There is a tiny room tucked into a nunnery-turned-hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina, where guests can anonymously exchange secrets with strangers. In what was once the entrance to a 1950s-era convent, ARRIVE Wilmington built an on-site confessional where guests can stare at their own reflection amidst dark, wood-paneled walls lit by a Tiffany-style chandelier and pop-culture prayer candles. The centerpiece of the room—a digital mirror with the words, “Confess! And I’ll share someone else’s secret”—allows guests to type a confession before randomly sharing a previous user’s.
How did a hotel end up with an on-site confessional? The story begins during ARRIVE Wilmington’s construction on a group of buildings that were first converted into a hotel in 1992, one of which previously housed a nunnery. Chris Pardo, co-founder and chief development officer of ARRIVE Hotels & Restaurants, discovered a cross hidden behind drywall in a room with three hot water heaters, marking the former entrance to the convent. “When I found that, we decided that we really needed to do something special with this room,” Pardo said. The ARRIVE brand, which has five neighborhood-focused, “low-key luxury” hotels in the United States, is focused on thoughtful design, so it was important to Pardo that the space complemented the property’s story and history.
“The intention behind it is to speak to the history of the building but in a fun and interactive way—otherwise this probably would have been a broom closet.”
Serendipitously, Pardo stumbled upon just the thing while attending a dinner in Texas hosted by two artists—Sarah Presson, who created a series of collages for ARRIVE Austin, and her husband and sculptural artist, Nick Presson. While showing Pardo around, Nick introduced him to a piece that had previously been an installation at an art show—a mirror powered by software that allowed users to enter a secret and read someone else’s. “As soon as he explained that to me, I said, ‘What do you think about putting that in a confessional?’”
Pardo worked with Nick to install the mirror in the former utility closet at ARRIVE Wilmington and design the space to feel like an authentic confessional. The exterior door has a card reader so that the room is only accessible to guests. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Bowie prayer candles, bibles, and rosaries accompany a kneeler and red velvet pews where guests can sit alone with their reflection or with friends to share the experience (and perhaps snap a group selfie).
“The intention behind it is to speak to the history of the building but in a fun and interactive way—otherwise this probably would have been a broom closet,” Pardo explains. “Being able to provide something memorable for our guests beyond the typical hotel is really what we were going for.”
Reactions to the on-site confessional have been “all over the board,” Pardo says, ranging from confusion to intrigue. “At check-in, we mention that there’s a secret room and it might be something you want to look at. It’s on our little map in our guidebook as well,” Pardo explains. “We try and share the history and explain the artist and some of his other work.” Some guests have spent hours writing and reading different responses in the confessional, and one even visited ARRIVE Wilmington after reading about the installation, writing a letter to Pardo about their experience afterward.
“I think what’s really interesting about it is that every time the experience is completely different,” Pardo said. “There are thousands and thousands of responses and they’re from real people who had done it at the art show, plus now people who have done it at our hotel. Every time you tell a secret, you receive a different one. Some of them are funny, some of them are just really honest, and some of them are a little scary.”
Pardo adds that even in crowded shared spaces, many hotel guests are on their own. The confessional gives solo travelers the chance to make an intimate connection with a previous traveler they have never met. “It gives them a social experience even when they’re alone,” Pardo explains. And something to share with a fellow guest—even if it is a secret.