One of our worries heading into our first season of operations at our Italian tour company and holiday villa was how groups of people that didn’t know each other were going to get along.
My wife, Lisa Grassi-Blais, and I were worried because our business model sees us book people for week-long tours on a first-come, first-served basis. For some weeks, the result is a group of friends or a family booking the whole villa. Most of the time though, the result is up to 12 strangers spending a week together.
And when I say together, I mean it. They eat Italian-style as a group at long tables in our dining room or on the terrace when the weather is nice. They lounge around our pool as a group. After dinner, they hang out in the living room or linger at the table talking about anything and everything. Also, people on our all-inclusive plan, by far our most popular package, pile into our vans together every day for excursions.
The villa is big and people can, and do, sometimes retire to their rooms, but communal living is the reality at Amazing Abruzzo Tours. Living with people we are familiar with is hard enough. So how was it going to be with strangers? How much people management were we going to have to practice?
It was a concern, but a pattern of bonding amongst the guests started right from the beginning, and I’m happy to say that it continued for the whole season, week after week and group after group.
A great example was the third week of May 2016, our third group after opening April 30th.
That week, we had an artist and his partner, a couple of musicians, a federal prosecutor friend of Lisa’s and the friend’s son, and a woman travelling by herself.
(I will not name these people because I haven’t asked if they are OK with being named in my world-famous blog. I don’t think they’d say no to being named in such a prestigious thing. It’s just that I’m lazy and didn’t bother contacting them before my Monday morning publishing schedule.)
I will say, however, that they ranged in age from 20 to somewhere north of 60, and all were from our hometown of Ottawa.
At first, they were polite with each other and gave each other space, but over a couple of meals and after dinner drinks in the lounge, people started interacting. After a couple of days, it was like they’d known each other for years and a collegial atmosphere took over the villa, like a fraternity or sorority, but for middle-aged people. (Bottles of wine instead of kegs of beer, steaks instead of hotdogs, and everybody in bed before midnight.)
One night after dinner, the musicians played a couple of songs for the artist and his partner’s anniversary. By that time, we all knew they had become a couple later in life after some earlier relationships ended. They’d found each other.
All of us were sitting in the lounge listening, and it was lovely, but when the musicians started in on the Etta James classic At Last, the emotional level in the room ramped up considerably. Some of us, myself included, were outright weeping. It was beautiful in a way that can only happen if all the people involved – the principles and the witnesses – really care for each other.
Just days before, nobody knew each. Now we were overwhelmed with happiness for our friends.
It didn’t stop there either. Repeatedly last year, we watched people arrive as strangers, work themselves into a cohesive group, and leave as friends, sometimes good friends.
Part of the reason I think this happened is that 80 per cent of our guests are Canadians, and I find most Canadians are friendly, adaptable and accommodating people. Another part of the reason is likely that most of the people who come to see us in Abruzzo are well travelled. They’ve been around, and they know they are having a unique, off-the-beaten-track experience in a small group setting that most tourists never get a chance to participate in. So, they make it work.
But many guests have also told us that they think it works because of the tone Lisa and I set.
This is satisfying.
In our professional careers in Canada, Lisa was a defence lawyer and then federal prosecutor, and I was a journalist and then a strategist for the City of Ottawa, mostly trying to figure ways to deal with problems. Our daily routines dealt with conflict and negativity and part of the reason we quit our jobs, sold our house, and started our business in Italy was to get away from the heaviness of that kind of work.
Instead of jail sentences, deadlines, and the stress of the modern workplace, we wanted our daily challenges to be finding the best ways to make our guests' experiences as rich as possible. We wanted to work in a milieu of nice things, pleasant experiences, and beauty.
So, we set out to create a comfortable, warm, and inclusive atmosphere for our guests. A friendly place where people could feel at home and relaxed. A place where you don’t worry about breaking a glass. A place where people feel they can be themselves.
On the last night of our first season with 12 of us at the dining room table, one of our guests said he and his wife, a pair of introverts, were taken aback when they arrived and realized how much interaction they were to have with the other guests. But he said the welcoming, friendly atmosphere created by Lisa and me and everybody who works with us smoothed out any potential rough spots, and that they had thoroughly enjoyed one of the most unique and rewarding vacations they’d ever had.
I don’t worry about how groups of strangers are going to get along anymore.
Next week: What’s with all this rain?