By the end of the second week of operating our tour company and vacation villa in the Abruzzo Region of Italy, things were going great. Guest were loving the tours, our villa, the food, the wine and generally enjoying themselves.

But despite this, my wife Lisa Grassi-Blais and I were deliriously tired and I was approaching hair falling out stress and anxiety levels.

This was not good. We’d dumped our careers in Canada, sold our house and staked our future on a tourism business in the area of Italy Lisa’s grandfather was born in.

This thing had to work, and it was, but it was killing us, and we were starting to worry that we weren’t cut out for running such a business.

It was a low point, but some pep talk/counselling sessions from a couple of concerned guests helped us start to turn things around.

The facts were that between 2012 and 2016, we’d struggled to get our villa renovated and the business running. We had construction delays, massive cost overruns, language challenges and more while we continued working and living full time in Canada and trying to manage our project in Italy from afar at the same time.

Furthermore, from July 2015, after moving to Italy, to our opening in May 2016, we put in extremely long days addressing the myriad of things we needed to get done while struggling to grab a couple of hours sleep each night.

We made our opening date, and that felt great, but the truth is we were running on fumes. On top of that, we didn’t know what we were doing.

So, we kept up with the long days finishing off projects on the villa and added a layer of hyper-sensitivity to the wants and needs of our guests. Basically, we hovered around them from early morning until they went to bed incessantly asking them if there were comfortable, if they needed anything, if they had concerns, if they had questions, or whatever came into our sleep deprived heads.

With our future riding on it, we wanted the guests’ experiences to be perfect. Honestly, I would have wipe their butts if they asked.

I also succumbed to one of my favourite anxiety-ridden thought patterns – thinking negatively about things without evidence to support the negative conclusion.

You get it. Things weren’t good.

I thought we were doing a good job hiding this state of affairs, but our weariness and worry showed. And that’s when two of our guests, a couple from our hometown of Ottawa, took it upon themselves to give us a hand.

First, the husband, who I will call Brian Keller because that’s his name, asked me to go for a drink at a bar in our town of Torre de’Passeri. During this session, he asked me questions about the business, how bookings were, how I was feeling, things we were going to do in the future, and where we saw ourselves in five years. He gave good constructive feedback, not all blindingly positive, but encouraging.

He concluded by telling me he and his wife Lynne had travelled the world and that the experience they were having with us ranked right up there with some of their best vacations. He said he thought we had a good thing going business-wise, and that we should up our prices soon. Later, I told this to Lisa and it made us feel better – more confident – about our business plan and operations.  

The second counselling session came over dinner near the end of the week. Praise for the business came again, and then Lynne and Brian changed the subject to us. We talked about the struggle to get open, the effort, the long hours, and they emphasized that we need to find ways to relax and rest.

“I just don’t think you can sustain this level of involvement in everything,” Brian said. “That’s the only thing I can see that is a real risk here.”

I just about cried at one point as things became very clear to me.

Our health, mental and physical, was now inextricable linked to the health of the business on which we’d staked our future. We’d wanted to open a vacation villa and tour company in Italy and it was a success, but the cost of that success (basically our emotional well-being) was so unsustainable, it was the chief threat to the business itself.

Just like the bricks and mortar and the business and operating plans, we needed to be strong too, and we weren’t. It was that simple. But with exhaustion blurring things, it was hard to see at that point, and they helped us see it. 

Getting things back into balance didn’t happen right away, but from that moment on, we tried to be more confident about the business and, more importantly, we started looking for ways to conserve energy and get healthy.

It took the rest of our opening season, but by the fall we were much stronger, and the turning point was our talks with Lynne and Brian.

They didn’t know us at the time, and they didn’t have to do it. They could have simply finished out their vacation and went home. But they didn’t. The helped us.

Thanks for that Lynne and Brian.

Next Week: When strangers bond.