Many years ago, when such a thing didn’t exist, I started up a magazine for parents. I had my first son very young, none of my friends were even thinking about starting a family, and I found it difficult to find the information I needed – bear in mind this was also before you could just look things up on the internet. The magazine became a kind of ‘word of mouth’ in print. Readers could recommend anything from schools, to toys, to babysitting services, or even plumbers, and we would include them alongside articles on children’s health, education and so forth. From being a kitchen table job, where I had to teach myself page layout software and do everything myself the magazine grew very quickly, ending up as a glossy monthly, on sale everywhere before eventually being sold on as a business.
My adventures in travel started the same way. I was working more than full time, juggling work and family. As a magazine editor and journalist, one of the perks of the job was lots of ‘free’ holidays with my children. I came to the conclusion, at the time, and things have changed now, that no one really did family friendly travel well, or at least not how I wanted it, as a parent. I needed a break but I also wanted to spend quality time with my children. There were kids clubs and ‘supervised playrooms’ but I felt guilty leaving my children there and they didn’t want to be left. I grew up in Rome, which perhaps influenced my parenting style, but, as my children got beyond the high chair stage, I wanted them to be able to come to ‘grown up dinner’ as a treat, not forced to eat fish fingers at ‘children’s tea’. I also wanted some time to myself and some time with my partner. Self catering gave more freedom, but was hard work…
My first travel company was created to provide what I wanted as a parent. We had cottage rentals where someone came in the morning to get the children up and play with them downstairs while parents had a lie in. Breakfast in bed? No problem. A visiting massage therapist? Sure. Both the cottages, and the hotel breaks I organized had playrooms that were so well equipped, with so much ‘eye candy’ for children and staffed with such carefully chosen nannies, that the children left their parents without a backward glance. Parents, of course, were equally welcome to stay and play themselves. When I moved to Puglia we organized cooking lessons and activities for the whole family, or just the children, and restaurant lunches where there were staff on hand to take the children off for a play and an icecream when they got bored, leaving the adults to enjoy the same kind of long leisurely Italian lunch that they loved before they became parents…
The feedback was terrific, things went fantastically until I made the mistake of picking just one hotel to base the holidays in. In the past I had organized breaks in over twenty hotels in the U.K – the odd venue had let the side down and I had to work twice as hard to make the break work well but, by and large, I was lucky. In my first year based completely in Puglia I managed to pick a venue which made Fawlty Towers look efficiently run, the owners of which, in the most cynical way possible, saw me coming. Agreed costs spiralled and this time I couldn’t keep up, or make it work, though I worked myself into the ground trying to. Guests fell into two categories, those who appreciated everything my team were doing to make a perfect holiday for them, and those who waited until the end of the holiday to complain about the hotel and then refused to pay their bills for nannies, taxis or other extras. It was a nightmare and didn’t end well. I can completely see what my part in the whole process was, and I definitely learned a lot, but it left me really feeling like I didn’t ever want to go back.
I have worked in tourism since, organizing made to measure holidays for people, doing consultancy for hotels, villa agencies and villa owners as well as P.R for the town, province and region in which I now live. More recently I have been doing far less with travel and more with property, helping people to find their dream house in Puglia and then project managing work on the property. Probably because of my past experience I have kept things quite small and low profile.
All of which is about to change. Dealing with specific holiday requests, and not being able to always find the perfect solution, staying in hotels or bed and breakfasts, while researching articles, and just observing the market as a whole makes me feel there is a gap in the market here in Puglia. There are some fantastically luxurious hotels, with prices to match, offering a very high level of personal service and beautiful surroundings. There are some excellent family run bed and breakfasts or Masserias offering a high level of personal service at mid range to low prices, but without the luxury, and often furnished in a somewhat Ikea meets kitsch folk art sort of way. In between those there are some funny hybrids, places that are extremely beautiful and well appointed, with almost no services at all, still at a moderate price. Increasing consumer use of sites such as Booking.com doesn’t help the situation as it creates a kind of price war. Venues with good reviews have still, through a third party site, to pay commission and compete for business, which they do by offering lower and lower prices. The services they can afford to offer suffer as a result unless they are a five star hotel with a huge P.R budget, or know how to promote themselves to ‘foreign’ tourists, something which few know how to do here.
Family groups, or groups of friends travelling together, can rent a villa and do it themselves, at an affordable price, or have a villa with services laid on at a high price. Either way, these villas are invariably in the countryside, making car hire and ‘designated drivers’ essential. I have found it particularly difficult trying to organize small events for groups particularly because, apart from the transport problem (local taxis are expensive) it is very difficult to find suitable accommodation sleeping more than 8 people with good communal spaces unless you have an exceptionally high budget.
Adding to the mix what I want as a consumer, and I can’t be alone in this, I like my creature comforts, my physical surroundings are important to me and I like being able to have what I want when I want it . Better still I love not having to think about what I might want because it is already there, or because there is someone to anticipate my needs. Even if I could afford to stay in five star hotels all the time, I don’t actually like most of them once I step outside my gorgeous bedroom. I find hot and cold running flunkeys and formal ‘service’ off putting. The only way you can really offer personal service in a large, or even largish, hotel is to have staff constantly hovering. I don’t find that relaxing and the resulting service tends to be ‘one size fits all’ unless you are paying the kind of prices which I wouldn’t feel comfortable paying, even if it were possible for me.
So my next project will make use of all my past experiences, and the know how I have acquired over the years. It starts off with a property renovation, and ends up as a boutique hotel, large enough to accommodate a small group for exclusive use, small enough to offer a truly personalized service. The surroundings will be beautiful, and luxurious in an orthodox way although, for me, true luxury resides in the service offered and being able to relax totally. The price will be mid range, something made possible by a parallel activity that justifies the number of staff required and the set up costs.
Parents and their children will, of course, be catered for exceptionally well but there will also be child free periods, outside school holidays, with a focus on food, wine and everything which makes Puglia special. For the first time ever I can be in control of the whole holiday ‘package’, not just my side of it.
Can I do it? Yes, I am sure I can. I have never run a hotel before, but I have reviewed hundreds and, sometimes, coming at something from the outside gives you a different, and innovative edge. I will also have a lot of help from people within the business. My youngest child is now 16, which means I will be able to dedicate the necessary time and effort to make it work. Is the idea scary? Yes of course – at the moment I alternate between terror and excitement but excitement is winning out and they do say feel the fear and do it anyway….
If you may be interested in investing in this project, or joining us as a future guest, see more details on the project here… and watch this space……