In the last two months, Michelle McCormack says she has heard the same story at least a hundred times.
An eager Boston resident will seek out one of two immersive Vincent Van Gogh exhibits slated to open in the city later this year. The shows have similar offerings and overlapping schedules. But only one has announced an actual venue, at least for now.
The customer thinks they’re buying tickets for “Imagine Van Gogh,” an exhibit promoted by Secret Boston, the event calendar website McCormack founded in 2011. But somehow, the ticket buyer ends up on a separate but similar site, Secret Media Boston, which has put its weight behind “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” in a location yet to be released.
McCormack says she has been blasted with calls and e-mails from angry customers who mistakenly bought tickets for the latter show. Others reach out to express fears of having been duped into purchases by a group that resembles McCormack’s.
“In 10 years, we have literally gotten zero complaints,” McCormack said in a phone interview. “And then there were suddenly so many that I had to create a template for my e-mail.”
It’s a recipe for mix-ups with locals looking to fill their social calendars after a long, boring pandemic year. The competing Secret platforms boast nearly identical website domains and social media handles. They promote similar events, like concerts, tastings, and art exhibits.
But customer confusion has now morphed into a legal struggle between McCormack and the European-based events company Fever, which uses the Secret Media brand in more than 75 cities worldwide.
McCormack started speaking out against her competitor online and in media appearances early this year. She says she is motivated to defend her platform, which operates a website, e-mail newsletter, and multiple social media accounts.
In response, Fever sent a cease-and-desist letter asking that she stop publicly disparaging the company as “shady” and “a scam.” In a private conversation, the company pushed McCormack to “stop your PR campaign against us,” she told the Globe.
“It is in Secret Media Network’s best interest to differentiate our local Boston outlet,” read the cease-and-desist letter, which McCormack shared with the Globe. “This is something that we believe we have in common.”
Both platforms eventually acquired trademark lawyers who McCormack refused to name, and are continuing discussions about a path forward.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Fever representative Jill Ormand declined to comment on specifics. “We can disclose that we are in touch and working to resolve any misunderstandings,” she wrote.
McCormack has taken a more pointed approach. As a fierce protector of her brand, she continues to alert people of what she calls the “Fake Secret Boston” on social media and prompts them to report the account. A tab on her website hosts a petition of support.
“What this fake group is doing is an egregious abuse of social media,” the page reads. “Please spread the word.”
Two Secret Bostons
It’s easy to confuse the two companies. McCormack’s logo features black-and-white “SB” lettering enclosed in a circle, while Fever created yellow-and-white branding with similarly simple letters. McCormack started the Instagram account @secretboston, which now competes with newcomer @secret_boston. And she operates the SecretBoston.net website, while Fever’s site is found at SecretBoston.com.
That .com domain serves as a marker of legitimacy for her competitor, McCormack said.
Fever launched several Secret guides in cities including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dubai, and Ibiza with similar domains in 2015. But its Boston brand only became active in early 2020, according to company spokeswoman Tiffini Miles.
“I didn’t care so much in the beginning because I thought no one could compete with us,” McCormack explained of the situation. “Buying the .com changed everything. I have tried to get that domain for years with no luck.”
McCormack said an anonymous seller determinedly held onto the .com domain for years, even when she once reached out via a broker. She added that Fever contacted her in 2016 with an offer to buy Secret Boston, a conversation that ended after she put the value at seven figures.
In December, somebody reached out to McCormack vying for a refund to a candlelight Vivaldi concert, which the buyer mistakenly believed was endorsed by Secret Boston. According to e-mails reviewed by the Globe, Fever alerted the customer of the event’s postponement just a few hours before it was supposed to take place.
McCormack said she empathized with the woman and Venmo-ed her $100. It was the first time she found herself entangled in conflict over the lookalike platform.
“People are getting hustled into things or buying tickets they don’t want, and it’s being pinned on me,” McCormack complained.
This year, the resemblance between platforms has prompted McCormack to argue that Fever is in violation of the common law trademark, which protects identifying markers before they are registered with the government. In an interview and in multiple online posts, she accuses the company of publicly causing confusion and hurting her reputation around town.
Similarities aside, there are a few important distinctions between the two sites.
For starters, McCormack promotes events for a fee, but she does not ever sell tickets. SecretBoston.com links directly to a Fever-run ticketing platform where users can buy event passes. Several people have complained about Fever’s ticketing practices via online posts and in e-mails to the Globe.
Concerns range from inaccessible customer service and problems securing refunds for canceled events to charges that Fever’s use of the Secret Boston name is misleading customers.
These problems are echoed on the Better Business Bureau site, which captures dozens of complaints against Fever. “We are currently working very closely with BBB, and they have acknowledged our efforts to respond to any outstanding customer issues raised through their website, so there is no issue,” Fever’s Ormand wrote in an e-mail.
It’s worth noting that Fever has a relatively positive rating of 3.96 out of 5 stars among users who wrote reviews on www.bbb.org, though the BBB itself currently has the company listed as unrated. And Secret Boston isn’t listed on the BBB site.
Two Van Gogh exhibits
The Secret Boston controversy accelerated in early March when the two Van Gogh exhibits started garnering attention online. The popularity of these events has been attributed in part to the Netflix series “Emily in Paris,” which featured a similar Instagram-worthy display in an episode last year.
Boston ticket buyers found themselves weighing the two shows — “Imagine Van Gogh” and “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” — against one another. According to several e-mails McCormack shared with the Globe, many customers spent $44.90 on the latter exhibit thinking it had the Secret Boston stamp of approval.
But it did not.
It was Fever and Secret Media who promoted “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” extensively on social media. That exhibit promises 360-degree, two-story projections that morph and move, animation-style, plus a 10-minute virtual reality journey through the painter’s canvases. Scheduled to open in September, the show is organized by event producer Exhibition Hub, which curates art-based experiences internationally and previously hosted Van Gogh exhibits in Italy, China, and Germany. This year, the very same “Immersive Experience” event is being offered in 10 cities nationwide including Las Vegas, Miami, and New York.
The Boston incarnation is sold out through November with limited availability in December and January, according to the Fever website. As of Thursday, the venue still hadn’t been announced.
“We like to build excitement by keeping locations secret until getting closer to the opening date,” Ormand wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. She teased a setting in the “heart of the city” with 30-foot ceilings and 20,000 square feet of exhibition space. “Expect an announcement soon,” she wrote.
By mid-March, McCormack had opted to endorse (free-of-charge) “Imagine Van Gogh,” the artist experience that opens at the SoWa Power Station in December. Founder Annabelle Mauger said her exhibit, with its static projections, is more authentic and representative of Van Gogh’s creations.
An identical “Imagine Van Gogh” experience, currently open in Vancouver, has attracted more than 150,000 visitors. Fever representatives said they were being flexible “on a case-by-case basis” with Bostonians who meant to buy tickets to see Mauger’s show.
“We are the first event — the one so many people want to come to,” Mauger said via phone. “This situation is not fair to us or to [McCormack].”
Update: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article included an incorrect location for Fever’s headquarters.