Italy Perfect, vacation rentals in Italy
This month we profile Italy Perfect, a US-based vacation rental agency owned by two sisters, Lisa and Pat Byrne. They have a close connection with Italy, having lived there as children. They still travel there regularly and know the country intimately. Their primary focus is on the art cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice, with some rentals in well-known locales like Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast, as well.
Italy Perfect is a small, family-run agency that cares about their clients and knows Italy very well. I have known Lisa and Pat for several years and highly recommend them.
The Sisterhood of Traveling in Europe
On the surface it may seem surprising that sisters Pat and Lisa Byrne both left high-powered careers to start a vacation rental agency. Pat was a high tech marketing executive and Lisa a public relations executive for Apple Computer, both with master's degrees from The American Graduate School of International Management, and had reached a high level of success in their respective fields.
But travel in Europe - and vacation rentals in particular - is apparently in their genes. Their sister Madelyn started Paris Perfect, a boutique agency managing apartments in the City of Lights, in the mid-90s, inspiring and enticing Pat and Lisa into the field in 2003. Madelyn, a former banker, and her French husband also operate London Perfect, while another sister, Carolyn, came on board as a manager in Paris. That's four sisters running vacation rentals agencies in Europe! There are two other Byrne girls who have so far kept their original careers.
"The vacation rental business is a second career for all us of," Lisa told us. "Our parents loved to travel and packed up all six kids to explore the world whenever possible. My father's career took us all over; Italy is the country where we spent the most time growing up, and we all think of it as our second home. We fondly remember trips to Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and London, as well as Hong Kong, Bangkok and North Africa."
She added that the family owned a Volkswagen minibus while living in Italy, the biggest vehicle you could buy at the time, and packed the family of eight into it. "Onlookers thought we were a traveling girls' school!"
Lisa started Italy Perfect after an extended family vacation there reminded her of its charms. "I realized how much I missed Italy and regretted that I didn't get to go more often. Madelyn's Paris rental business was flourishing and, after brainstorming, we saw an opportunity to fill a need for good rental properties in Italy," she said.
It all started with one property, a house in Florence belonging to a friend. "I offered my services to help him get some bookings since he'd been disappointed with the results to date," says Lisa. With advice from Madelyn, she launched Italy Perfect with that single property while keeping her "day job" as a public relations consultant. "The owner of Casetta Bonsi is now practically a member of our family and we fondly refer to him as our big brother. By 2008, the business had grown to the point where I was able to devote my full attention to Italy Perfect."
Pat came onboard in 2005, bringing marketing savvy and several years experience as a travel agent along with her. Both sisters speak Italian fluently. "We love being our own bosses, and the fact that 'work' takes us to Italy several times a year. Many of the property owners we represent are long-time family friends, so it is a reunion when we are in Italy."
Italy Perfect continues to grow and add new properties every year, but the business is still very much a family affair. Lisa and Pat's sons are computer experts and give technical advice and assistance. A sister-in-law keeps the availability calendars up-to-date. Lisa's daughter helps with decorating the apartments, and the husbands help with accounting and the website, "and, most importantly," she quips, "driving and navigating in Italy when they join us on property inspection trips!" Two nieces recently joined in, handling reservations and copy editing.
A Penchant for Perfection
Italy Perfect's primary focus is on the renowned art cities – Rome, Florence, and Venice, where they seek out charming apartments in central locales. They know the cities well and can dole out plentiful advice about each of them to their clients. They also offer country homes in Tuscany and seaside properties on the Amalfi Coast.
While there are many agencies with longer inventory lists, Pat and Lisa take a more perfectionist approach, representing only properties that meet their standards, giving them a sort of boutique appeal.
"We carefully choose our properties with the perspective of a foreigner who wants an authentic vacation rental experience in an excellent location, but who also does not want to give up the comforts of home, such as a comfy sofa, a well-equipped kitchen, ample reading lights, quality bedding, and nice decor."
Location is the most important factor in their decision to represent a property. "If the location is good, then we look at layout and features, such as terraces or views, how recently the kitchen and bathrooms were updated, and the willingness of the owner to make improvements and maintain the property. We are averse to apartments with low ceilings, odd layouts, too many steps, a tired appearance, or those that lack character or interest," Lisa said.
They have no problem finding properties; Lisa reports that they have a long list of owner referrals and independent inquiries from owners, but says they turn down many properties because they don't meet their standards. "Other agencies may ensure the reservation is done properly; we do our best to ensure a quality experience throughout." To do that, Lisa and Pat personally hand-pick and inspect every home, choosing only those that they would stay in themselves. "We screen out properties that would be a disappointment for our guests, choosing those that will delight them. We often laughingly say that we should start a blog of 'disappointing properties we have inspected in Italy that you won't find in our offerings'. We don't have a large selection of homes, but we like each one for its nice qualities."
Both sisters have an eye for detail and can see the potential in properties, often taking a firm hand in persuading owners to upgrade or modify furnishings and decor to make them more appealing and comfortable for guests.
Setting Their Sites on Service
Italy Perfect maintains highly detailed descriptions and photo-rich visuals for each property to give potential guests an accurate view before booking. Maps pinpoint the locations. They even reveal the potential detractions of a property, such as being located on a busy street or noisy piazza, or having less comfortable furniture. "We document and carefully photograph each property so that guests have a good idea of what to expect, including kitchen equipment, lighting, closet space, mattresses, as well as the character of the neighborhood. Many properties have more than thirty photos. We have started adding videos too, providing a virtual walk-through. We try to be as forthcoming as possible with any possible shortcoming."
