“At one point, the only things that people knew about Sicily was the Mafia and pasta – which really pissed me off”
udging by the slickness of The Thinking Traveller’s website, and the wow-factor of the properties found there, you’d have wagered that the company’s co-founders, Rossella and Huw Beaugié, shared a background in either digital comms, high-end interior design or prime international real estate. Perhaps a mix of all three.
What you wouldn’t have guessed, given the portfolio of art-strewn apartments and sea-view infinity pools they’ve spent the past two decades curating, was that prior to their paths crossing in Paris in 1998, Rossella had been a cell biologist and Huw an engineer.
Two years after they'd met in France, Rossella and Huw, now married, found themselves racing the rising sun down the side of a volcano on Stromboli, an active island off the coast of Rossella’s native Sicily. It was as they dived into the crystal clear waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, that the Beaugiés realised that cell biology and engineering might not be for them.
The Thinking Traveller was formed in 2002 with the aim of providing island-leading villa accommodation in Sicily – a concept the company subsequently rolled out to Puglia, Corsica and a smattering of Greek Islands.
All of the villas in The Thinking Traveller portfolio – which currently includes around 220 properties – are offered exclusively, meaning that you won’t find them on the website of any other tour operator.
Today, Rossella and her husband live in London with their three children, all of whom were born in Sicily.
Rossella Beaugié, Founder & Director of The Thinking Traveller
How has Covid-19 impacted your business?
The first few months were really tough; the difficulty was, and still is, the uncertainty. We made the decision to keep a lot of our staff active to talk to our clients. The key is listening and understanding everyone’s priorities; where they stand, do they still want to travel, do they have someone that’s elderly travelling with them? We have offered our clients the possibility of moving their holidays to next year – people that knew they couldn’t possibly travel because they’ve got some health issues. We also gave them the option of paying the balance just one month before their holiday, rather than our normal nine weeks, which is standard in the holiday business.
How does Covid-19 compare with challenges you’ve faced in the past?
It’s been the biggest challenge I’ve ever experienced in business, because it’s been completely global and affected our clients all over the world at all levels. Typically, recessions affect some people more than others; an ash cloud will affect some people more than others. This has affected everyone, everywhere.
How has life in Sicily been this summer?
At the moment it’s definitely a lot quieter. We’re in the centre of Palermo and you don’t see many tourists. You have Italians but you don’t have the Americans; you don’t have the international crowd. So for the people who are here it’s actually kind of a paradise – the beaches and restaurants are less crowded and you have a lot more space. Sicily has been almost Covid-free because it went into lockdown as early as the rest of Italy without having had very many cases, so the numbers have been really low.
How do you acquire the villas in The Thinking Traveller portfolio?
So far, we’ve been quite reactionary. Our brand has gained a really good reputation in Sicily, where we started. We have a good reputation among villa owners, not just our customers, which is very important. We have two people in the office that screen the properties that get offered to us, and we accept a really low percentage. We work on an exclusive villa business model, so we have no interest in saturating our website with thousands of properties. We will stop working with houses that don’t grow with us if, say, the standard or the attention to detail slips or the villa gets sold.
Which criteria must a villa meet in order to get accepted into the portfolio?
Location is very important, as is position – you don’t want an ugly apartment overlooking your villa. Some properties come to us and we immediately fall straight in love with them, so they go on the website immediately. Others have amazing potential but need a bit of work so we work with the owners, we invest in them so that we know the house is up to scratch. And there are a few owners we’ve worked with completely from the beginning. So they buy a piece of land and they restore something or they build something completely new and we work together on floor plans and what makes a house completely successful.
How have the expectations of holidaymakers changed in the two decades since The Thinking Traveller was founded?
Finding high-level villas 20 years ago, especially in southern Italy and Greece, was very difficult, so people’s expectations were lower. Now, with the boom in the offering of villas, people have higher expectations; they expect the villa to work perfectly, to have perfect WiFi, air conditioning. There’s always more and more amenities to be added – the gym, the tennis court, the Jacuzzi.
To what extent are people now interested in experience-led holidays?
Very much so. We actually started with experiences in mind. Huw’s first business plan was to do walking trips, which we extended to wineries and painting courses and yoga classes. We started our brand of ‘Thinking’ experiences way before the whole experiential travel thing started. But before it was us explaining the idea of experiences to people, now we see clients start by saying ‘we want to do this and this and this, which villa would you recommend?’
The popularity of both Sicily and Puglia – especially Puglia – seems to have skyrocketed over the past five years. Why do you think that is?
It’s true, both of them. Puglia was completely undiscovered; it was discovered first by northern Italians, around the same sort of time as we started The Thinking Traveller. One of the reasons we started working in Puglia was because friends of friends had fallen in love with the area. After the Italians discovered it, then the rest of Europe discovered it. Then it got popular in the States and finally, a couple of years ago, Australians discovered it, too.
Sicily is different because it was popular with the elite traveller at the beginning of the 20th century. But then, at one point, the only things that people knew about Sicily was the Mafia and pasta, which really pissed me off. What has happened in the past 10 years is that the reputation of the food has spread – there are a lot of Michelin-star restaurants and lots of top international chefs that have said that Sicily is the place where they find the best ingredients. People have also discovered the history and culture. You also have hotels like Belmond and Rocco Forte opening up, which has helped.
Do you think social media plays a large part in where people choose to holiday these days?
Absolutely, when you get someone like Madonna posting photos on social media. We’ve had a few VIPs ourselves and obviously we can’t talk about them but then they’ll go somewhere local and post a picture and get 10 million likes and we’re like ‘ahhh’. But of course you wouldn’t expect them to post pictures of our villas because they want their privacy. But I think social media has helped spread awareness of places like Puglia and Sicily, absolutely.
How does The Thinking Traveller address the issue of sustainability?
It’s been at the heart of what we do since the beginning. In Sicily, it’s easy and natural because the food tends to be totally local; a lot of our villas have their own vegetable gardens, their own orchards, they produce their own olive oil, avocados, tomatoes – in many places you go to the supermarket just for the beers and the yoghurts. We work with only local suppliers so we’re proud to have been helping the local economy. Many of our villas have solar panels and we are working with all our villas to make sure they are as green as they can be. It goes all the way down to the little things, like recycling and using LED bulbs. We also support an umbrella of charities that have come together as the Conservation Collective.
What makes The Thinking Traveller unique among villa rental companies?
Our exclusivity model is very rare, there are very few companies whose portfolio is completely exclusive to them – and that allows us to work closely with the villa owners. Then I think it’s our ethos and the people we choose we work with on the ground. We want all of our clients to have an incredibly special time. There are other companies that claim they do what we do but they simply could not, because they have thousands of properties on their books. Our villa specialists have visited all our villas, they’ve slept in them, they are in contact with the owners and the area experts on the ground.
Here’s a question we bet you’ve never been asked before, where is your favourite place to holiday?
Ha, I love Corsica and Greece, but I think it does remain Sicily because there’s so much diversity and the food is just so amazing. Of course, I am biased.
And another totally original question, what is your favourite villa within The Thinking Traveller collection?
I’ll give you two; there’s one in Sicily, Don Arcangelo all’Olmo, which would be perfect for a big family holiday or a wedding anniversary or something where you invite a big group of friends and then you throw a big party.
And then, to get away from the crowds, there’s a place on the sea, called Kolokithi Bay in Alonissos which is just fantastic. It’s got the best view you could imagine.