I’ve never been shot out of a cannon, but I think I might know how that feels now.
The last entry in this blog was written in April 2016, a couple of weeks before my wife, Lisa Grassi-Blais, and I were set to receive our very first guests at Villa d’Abruzzo and Amazing Abruzzo Tours in Central Italy. So I will pick up the narrative there.
It was a nervy time that capped off a series of events that started in late 2011 when we began thinking about opening a tour company and vacation villa in the Abruzzo Region of Italy east of Rome.
In 2012, we saw a rundown place in the town of Torre de’Passeri that would work well for our business idea. We sold our house in Canada in late 2012, and bought our Italian property in early 2013. Renovations started in 2013, then stalled in 2014. We ran out of money in early 2015 as reno costs soared past estimates by as much as 200 per cent. Then we found a way forward with the help of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, and the final projects – a large terrace and pool – got underway in July 2015 after we moved to Italy to oversee them.
Throughout the fall of 2015, winter of 2015/16 and the early spring of 2016 construction crews worked outside as we attacked the myriad of things we needed to get done in time for opening. By April 2016 with our opening day fast approaching, everybody was running flat out.
I’d hear the workers start before the sun came up as I lay in bed and then I would see them again in the evening working until they couldn’t see outside. As they were putting in 14-plus hour days, we struggled with our work including dealing with the truly mindboggling bureaucracy of banks, permits, inspections and more.
While doing this we outfitted the villa with a professional kitchen and dining room, sanded and painted doors, hired a chef, cleaner and tour guide and immediately put them to work. We found distributors for food, coffee, and drinks and bought two vans and a car.
It was hectic in ways that were hard to image.
Often at night, Lisa or I would wake up and say something like, “Small spoons. We need small spoons. The ones we have are too big for the little espresso cups” or “Do you think the guests will want white towels like in a hotel or coloured ones like you would get for home?” Some of it was important, “Used or new vans?” But much of it was inane “Are the forks heavy enough?” Seriously, we had that discussion more than once.
We were also worried about the pace of construction.
Normally, Italian construction projects move slightly faster than glaciers but slower than snails. This project was moving faster than that, but, with two weeks until first guests, it wasn’t moving fast enough. The field stone border around the pool wasn’t done, scaffolding still covered the back of the house as stucco was being applied, the electrical work wasn’t complete, and everything needed to be painted.
With 10 days to go, we brought our general contractor in for a coffee and we aired our concerns. He promised it would be done.
The next day the construction crew grew from six people to 10 and in the next few days it swelled to 16 workers. Usually, Italians don’t start another task until the current one is finished. But now, stucco, painting, electrical, cement and more were being done simultaneously.
Then, on April 30, 2016 at about 5 a.m., 10 guys arrived in the dark to finish the decking around the pool. Even our general contractor was down on his hands and knees laying stones. At 10 a.m., I set out for Piazza in Pisculina in the Trastevere area of Rome to pick up our first guests, a wonderful mother-daughter team from Toronto.
About five hours later, as I was pulling back into our driveway, Lisa was shooing the last of the workers and our contractor away from the villa. The last stones had been laid minutes before.
As the guests entered our front courtyard, for the first of what would be hundreds of times during our first season, a beaming Lisa flung open open the door and said:
“Hello. Welcome to Villa d’Abruzzo.”
It was awesome.
Next week: So, how do you run a tour company anyway?