Lisa is eager to point out the benefits of the website but also encourages clients to call to ask questions and get expert advice. "There are certain aspects that are best discussed over the phone, such as mobility issues and which apartments are best for families with children. We can help clients narrow down their choices based on their individual requirements and preferences, and will give them a frank assessment of each property."
The website offers a blog with some helpful trip planning articles, including a run-down of elevators in Italy ("temperamental"), food shopping for vacation renters (includes a shopping list and quick meals ideas), and a listing of which apartments are near the locales from Angels and Demons.
Pat also runs Kids Europe, a resources portal for traveling in Europe with children.
As for service, Pat and Lisa can lay on the extras. Since they know Italy so well, they are able to make a wealth of recommendations for sights, drives and restaurants. They can recommend rental car companies, travel insurance providers, cell phone rentals, and hook people up with private drivers or resources for museum tickets and private tours. And, they require each property to have an English-speaking greeter or owner who can be contacted should problems arise.
Based on their in-depth expertise, we asked Lisa where clients should look if they want an off-the-beaten path experience. "In Rome we like the area near the Borghese Gardens as it is a bit less touristy and is close to the gardens, which is nice for walking. Monti is also a great neighborhood to discover. In Florence, if you want to get off the beaten path, we like the Bobolino neighborhood, which is behind the majestic Boboli Gardens, just at the edge of the historic center but it feels like you're in the Tuscan countryside since it is open and green, and you can walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo for stunning views of Florence."
The Joys (and Pitfalls) of Vacation Rentals
The most commonly cited advantages of ditching a hotel for a vacation rental are comfort level, cultural experience, and overall value. It's nice to have space to spread out, a kitchen to cook in, and the chance to live like a local by interacting with the neighbors and shopping in the local stores. But, Lisa cautions, there are a few issues to keep in mind. "Most guests embrace the differences of staying in a private residence, but they can be surprised by the cost of utilities, which are extremely high. That's why guests are often responsible for paying part, or sometime all, of their electricity and gas usage. It encourages guests to conserve energy and protects owners from exorbitant bills if people are not mindful of the expense."
The matter of supplies is another potential pitfall. While owners typically provide a few essentials to get guests through the first day or so, the traveler is usually responsible for purchasing their own household supplies, such as toilet paper, paper towels, spices, soaps and laundry detergent.
"Third," says Lisa "is that city living can be noisy. Rome, Florence and Venice are bustling cities so if guests are not accustomed to city living they might be surprised hear their neighbor's TV or the sound of motor scooters buzzing down the street at midnight, or the garbage truck early in the morning."
However, she added that they advise clients of all this information in the guest confirmation materials. "The guests who are surprised are the ones who don't read the confirmation materials!"
Other frustrations can include general differences of daily life, like broken escalators, train strikes, lack of public restrooms, and graffiti. However, a vacation rental gives travelers the chance to learn by experience that Italy is a beautiful country and the Italians are warm and friendly. "They love and enjoy life in a way that has nothing to do with money, whether it is a beautifully prepared but simple meal or a leisurely stroll through town to see and be seen. As the Italians say, pazienza, have a little patience with the inefficiencies and learn from Italians' kindness, joy of life, and their strong sense of family."
With the falling dollar, rising Euro, airline fuel surcharges, and overall economic uncertainty over the past two years, Lisa reports that agencies are seeing increased sensitivity to pricing. "Properties fill up later as people delay making plans for longer than usual while they debate costs versus their dreams."
But last minute hold-outs waiting for deals may come up empty, she cautions. "We got a lot of last minute inquiries from people who waited expecting bargains for summer and fall 2009 high season and then became desperate to find something decent since the nice properties were nearly fully booked. The bargains they anticipated didn't materialize. When guests wait until the last minute (for us last minute is about four weeks before arrival) for reservations for the months of May through July and September through October, it is not easy to find nice properties in Rome and Florence. Savvy travelers book about nine months in advance for best selection."
Money-saving advice comes easily: "Avoid hotels and stay in vacation rentals! Stay in one place longer. Moving from place to place gets costly since the per night rate for shorter stays increases, and transportation costs, whether it is train, car or taxi, adds up."
When the dollar makes slight upward gains their phone starts ringing and hits to the website jump. "As airfares have come down recently we have seen a rise in inquiries as people take advantage of lower prices and slightly stronger exchange rates." Despite the economy Lisa says that "people still love to go to Italy to celebrate once-in-a-lifetime birthdays, engagements, graduations, and anniversaries, or to study art, learn Italian, take cooking classes."
The popularity of books and movies like Angels and Demons, Eat, Pray, Love, Twilight, and Under the Tuscan Sun also fuel an interest and inspire people to travel to Italy. "Not only are we in the business of marketing vacation rentals, we love the fact that we help people pursue their dreams. We have happy stories of clients who got engaged while staying at one of properties, returned for their honeymoon, and then came back as a family a few years later with a toddler in tow!"
Thank you Lisa and Pat for taking the time to tell us about Italy Perfect!