tiny examples, I deliberately picked different kinds to show the variety. I’ve had the privilege to meet so many inspiring people who care. I met passionate guides from Šibenik whose eyes literally start shining with pride when they speak about their home. Or warm heritage interpreters from Istria who keep the lost languages alive.
Artists, tour guides, reenactors, tourism board and local authorities employees, vendors, farmers, artisans, designers, promotors, journalists, food producers, taxi-drivers, captains, museum curators, park rangers, to name just a few…. there are so many beautiful dreamers eager to stay here in Croatia and make visitors feel at home, too. Most of them are desperately trying to build a life around that passion, but too often, after years of trying, they eventually have to wake up because the big majority and a big part of the system are not supportive enough and don’t have the same priorities. But there is a silent army of incredible people growing stronger, rising deep under the superficial layers of concrete and big tourist numbers, and when it bursts through, it’s bringing the heart of the country back to the surface, all the breath-taking treasures and heart-warming gems ready to explore.
Are the needs and wishes of tourists changing in recent years? What advice would you have for someone thinking of opening a tourism agency in Zagreb?
They are changing so fast. You just can’t stand still and have to keep moving and planning new things. I think, just like in any business, it’s important to have some kind of a higher personal goal. And your own Barbara – the person who bought your first ticket. Mark down those tiny moments of gratefulness so you can go back to them.
Otherwise, the energy level is going to drop eventually and you won’t be able to stay in touch with yourself. My little trick to keep myself going is to keep my sight clear. Is there anything I will regret if I don’t try it? If there is, you can be sure that I’m working on it right now. There is a book by the genius Nela Dunato – The Human Centered Brand – if you’re ever in doubt where you’re going, this piece of wisdom will take you back on track.
As for the ongoing projects – keep track on the market, in your town, country, and similar destinations and projects abroad; react to changes as soon as they start happening if you were not able to predict them earlier.
I like to simplify things in my head, so when I need to double-check what I’m doing, I think of it in terms of tattoos. Would I like to have my project logo tattooed on my skin, so I can explain to everyone what does it mean to me? If it feels more like a faded teenage tattoo ready to go under laser, it’s time to turn pages.
Tourists’ expectations keep changing, too. There is a rise of “experiences” all over the world, and many tourists simply expect to be entertained and ovewhelmed with fast experiences, they are not on a quest for a more profound connection. It happened to me that I needed to change who I was aiming at as clients. It used to be anyone, because anyone who came to Zagreb was already off the path and interested in deeper exploring. But with the rise in numbers, I have to start being more focused in marketing, at the same time “fighting” for my desired clients with the increased number of tours in the city. It’s an ongoing process.
People usually start with one idea and they have a feeling once it’s out there, the job will be done. But that’s just the start.
Since none of us is prepared for the market that changes so quickly, especially if we’re working in a creative field where your own product is an innovation so you can’t really predict anything, we all require more life-long education opportunities and some kinds of vanity-free hubs that will give us a chance to create collaborative atmosphere.
Collaboration is another important thing that I haven’t even mentioned yet. Working together, creating something in teams, learning from each other, exchanging experiences – even for great individualists, this can be truly transforming, and of course, very important for the community. I have to mention the association of tour guides Mihovil from Šibenik – some very strong and charismatic personalities put all their differences aside and got together to create a walking tour called “Mračna strana Šibenika” and many other projects that depended on their collaboration and mutual support. That’s other-wordly, an example that we should all strive to.
I have personally had the pleasure to collaborate with so many people through all these years. Sometimes it was successful, sometimes not. But, each and every one of them has left a mark and made a significant difference. We need to be ready to accept other people’s opinion, ready for failure, just as we are for success, take the best out of it all, keep moving and creating. Cherish the beautiful moments and just be true to ourselves and the destinations we’re breathing life into.
You can learn more about Iva’s incredible tours on her Secret Zagreb website.