Tuscan firm strives to capture low-key traveler

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NEW YORK -- As the longtime U.S. rage for all things Tuscan continues unabated -- as evidenced by the recent $42 million box office take of the film "Under the Tuscan Sun" -- Italian suppliers are striving to meet tourism demand while preserving the rural culture and ecology of the region.

They're being aided in those efforts by the increased popularity of so-called "slow tourism," whereby more independent vacationers are settling in at traditional, low-key properties for longer stays, usually indulging in local pastimes such as olive- and grape-picking or cooking classes.

A leader in this trend toward low-impact but highly lucrative individual tourism is Tomasso Zanzotto, managing partner and president of Toscana Ville Castelli and Golf, an 8-year-old company that owns and operates restored villas, castles, hotels and a golf resort in the Florence area.

Zanzotto is a 30-year trade veteran, having served as president of American Express' international division and as chairman and CEO of Hilton International. He's also now one of Tuscany's biggest proponents -- and purveyors -- of what he terms "rural residential tourism," which he believes can be a balm on the irritants of 21st-century urban living.

"Rural country life can give the individual traveler time to relax and appreciate [life]," he said. "There is a tendency and desire among people to get closer to one another and to the countryside and rural realities."

Zanzotto aims to tap that trend by developing Tuscan properties and vacation products that provide variations on the back-to-basics theme for individuals and small groups.

More travelers want to unpack suitcases just once during their stay, he said.

"The trend in the '60s was visiting 12 European cities in 10 days," he said. "Now, it's a more permanent, local holiday, perhaps Tuscany for seven days."

Castles, villas, farms

With that shift in mind, Toscana Ville Castelli and Golf has spent more than $100 million redeveloping historical -- or, at the very least, venerable -- structures into modernized leisure facilities, where guests typically engage in cultural or experiential activities.

"We want to bring travel back to the experience level, rather than the simple visiting level," said Zanzotto.

The company operates four properties and is constructing two more in the hills around Florence:

• Castello di Santa Maria Novella: Home to the Zanzotto family, this 10th century castle in Chianti offers 20 guest rooms with baths as well as dining, meetings and music rooms and an outdoor pool.

• Villa Tavolese Relais: Set in the village of Marcialla, this intimate, three-villa property, which opened in 1998, boasts 31 rooms and suites. The three buildings include main building Villa Tavolese, Villa Luisa and the smaller Villa Iris.

• Marcialla: Under construction through 2006 as an extension of Villa Tavolese, Marcialla will consist of vacation homes for full- or part-time residents.

• Il Borgo di Villa Bossi-Pucci: This traditional Tuscan village consists of six farm buildings transformed into 29 case, or homes, in the Montespertoli/San Casciano region.

The 100-year-old property also is home to Toscana Ville Castelli's Tuscan Arts and Crafts Campus, which offers a cultural curriculum that includes ceramics, watercolor painting, wine appreciation, conversational Italian lessons, photography, art and history lectures and cooking classes.

• Poggio dei Medici: This golf resort, in the Mugello area some 30 minutes from Florence, offers 47 guest rooms and suites in five renovated farmhouses and the 16th century Villa di Cignano, many with views of the 18-hole golf course designed by professional golfer and designer Baldovino Dassu.

Next year, a resort center opens with a reception venue, a restaurant, a cocktail bar, convention rooms, lounges, shops, a fitness and beauty center and 23 rooms and suites.

Poggio dei Medici also offers an arts-and-crafts curriculum.

• Nebbiano: Scheduled for completion next year, Nebbiano will consist of independent apartments in the Elsa Valley.

Zanzotto said each property was selected based upon its attractiveness, accessibility and proximity to other attractions as well as its integration into the Tuscan landscape.

"You must only do what's possible without imposing your presence," he said. "And within the context of rural realities, that's rehabilitating several smaller buildings rather than one large, towering one."

Branding's still best

Despite Zanzotto's emphasis on small-scale properties; intimate, authentic experiences; and attention to cultural and ecological sensitivities, Toscana Ville Castelli and Golf hasn't eschewed mass-market travel-industry tactics.

The company has allied itself with the Sonesta hotel chain, which markets the rural properties under the Sonesta Hotels and Resorts Tuscany brand.

Zanzotto said he chose the Sonesta branding -- despite the chain's midmarket reputation -- because it's "trusted and representative but not overwhelming."

"The properties help the brand, and the brand helps our properties," he said, adding that Sonesta's relationship with travel agents worldwide was another lure.

"Sonesta can give U.S. agents the highest level of seamless service that can be expected," Zanzotto said, including contact points in the U.S. Sonesta maintains a dedicated travel agent subsite at www.sonesta.com.

Tutoring in Tuscan tastes

In a further show of support to agents, Toscana Ville Castelli and Golf is paying 8% commission on individual bookings -- and 15% for group bookings of at least 32 people -- on its new, seven-night Lessons of Tuscany package.

Priced from $1,875 per person, the deal includes suite accommodations at Il Borgo di Villa Bossi-Pucci; daily, in-room continental breakfast; lunches and dinners at local restaurants and a medieval castle; a Chianti wine tasting; seven cultural lessons; daily sightseeing with transportation; access to all on-site facilities; transfers; and taxes and service fees.

The property also arranges day excursions to Florence, Siena, Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano and Certaldo.

Clients can have an even more exclusive stay with a deluxe version of the package priced from $3,000 per person, double. It offers private, guided excursions; private meals; and private ground transfers.

Both the standard and deluxe rates are good for reservations booked and paid in full by Jan. 31; as of Feb. 1, prices rise to about $2,193 and $3,510, respectively, per person.

Travel agents can book via e-mail at [email protected] or online at www.toscanaitaly.com. Or, contact Sonesta by calling (800) 477-4556 or visiting www.sonesta.com.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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