New company provides an immersive mystery mixed with a bespoke travel experience.
SAN FRANCISCO — “How long have you worked with the agency?” our driver, Charles, asked. My wife and I exchanged glances. Awhile, we said. No reply.
We drove through San Francisco’s morning gray — hilly Bernal, littered Bayshore. Charles was middle-aged, with a rumpled, slacks-with-sneakers look. Amy and I kept our counsel at first, but by the Bay Bridge were lobbing questions. Charles looked in the mirror. He taught public school when he wasn’t driving, he said. Soon we were discussing the finer points of teaching, and the importance of a good principal.
It was all perfectly ordinary, and not once over the next 15 minutes did we voice our central thoughts: Where were we going, what was “the agency” and what in God’s name was going on?
We’d known nothing about this strange weekend getaway when we signed on — only that people unknown to us had planned every inch of it, that it would range over the Bay Area, and that we’d be tasked with locating a stolen thoroughbred.
A new take on travel
“It’s some kind of … art project … mystery … vacation thing,” I’d explained to our kids before handing them off to the grandparents. That was good enough for them, and soon we were climbing into Charles’ back seat, as one does, to recover a horse recreationally.
I’d wager that we all vacation more or less the same: pick a place, select ways to relax and indulge at that place, then shuffle home. When a couple of months back, Amy and I signed up for a weekend with First Person Travel, we elected for a wholesale departure from that model. Rather than make our own choices, everything would be planned by mysterious game-designer artists; in lieu of reality we’d plunge into an interactive and bespoke form of travel-as-theater; instead of a generic itinerary, the organizers got to know us in advance, somewhat intimately, via a probing questionnaire. Our getaway was a play, written for us and starring us, too.
First Person Travel is the creation of Gabe Smedresman, a game designer and maker of “mixed-reality entertainment,” and Satya Bhabha, a writer, director and actor best known for his role in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Their idea is to bring narrative and elements of immersive theater to the staid genre of the weekend getaway. To that they add high-end concierge services, lest travelers be distracted by lowly logistics.
“Instead of watching a movie, you’re living one,” Smedresman says. “We deliver a heightened reality, where you connect more deeply with your travel partners and the place, itself.”
As parallels go, the closest comes not from travel but the theater world. The New York-based production “Sleep No More,” a loose adaptation of “Macbeth,” similarly injects audience members into the story. (Michael Douglas fans might also be reminded of the 1997 thriller “The Game.”)
Back to the game
Amy and I were just crossing the Bay Bridge when Charles reached discreetly over the seat.
“I’m supposed to give you this,” he said, handing us a leather attaché case with an iPad inside. Over the next 36 hours its custom-made dashboard would deliver itineraries, real-time directions, a dossier on various characters we’d meet and a direct line to a kind of mission control, on hand to help us have fun and fight crime. (Per instructions, we’d shut off our phones.)
Near Berkeley, Charles exited the freeway and pulled up to Golden Gate Fields, a 1940s-era racetrack by the rocky edge of the bay. In all our years in the Bay Area, Amy and I had somehow never been here.
The First Person Travel team had a talent for finding great, underexplored California nooks, we’d learn. Charles sometimes played poker with some of the jockeys — a slippery bunch, he said.
Soon we were climbing out of the car and wandering toward the entrance. Inside we saw nothing unusual until a distraught woman in houndstooth slunk over.
Sarai was her name, and an air of dark glamour hung over her, compounded by the noirish vibe of an old racetrack in fog. She anxiously took us by the arm and led us to the sprawling grandstand outside. She was a horse broker, she said, and after the upsetting events of the last 24 hours, she knew she needed a pair of ace investigators. She looked over her shoulder as she spoke.
Over the next half-hour Sarai told us about Talisman, the fleet racehorse she’d been on the verge of selling for a sizable sum. Last night his trainer had taken him back to his stable, and that was the last anyone had seen of Talisman; no Talisman this morning. Any number of people could have wanted him out of the picture. Gravely we reviewed the various figures in Talisman’s orbit — while nibbling happily on the breakfast Sarai had brought. Think “Maltese Falcon” with really good pastries.
This was how it would be: a strangely seamless blend of fake mystery and real leisure — horse investigation leaves a surprising amount of time for strolling, eating and generally kicking back. We were also surprised to accept the whole conceit so readily. Within a couple of hours, we didn’t entirely believe we were horse-thief detectives, but we also didn’t feel like a married couple on vacation. The truth felt somewhere in between.
The vacation isn’t forgotten
Susan Orlean once said travel is best when you have a purpose of some sort — a quest, a mission, something to focus you when you’re in a new place and clueless over how to engage it. Attuned to the task at hand, suspicious of everything, our senses sharpened. We looked at people more closely, looked at California more closely. Amy noted that she’d never really gazed up at the cathedral of redwood branches arching overhead on Lucas Valley Road.
“We shell shock you into receptivity,” Smedresman told me later.
I swear we don’t conduct murder-mystery dinner parties or join geeky role-playing games. But we were hooked — a testament to the writing chops, acting and all-around cleverness of the trip. Indeed, so thorough and extensive is the fictional world that the company has generally limited itself to two productions a month since starting last winter. (Prices start at $562 a person for a basic version, and go up to $1,162 each. Food, lodging and a fancy car were all included for our trip. Reservations are made online at theheadlandsgamble.com.)
The First Person Travel team might have art in their veins, but they also shine as travel agents.
In our questionnaire, Amy and I had opened up to First Person Travel about what we want in a getaway and, by extension, who we are. In our guestroom, we found the results: a guitar for the guy too busy to play, a picnic basket with our favorite cocktail fixings and other treats, and a remarkably thoughtful three-page note. Invoking the busyness of children and careers, they prescribed us a silent, 40-minute walk to the beach: “Commit yourself to not talking,” it said. “You have been together long enough, I’m sure, that you can read one another’s meanings in your movements.”
I strapped the guitar on my back; we grabbed our basket, and by dusk we were drinking and plucking wordlessly on a windy bluff over the ocean. (It wasn’t all sappy stuff. Dinner reservations awaited us later in town, where we fanatically reviewed the day’s clues.)
Throughout our trip a second mystery hung over the main one: Why hasn’t travel been disrupted like this before? As a civilization we’ve updated the way we get around, the way we buy plane tickets and so on. But the essence of travel is still so analog. The intersection of theater and technology felt refreshingly new and inventive.
End of the case
In the interest of spoiling no mysteries — each First Person Travel weekend is customized, but a general story arc remains constant — I’ll just say that lines began to converge. Was there a dramatic conclusion involving elaborate plot twists and even shouting? A good detective knows when to keep his trap shut.
By afternoon we were in the sun on a ferry back to San Francisco, dazedly reviewing the truth of Talisman’s last 36 hours and our own. Later, we’d be emailed the cold metrics of our gumshoeing. For now, we just marveled at how this wacky, fake detective charade somehow left us both switched on and mellowed out. At one point I glanced over at Amy, happy in the ferry breeze, and vowed to pursue far more fictional stolen horses than I ever had previously.
Charles, the not-really-a-schoolteacher, chauffeured us home from the Ferry Building. It was not hard adjusting to post-Agatha Christie life. What was hard was no longer having an unseen squad — in total 50 collaborators have pitched in with First Person Travel — laboring on behalf of our pleasure.
For all our sleuthing, the absence of planning might ultimately have been the most affecting part of the weekend. You just go where you’re told. No guidebooks, no decisions, no guessing how long it will take to get to dinner. Liberated from such concerns, we were free to delve into the hidden nooks of the Bay Area, and into strange truths about the affinity of travel and mystery.