The Italian Concierge is one of the country's leading tour operators and trip planners. It specizlies in custom itineraries to Italy, a passion for owner Joyce Falcone
Falcone has been in business for more than two decades, earning top industry recognition along the way. Among her prestigious accolades: multiple years as a Conde Nast Traveler Italy Specialist and a Travel + Leisure A-List agent.
About.com spoke with Falcone about her background, motivation and vision for The Italian Concierge.
Q: How did the interest in Italy come about?
A: I always had intense love for the Italian culture. It was instilled in me by my father. All four of my grandparents were Italian immigrants who came to the States in the 1900's. I grew up hearing colloquial Italian spoken around the house. That inspired a curiousity in me. I went to school in Siena, which increased my interest. It was the typical junior year abroad.
Q: When did you decide to enter the travel business?
A: In the early 1990's, I became invovled in travel through a fluke. I was at a job I didn't like. I came upon an add for a tour guide for Country Walkers. I applied for the position, not knowing exactly what I had applied to. A week later they asked me to go to Vermont to interview.
I was holding a ticket to Argentina at the time. I had been planning to go there for a few months. I went to Vermont instead and interviewed with Country Walkers. I started with them in Italy a short time later.
Oddly enough, I was working in Aspen in a ski area which only had winter and summer work. The opportunity to be a tour guide during spring and fall was a way to get through the year.
Q: What did that first job in Italy entail?
A: For two years I escorted groups of Americans. Ten groups per year. I was a hiking guide all over Tuscany, up in the Lake District and down in Sicily. It really expanded my depth of knowledge and I loved it.
Later on I interviewed with some big companies based in San Francisco such as Geographic Expeditions, Backroads and Wilderness Travel. I worked with Wilderness Travel leading large groups. Eventually I worked with Smithsonian Study Tours and got into tour design. I helped to create new itineraries.
Q: That must have helped you establish your own company.
A: It did morph into my own company. I began designing small group itineraries in 1999. I started selling them direct to consumers utilizing a small client list. From that it expanded and grew. I did everything I could to make myself known. Internet marketing, presentations in agencies, small group public speaking and power points.
Q: What kind of marketing do you do now?
A: We blog. We're on Twiter and Instagram. It's important to get a lot of visuals out there with a destination like Italy. We redesigned our website and that has helped tremendously. We also use Google Adwords, in combination with other tools.
A lot of our business is repeat clientele and referrals. We do a newsletter every month that gets passed around to quite a few people.
Q: How big is your company as far as personnel?
A: I have someone who goes back and forth to Italy for us. She spends half the year there. She's an Amalfi Coast and Campagna specialist. And I have someone else who does back office for me.
I'm up by 5:00 or 5:30 am dealing with our contacts in Italy and getting paperwork done. I'm on duty pretty much all of the time. It helps to be bilingual.
In this business, you have to be dedicated and love what you do. You do it no mater what the economy does or what other operators are doing.
Q: Your Italian heritage also must play a big role in your success.
A: Part of the joy for me is to be able to express myself and understand the perspective of Italians. I can share that perspective with our clients because I've developed relationships with so many vendors in Italy,
The entire country works on personalized relationships. I go over and meet everyone to make sure they know me. That forms a basis of trust. I make the rounds and communicate with them in their language.
Q: Do you consider yourself a travel agent or a tour operator?
A: I don't consider myself an agent. I learned the business by walking the country and I invented the office part. Mostly I consider us a boutique tour operator. We sell packages to clients and agencies for them to sell to clients directly.
One thing that makes us different is that we don't sell other companies' products. We design everything using drivers and tour guides that we know personally.
Q: Is that personal touch one of your major points of distinction?
A: We really take the time to vet ever aspect of the trips we put together. That means going to all the hotels, seeing what the beds are like, taking all the tours. We know what the roads are like in different parts of the country. We can provide the kind of details that people want. And these days people are looking for much more than a generic coach tour. They want somethiing memorable when they travel.
We visit obscure cheesemakers, go to out-of-the-way wineries. It's those kinds of finds that set us apart. And that's what people are asking for.
Q: What kind of growth are you experiencing at the moment?
A: In the past few years we've seen a consistent 25-30 percent increase per year. It's been a real solid uphill trend recently. We're really pleased about that.
Q: What travel trends are you seeing for Italy?
We're also getting a lot of honeymooners.
Another trend is that people want active vacations. By that I mean not simply a bus ride. They want to experience a little of everything, from cycling to walking. Most people don’t want a lot of history included. But they do want a lot of food and wine. They want everything and all sorts of things, such as the chance to drive a fancy sportscar for a day.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone planning a trip to Italy?
A: Remember that Italy is wildly popular and you're going to need a lot of lead time for much of the year. It can be hard to get rooms if you wait too long. We deal with boutique hotels. Some have less than 35 rooms. My philosophy has been to source and promote small boutique hotels under 50 rooms. Most of our clients are in the luxury market, they're looking for four and five-star properties. I shy away from American affiliates for the most part and try to go with smaller Italian properties.
These are properties that the whole world loves. They have great character and architectural integriy. You want to book at least five moths out. Otherwise you'll find that they're sold out or only have suites left.
Winter you can have shorter window. A month out can still sometimes be ok. Once it gets cold you have an easier time finding hotel rooms. But remember that many hotels close during the winter, especially if they're near a lake.
Q: What kinds of things do you need to know before you plan an itinerary?
A: We need to know where the clients have been before and what type of trip they looking for in terms of quality. It doesn't need to be explained in dollar value. But it's important to know the types of travel experiences they've had and what they're used to.
For example, how much free time do they need? How much handholding do they need? Is it their first trip to Italy or their tenth trip?
Also, if they can come to us with a budget that helps. If we're working with an agent we don't speak directly to the client. The agent gives us as much information as possible about the clients, their ages, fitness levels, and the like. We want to suggest the right activities.
Q: When is the best time to visit Italy?
A: Some of the best travel weeks start May 15. All of the schoolkids aren’t out yet, so you don’t have an influx of families taking up a lot of space. Actually mid-May to the first week of June is a very good period. Otherwise, the fall is a good time. It's fabulous actually. You have great wine harvests from mid September through the end of October. It's one of the best times to be in Europe.
Q: What are some of your most popular itineraries?
A: We design mini trip modules that can be combined together. One popular one is three days in western Tuscany. We visit the Theater of Silence, in Lajatico, Tuscany. It's the hometown of Andrea Bocelli. He started the theater, which is an open air amphitheater, to bring commerce to his home town.
You'll find pockets of beauty all over the country. Places that go back hundreds of years that still have the old charm. But, there's a high-tech new Italy there are well. In just about every town you see renovations that mixing old architectural features with new high tech design aspects.
Q: What about train travel. That's really come a long way in recent years, right?
A: Yes, it's very convenient. The Italo and Eurostar high-speed trains really have brought the country closer together for the visitor. For those travelers who want fool-proof logistics, they're an especially good choice. It's a breeze to visit the three art cities by train. Florence or Venice can be done as a day trip or a spider trip very easily.
For first-time travelers we provide an itinerary to the three art cities and maybe a day or two in the Tuscan countryside. Any agent can sell it.
For more unique destinations such as Puglia or Sicily, it's harder for an agent to sell unless they've made the trip themselves. It really requires personal knowledge in order to embellish it with details.