In the internet age, anyone with a computer can book a flight to Italy, reserve a tour of the Colosseum or join a large tour group that takes you from one tourist hot spot to another.
Rem Malloy and Deborah de Maio, founders of the Everett-based Italy4Real and Travel4Real, want travelers to go beyond the surface of Italy and come away with a deeper experience of the country’s people and culture.
“It’s the people that make the experience, not the monuments,” de Maio said.
The mother-son duo started Italy4Real more than 20 years ago after a trip to Italy to visit relatives de Maio hadn’t seen in years and whom Malloy had never met.
“My mother passed away and I was reviewing our whole life. That just seems to happen when iconic people in your life leave,” de Maio said. “I thought about all of my Italian heritage and the people I hadn’t seen in so long.
The two took a break from their high-pressure, heavy-duty jobs – Malloy as an executive at Nintendo, de Maio at a cancer research center – and traveled to Italy together.
“We found relatives that just soaked us up like I had always lived there,” Malloy said. “It was just a real kind of miracle trip.”
They returned to the Puget Sound area, but thought about their vacation and how they could turn it into a business. The two had always planned trips for people on the side — Malloy was the social director for his college fraternity — and a year later, they both quit their jobs and moved to Italy for six months.
“It was a good thing, being his age,” de Maio said, referring to starting the business. “He was like ‘Jump in!’ and I’m saying ‘no, no, no.’ I know at the bottom is a lot of rocks.”
The two — who now say they didn’t really know what they were doing at the time — packed up and moved to Italy, living off their savings and credit cards. During that time, they met guides and bus drivers, knocked on doors and explained to people what they were trying to do. They continue to work with some of those same people to this day.
“We met all of our people that way, by wandering around and asking where the locals go,” Malloy said.
Their first route — the “Primo Italiano”— took in the Big 3: Venice, Florence and Rome. They returned to the States and placed a small ad in The Seattle Times.
“He did the New York Times, too, which I could have killed him for,” de Maio said. “It was really expensive and who’s going to talk to us?”
The advertisements worked. They sold nine tours in a row that first year, showing their customers around and getting the hang of the business. They came back from those trips with thousands of miles — and several pounds — under their belts.
“It was great,” Malloy said. “We never worked for anyone else after that point.” The company has expanded its offerings, now leading trips to France, Greece, Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Scotland. They continue to put together routes the same way they did 20 years ago in Italy.
“We don’t offer anything we don’t know,” said Malloy, who leads a World War II history tour of the Normandy landing beaches in France. “I’ve got to put my foot on the ground and walk through the door before I will offer it.”
That local knowledge is important to offering a deeper experience, Malloy said.
“If I stay in the main alleyways between St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge (in Venice), I’m not going to see anything but high-priced stuff, bad tourist restaurants and Americans with guidebooks,” he said. “But if I go three alleyways off, I’m going to find where the locals eat and where there’s no crowds and where there’s a café with a view of the water.”
Malloy and de Maio rarely lead tours together these days, saying they can’t both leave the office for big chunks of time.
The two say there’s a benefit to working so closely with family.
“When the game is over, I had more time with my family than I could ever ask for,” Malloy said. “We have such a unique thing and I wouldn’t trade the time for anything.”
Of course, there’s a downside to working with people who know you so well. Everyone’s mom knows how to push their kids’ buttons, Malloy said.
“I will remind him of that time when he was 6 and he used to do the thing,” de Maio said with a laugh.
“You have to make yourself a level-headed worker bee, otherwise you go on this rollercoaster of emotions because you’re working with a family member,” Malloy added.
Through it all, the two are grateful for the time they have together and appreciate their customers.
“We’ve come to believe that in business, it’s not about us, it’s about the people we serve,” de Maio said. “We’ve always said we’re like water in a glass — if you put us in another container, we’ll adapt to it.
“We’ve had to make adaptations over the years, but we’re still standing and we’re honored.”