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
"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
• 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
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].