For nearly 80 years, Perillo Tours has kept it in the family

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Devin Buonanno, left, is Perillo Tours' Hawaii regional director. He is the heir apparent to succeed his uncle, Steve Perillo, right, as company CEO.
Devin Buonanno, left, is Perillo Tours' Hawaii regional director. He is the heir apparent to succeed his uncle, Steve Perillo, right, as company CEO. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Perillo Tours

Perillo Tours is going where few family-owned and -operated tour companies have gone before: the fourth generation.

After 78 years in operation, the company has stood the test of time, surviving wars, economic recessions, a pandemic and possibly its biggest threat to date: being bought out by a larger company.

"Three generations is hard," said Steve Perillo, CEO and owner of Perillo Tours. "The fourth generation is the hardest thing in business to attain." He still marvels at the company's resilience while the number of mom-and-pop tour businesses has dwindled over the years. 

Perillo is the grandson of Joseph Perillo, who started Perillo Tours in the 1940s, and the son of Mario Perillo, the second-generation owner whose "Mr. Italy" TV and radio commercials raised the company's profile in the 1980s and '90s.

Enter Devin Buonanno, Steve Perillo's 26-year-old nephew and heir apparent to the Perillo Tours business, which is best known for specializing in custom tours to Italy but also offers Spain and Hawaii. 

Buonanno currently serves as Perillo Tours' Hawaii regional director, overseeing product development for the destination. 

Buonanno said he got his start with Perillo Tours when he was still a child, through his love of traveling to Italy with his mother and siblings every year. 

"I just got hooked on traveling," Buonanno recalled. "I'm a big sports fan, too. I like traveling around the country to see my sports teams in different cities."

But spending time with his family has been Buonanno's biggest motivator in joining the family trade.

"I just love the whole family aspect of it with my uncle and my grandfather and my great-grandfather. I'm a big family person," Buonanno said.

Business is now good for Perillo, but the past two years were the hardest the company has faced since the business opened in 1945.

Closed international borders brought business to a halt in Italy and Spain; Hawaii bookings did relatively well comparatively; however, those sales weren't enough to make up for the huge losses in Europe.

But government-issued Covid relief funds kept the lights on at Perillo Tours. Now, on the heels of those hard-hitting pandemic years, it's in position to make a profit in 2022.

The tour operator has a smaller staff, will benefit from small-business tax breaks and is seeing booking numbers climb again, even though they're still operating at 50% of their pre-pandemic levels.

The company -- which continued to run its TV ads pre-pandemic, with Steve taking the place of his father, who died in 2003 -- was also forced to cut its marketing budget and no longer spends money on advertising. It's a decision Perillo can probably live with. After all, who needs advertising when your commercials have been immortalized in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, with Adam Sandler playing the role of "Joe Romano," right down to every last bearded detail?

"It was a very, very big deal," Perillo said. "That kind of stuff, it only happens once in a lifetime." 

Perillo Tours will launch its first tours in Greece next year, and bookings will be available online this month.

And soon, travel advisors will also be able to take advantage of the Perillo Trip Planner, a digital library of 25 professionally curated Italy tours that will enable travel advisors to customize and create multicity itineraries and make selections from activities, hotels, car rentals, rail and airfare.

"You can edit it into any form you want," Perillo said. "We have a team of eight travel agents who we're giving a 20% commission to work the system over and really put it through its paces." Trip Planner is expected to launch in January. 

In his current role, Buonanno says he's busy working on his passion project: crafting independent itineraries in Hawaii. He used to want to expand Perillo Tours' destination offerings all over the world but says his Uncle Steve reminded him of something. 

"I'll never forget it. He said, 'You have to stay true to who you are. We're not going to be known as Italy's No. 1 tour operator and we're going to lose our niche if you experience all these destinations,'" Buonanno said. "I want to have the same mindset. That's very important to me." 

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