We’d planned heavily for the opening of our tour company and holiday villa in the Abruzzo region of Italy. We had an operating plan, a financial plan, a business plan, and plans for various types of challenges we might face.
We’d developed a menu and a schedule for the villa. We’d had different groups of friends and acquaintances come for test runs, and we’d tried out our various day trips with our guide Luca.
We’d done what we could to get ready, but the truth is that on the day our first guests arrived on April 30, 2016, my wife, Lisa Grassi-Blais and I had exactly zero experience running a tour company and holiday villa.
That’s right, we’d quit our secure jobs in Ottawa, Canada, sold our house and belongings, and bet our futures on a country we’d never lived in, running a business, something we’d never done, in an industry we knew little about.
This inexperience meant we would be relying heavily on Luca and our chef Cesidia for success in two key areas of the operations – food and tours.
Our first group of guests were five ladies, three on our all-inclusive package and two on our simple bed and breakfast plan.
From the start, Cesidia was a star. The food was delicious and her big and bright personality won over our first guests immediately. Cesidia spoke no English when we opened. She still doesn’t speak much, but it didn’t matter, and it still doesn’t.
Morning and night, she showed up early, prepared excellent meals based on authentic Abruzzese recipes and ingredients, and cleaned up the dining room and kitchen in minutes. She even ran a gnocchi cooking class with Lisa interpreting when a rainy day altered our tour plans.
Cesidia had been head chef at a convention centre located in our town’s castle where she regularly cooked for a couple hundred people. We later found out she was the preferred chef of the local Cardinal who would only book the centre if he was assured she would be cooking. Unannounced, the Cardinal even stopped by her house for pasta one night.
So it wasn’t surprising that she knew her stuff in the kitchen.
What was surprising was her giant personality and warmth.
We’d known Cesidia for a couple of years, so we knew she was a lot of fun, but when the first guests arrived, she became electric. Her smile became bigger and her laughter deeper. It was as if all the quintessential Italian grandmother traits, including the dazzling cooking, were packed into her body, and she was releasing the flood gates.
And our guests loved it that as Cesidia performed her magic, she did it wearing high heels and pearls and dressed like she was going dancing after.
So, check that box, the food aspect of our business was covered – and more.
For our tours, nervous Nellie me insisted on going out with Luca and the guests the first couple of days to make sure everything went well. I shouldn’t have worried.
I’d studied Abruzzo’s history, culture, and the important aspects of the various tours stops we’d planned. So, I was confident I could run the tours, but it was clear that Luca was more than my match.
Even though at the time he sometimes struggled to find the right words in English, he clearly had that extra thing a native tour guide has over an interloper like me. He didn’t just know the history and culture, he was the history and culture.
“My last name, Santovito, is actually a Greek name, and I come from the Frentani tribe, so my people have been here about 3000 years,” he said one day in the car.
That’s like saying "the history of the Italian peninsula since well before the rise of Rome runs in my blood." You really can’t get more authentically Italian than Luca Santovito, and, you could see, our guests immediately understood this.
Even better, it became clear that Luca truly wanted the guests to be comfortable and contented while in his care. He made sure the tour pace was just right, that people had enough food and water, that they were comfortable with his driving, and that there were enough bathroom breaks. Every hour or so, he asked each guest if everything was OK.
Earlier, I had told him that I thought all good tour guides know their stuff, but the great ones also make sure their guests are comfortable. So at first, I thought Luca had really taken this to heart. But after observing him in the field for a few days, I saw that caring for people just came naturally to him. Now, after a full season and 200 or so guests, I honestly think we might have hired the most empathetic 27-year-old man in Italy.
Luca truly wants everybody around him to be happy and at peace. If they are not, Luca senses this, seeks out the problem and tries his best to address it.
After a few days, it was clear there was absolutely no need for me to go out on tour with Luca. If anything, I was a distraction. Luca had the tours covered – and more.
That first week, we realized that we’d lucked out with our two main employees. Luca and Cesidia were naturals and professionals and fantastic at their jobs. Knowing this really made us feel good as we plunged into the unknown.
Next week – Jake makes a mistake, but the guests are gracious.