About two years ago, I started thinking about this year's vacation in the company of more than 30 clients.
An informal poll had suggested that they wanted to return to Italy. Yet again.
But this time, we determined we would highlight contemporary life and food with zero church or historical building visits. A while back I coined a name for this: "Contemporary Lifestyle Touring." Over the years, I have been fascinated by its appeal, particularly to the vast majority of well-traveled clients who have been to a destination previously.
But thinking about it is the first of many steps. Given the time devoted to planning every detail of this tour down to menu selections took so much of my time that the trip became a kind of obsession. I've lived in Italy. It is my second home. I would be traveling with some of our best clients, several going back with us three decades. I had to get it right.
As you may recall, we started taking our annual vacation with a few dozen clients 28 years ago. Over the years, I've found that planning a land tour is far more involved than planning a group cruise.
I like to ask full-time practitioners if they ever travel with their clients. I believe that it is an essential element in understanding what one's clients want -- and more importantly, don't want -- when they travel.
There are a few important steps in laying out one's own tour.
The first is listing the kinds of experiences you would like included. You then have to find a contact overseas who can operationalize the program, and you have to find that rare species of tour guide who can speak comfortably about contemporary life rather than give the same memorized historical narrative they have been spouting for many years.
We knew the right on-site office, and we had one escort in mind. Paola is an old friend, lives in Florence and loves talking about "real life."
After we got the group settled in at Bologna's best hotel, smack in the center of everything, I met with Paola downstairs to review our upcoming arrangements and to ask her a question that had occurred to me on the flight over.
"Are the Italian papers talking a lot about Trump, and what do they seem to think are his main issues?"
Paola took a sip of her aperitif and said, "Well, Richard, there is a lot written about his ties. Many articles and conversations on the talk shows. The Italians think his ties are about two inches too long, and we wonder why no one tells him this. Also, it is clear that he uses something to keep his tie stuck together, like glue or a clip. We think that is very strange. Not at all fashionable."
That is the moment I knew I was back home in Italy.
The next day, we drove out to Maranello, the home of Ferrari. We were able to get through the locked gates with a private tour of the spotless, hospital-clean production and design campus. Then we rounded a corner to find seven red Ferraris waiting for us to drive, with a Ferrari instructor in the passenger seat of each. Every person in our group had the opportunity to drive a late production model on the streets and highways of Maranello.
One of our clients, whom I had always viewed as a bit conservative, reported to me that she had "hit 120k" on one straight stretch of road. When she asked the instructor if he was concerned about the police, she said he responded, "Oh no, we have an arrangement with them."
That is what I remember most about Italy. There always seems to be a way to work things out.