On Board with Fiona Sweetman, Owner of Hidden Secrets Tours!
Venture down the laneways and discover the hidden charm of Melbourne as Hidden Secrets Tours take you on an awe-inspiring walking tour of the city! They specialise in finding what makes Melbourne tick and indulging in the many corners of the world’s most liveable city.
Today we catch up with Fiona Sweetman from Hidden Secrets to find out more about their ‘meet the city’ experiences, as well as tips for first time visitors and much more…
Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself!
Fiona Sweetman, Owner and co-founder of Hidden Secrets Tours. I started touring Melbourne’s Lanes and Arcades as Hidden Secrets Tours 15 years ago.
What inspired you to launch Hidden Secrets? How did it all begin?
A friend of mine received a grant to diversify her business, Shopping Secrets publishing. She noted when I was between jobs that I would be a good tour guide, but I had never really thought about such a career. I had custom made wedding dresses for the previous 10 years, so wanting a new start, I jumped at the chance! The tours took off slowly, but that was OK by me. Michelle was busy growing the publishing business internationally. I did all the tours, and in reality I was terrible in the publishing side of the business, so we split the business. Besides, shopping may have sent me loopy, so back when I started the tours we named them Hidden Secrets Tours. This was a time when even locals didn’t venture into the city anymore, Hosier Lane didn’t even have Movida yet, let alone street art! To make this new idea work, I wanted it to be more than shopping. We stuck with sharing local small business in the laneways, and that which is often only found in Melbourne.
This chance conversation with my friend Michelle Matthews was Australia Day 2004, and she saw something in me I never knew I had… I am forever grateful. The grant money kick-started the website and collateral, but our focus on media, and the travel agents were the way the brand got off the ground. Walking tours in Melbourne at this time were usually done by retirees, so I was keen to share a more youthful and engaging perspective. I worked solo for nearly 3 years before I could afford any help! We really were the first walking tours of the city to shine a light on the laneways as the heroes of our tours. Its amazing what the city does with them now!
I have nearly always been self employed or worked in small business. I love the human side of entrepreneurialism. Thankfully that is what tourism is about too, and with so many small business stories in Melbourne, the tour info is always evolving as we get to meet and share the people of this city. This has been such an amazing new life direction and I just love that we are learning everyday.
What can people expect from your tours?
Our tours are about experiencing the true Melbourne. We are less a ‘point and look’ tour, and more of a ‘meet the city’ experience. On our tours guests get an insight into what makes Melbourne tick, which includes its beautiful architecture, its interesting history, small businesses, local characters and of course, the great food and coffee. People can expect to gain a grater understanding of the city – one which at first glance can look like many other cities – but with a little delving, they discover that Melbourne has a certain magic hidden away down the small lanes and within the amazing local businesses. We talk with our clients, we don’t use loud speakers, we always add a little indulgence on our tours, amazing chocolate, steaming coffee and specialities to Melbourne.
What’s the most memorable experience you have had engaging with a guest or guests?
There are so many memorable experiences, it’s hard to choose one in particular. So many of the tours end with the guests asking to give the guide a hug. I think this is a unique experience for tour guides. We really get to take people into our city, our home, for a few hours, and by the end, they feel like they’ve made a friend. It’s also humbling when you run into them the next day and they are happy to call out and say hi – and see that they are retracing the steps of the tour to further enjoy Melbourne. One of our guides had a family tour from the USA and the father was in a motorised chair with ALS, packing in a trip of a lifetime. The opportunity to share the city in a slow manner, have time to look up, to share the sunny corners of the lanes with his children, to not just be a witness, but see the city happen was one we all talked about for years. I took a blind gentleman on a tour with us years ago, and he came with his dog, and his sister, his desire to hear the stories, but also just stop and hear the traffic, or smell the coffee grinds of Degraves street. This tour stays with me as being the reason why we do what we do. Giving people time – just 3 hours usually – to slow down, to take in meaning, observe to understand, rather than just look, it the joy of these tours – and guests rarely realise the time pass, as they can soak into Melbourne with us.
What do you love most about this city?
There are so many things I love about this city – its people, its entrepreneurial spirit, its four seasons, the diversity of art, and more… it’s hard to choose one above the others, but I’ll pick one amazing element to talk about – its walkability. The structure of Melbourne is so conducive to walking. Melbourne can be navigated on foot almost undercover from one end of the city to the other, which is ideal for our ‘cold’ (in terms of Australia) weather. The city’s grid structure means you pretty much, cannot get lost. It’s such a smart layout, and the way in which the city has opened up the laneways, and preserved the historical arcades means it is such an enjoyable experience to wander through. Walking from one end of the city to the other, you can see so many different periods of architecture and development. Walking really is the best way to experience Melbourne.
What makes a great tour guide?
Someone who can genuinely engage with the guests far beyond reciting a script. Every group has it’s own dynamic, and a great tour guide can read this early in the tour and engage with the guests accordingly. As we conduct small group tours, our guides are given an opportunity to give a more individualised experience to the guests, this way the guests are given a personal experience rather than simply being a faceless part of group. A great tour guide needs to care about the city and the experience of the guests. Their passion for the information they are sharing will come through in an engaging and genuine nature if they truly love what they are showcasing. A great tour guide leaves space for guests to come to their own conclusions, they don’t tell facts but share information, and they listen more than they talk.
Thankfully, this is easy with Melbourne as the star of the show.
Do you have a favourite location you like to visit whilst on tour?
We do about 6 different types of tours, so this changes from day to day, but even still many of our guests (locals too) are amazed by the blue building at the end of Degraves Street – now a well known street, but people so rarely look up, and the Majorca Building. It is such a narrow glamorous building, so named after the architects tiny home town in Victoria (only about 1 house left of this gold rush town now) that sits just at the north end of the street, pretending to be much grander than it is. I still love the comments of awe and embarrassment that they had never noticed it before.
Any special tips or advice for first timers visiting Melbourne?
It may seem obvious, but take a tour on your first day. We have heard it many times before “I wish I had done this tour at the start of my trip” and with Melbourne it’s more true than many other places. It is a city which needs (and deserves) an introduction. There are so many amazing features to the city which can so easily be missed without the guidance of a tour guide. Also, be curious. In Melbourne you find the highlights of the city off the beaten path, so go down that lane and enter that arcade.
How can people get in touch if they’d like to book a tour?
We have lots of information about our tours, as well as bookings (and last minute bookings too) on our website: hiddensecretstours.com or they can call us direct on +613 9663 3358, Follow our social media for great Melbourne updates: https://www.instagram.com/hidden_secrets_melb/