For those who might not know the full story behind Unlock Italy (and what we do!) I thought I’d start off our fifth summer as a business telling the story about how we started Unlock Italy, how we’ve been surviving the pandemic and our plans for Unlock Italy in the future.
Luca & Lauren
It all started when we met. I (Lauren) had been working as a manager for numerous boutique tour agencies as I tried to find my place as a Californian living in Rome. I got into the tour management business sort of by accident, organising and customising private tours across Italy and essentially providing hundreds of hours of travel consulting to English speaking visitors to Italy. I also gave private tours in and around Rome since 2014.
Luca on the other hand had been working as a guide since 2006 with cruise passengers coming into the cruise port of Livorno and going all over Florence, Pisa, and Tuscany.
Then we met….
And not only did we fall in love (sorry for the cheesiness, but it’s simply the truth!) and created Unlock Italy LLC to arrange private guided tours in Rome (where I lived) and Florence (where Luca worked) as well as in Naples/Amalfi Coast and Venice for those who wanted to do some one stop tour shopping.
In 2018 and 2019 Lauren got the official guide license by the work of a miracle (the details of this will have to be saved for a later post). One 800 hour course, a million train rides, thousands of euros later and a two day Italian exam that was harder than anything I did in university (BY FAR) and I got the official Florence guide license in 2018. The opportunities this opened for me were huge. My income doubled in the first year and quadrupled in the second. Since my Italy income was already pocket change by American standards this didn’t mean riches per se but for the first time in my life in Italy after 9 years I could afford my own apartment. I didn’t have to panic about money. And I could say I started by own business and was completely self employed in two years.
2019 was crazy. Too crazy. Luca and I personally led hundreds of tours and arranged more across the country. We knew that ultimately we would be moving to Florence but Rome was where Lauren had her base and many contacts and what we wanted to do was meet the most people we could to get the word out about Unlock Italy.
Our business grew entirely based on word of mouth. Friends recommended our tours to their friends who told their friends who continued booking with us. We grew our Trip Advisor numbers with 5 star reviews and got more requests. Lauren worked on showing the Italy she saw every day as a guide on Instagram and we met more and more people. The word was getting out.
After working in Rome and Florence, Lauren would stay up half the night writing emails and booking tickets and guides. We were working in Rome and Florence, between Lauren’s apartment in Rome, Luca’s apartment in Livorno and Luca was organising his days and afternoons with his daughter. It all happened faster than we expected and at the end of 2019, Lauren decided to move to Florence where she could continue commuting to Rome and eventually move closer to a life with Luca and his daughter in Livorno (who spends half her time with Luca and half time with her mom further inland).
At the start of 2020, our plan was to go back and forth between Livorno and Florence, doing occasional tours in Rome while we built up Florence work. I was looking into hiring a full time assistant to handle the bookings. I personally felt that after 9 years of living in Italy in constant financial stress that finally I’d made it.
Well… you know what happens next
Yep. Literally the end of the world as we knew it. On March 9th, 2020, I had just gone back to visit family in the states and after one of the most emotional family trips of my life I was looking forward to getting back to Italy and moving in to the New Florence apartment. I was in the airport waiting to get on a flight back to Rome when Luca called saying the prime minister Giuseppe Conte was on TV that very moment announcing that the next day Italy would be the first country in the world after China to go into lockdown.
We were able to give up the Florence apartment and took up residence in what we thought would be a temporary situation – in Luca’s grandparents old apartment near the train station in Livorno.
What can I say about that first lockdown… what a disorienting and confusing time. I had no friends in Livorno, just Luca. Half the week we had his daughter Alessia with us, navigating school from home and what to do with an 8 year old when you are not even supposed to leave your block and our building has no garden beyond some dry grass that is used as a parking lot for the residents. During that first lockdown we couldn’t even leave our street (200 meters from the house was the distance allowed).
I hadn’t been planning on being a part time step mom and trying to balance life for a child with two very different families – something that has been harder than losing our business and seeing my one year of savings slowly dwindle.
But something interesting happened. My goal in life from the age of 7 has been to be a writer and that’s part of the reason I moved to Italy. Not the kind of writing I do on this blog or the kind of writing I usually share anywhere. Creative fiction. I have always written short stories, poems and the beginnings of novels. Almost literally locked in the house with no job or social life, completely bewildered and frustrated, I started to write.
In two months I had a novel. But then lockdown ended and we had this strange and beautiful summer of experiencing Italy without any foreigners. The book was set aside for a little bit (where it’s still waiting for me to come back to it with more perspective.) We were getting ready for a fall season but it didn’t come. Instead more lockdowns and a long winter.
As September 2020 rolled around and we realised we wouldn’t be working at all that year, both Luca and I simultaneously started working on all the creative projects we had never had time for. And we haven’t stopped. In lockdown there are no distractions. And in fact when you stop to think about it too long, the financial future seems pretty uncertain. So we didn’t stop. We made things. Lots of things! Things unconnected to work or financial gain but things that we believed in whole heartedly and that we want to be part of our future in Italy, a continual part of our lives.
Luca is creating an art exhibition and recording an album of music he has worked on for years.
I realised I have enough short stories to make a collection and started thinking about what to do with the Laurenissima story the start of which I published on this blog. I started the Open Doors Review Literary Magazine and podcast that features creative work in English and Italian. Submissions are open for our third issue coming soon!
And we embarked on an adventure interviewing winemakers around Tuscany and giving people the opportunity to book directly through producers.
Subscribe to Luca’s art and music mailing list here to be kept up to date on when exhibitions will be held.
Check out the Open Doors Review Magazine’s latest edition and read the guidelines for submitting to the next one.
Check out what Uncork Italy is all about here.
The future of Unlock Italy
Well, we are still here for those who plan to travel to Italy this summer and beyond! We still offer:
- private guided tours across the country. See our tour offerings here!
- Travel consulting packages that will help you plan your trip and get discounts on the tours you book through us
- Italy consulting. We’ve been spending a lot of time exploring more regions of Italy and making contacts with vacation rentals, restaurants, hotels, event organisers, and real estate agents.
- And this blog which I hope to slowly be adding to this summer with advice for travellers
Explore the revamped site:
Check out our Trip planning options with Lauren.
Check out our new tours (nearly completed).
Write us to say hi or let us know what you’re thinking about Italy travel.
The world has changed a lot in the last year but we are sincerely hoping that with those changes comes better options for travellers to come to Italy and enjoy a more authentic and real side of the country.
We hope to see you soon!
Lauren & Luca