Bob and Ian of Casal dei Fichi are two of the more advanced vacation rental professionals I’ve ever met. I use the word ‘advanced’ not in relation to technology or IQ. But rather advancement in their consistent movement forward — a developed sense of who they are, what their business is, and how those two things dovetail to form a life they are so obviously proud to live.
Unlike many owners and managers who fall into the vacation rental business accidentally, Bob and Ian moved to Le Marche from London nearly 12 years ago to leave the corporate rat race and open a vacation rental business. Bob was working in HR, and Ian in tech: but they found their work lives stressful, and their nice salaries less-than gamechanging. Focused on building their vacation rental business from scratch, they invested in an old farm house in the rural countryside about five minutes from the 1000-person town of Francavilla. After learning intimately the challenges of construction in rural Italy, the two began hosting travelers with a curated style of hospitality — something it seems they were born to do.
One undeniable advantage of vacation rentals (over hotels) is a host who can introduce you to his personal web of influential locals. Due to the large-scale nature of the hotel industry, introductions from hotel concierges are less personal, more mechanical. So when Bob and Ian introduced me to the local truffle hunters, Christine and her boyfriend Danielle, it was done with white gloves: their beautiful truffle dog Spuma scurried into the hills and began sniffing, digging, and unearthing tens of golfball-sized nuggets of “black gold.” Hearing how the truffle industry has shifted over the last few decades was intriguing. Hearing how a gal from San Francisco met and fell in love with a farm boy from Colfiorito nuanced my appreciation for the day. It was not the type of experience nor connection that could possibly be mass-produced.
Another classic Le Marche experience for me was training with the local soccer team. Having first met the team’s captain Paolo when he was a teenager when they moved to the area twelve years back — Bob and Ian have had the pleasure of watching Paolo grow up in front of their very eyes. This explains why it wasn’t surprising that Paolo was happy to invite me to soccer practice one late afternoon during my visit. Jumping into a local game of soccer while on vacation is like cultural immersion on steroids. It’s an assault on your comfort zone: from the language barrier, to the fear that you will play poorly and embarrass yourself, to the general concern that you’ll injure yourself and need to go to the hospital.
Of course, once the game begins, no matter where you are in the world, you eventually experience the connective powers of sport. My favorite part of practice was when I was given an honorary shirt and banner from the club. My least favorite part was when I was nearly injured the ballboy (a 70 year-old man) by firing a shot 45 degrees in the wrong direction. We finished the evening by inviting the soccer team for beers in the town plaza. When I travel, I extra love to meet guys my age — I like to interact with these other versions of “me” had I been born somewhere entirely different. As the sun faded, we discussed women, work, why on earth Juventus lost the recent Champions League final. This was a really special evening and it cemented for me how genuinely Bob and Ian are liked by the local community.
Along the same lines of meeting interesting locals, a vacation rental host who knows a destination intimately is also able to provide insider tips that a traditional hotel concierge would very quickly exhaust. When I asked Bob and Ian about a beach suggestion, they asked me if I wanted the easy and lovely option, or the challenging but stunning alternative. I chose the second and got to experience Scaletta, this jagged coastal village unknown even to the more adventuresome locals in Le Marche (side note: the mere act of telling a local about a stunning beach they’ve never heard of makes a visitor feel undeniably cool).
After a 25-minute hike down a canopied dirt path, we reached the fisherman caves — small villas carved into the cliff with simple electric and plumbing — think of them like little vintage beach houses, each fronted by its own serene space of the Adriatic. I felt like I was on the set of a beach movie from the 50s: diving off cliffs, swimming through beds of mussels and clams, and chatting with sun-weathered old men hauling in the morning’s catch. We finished the walk at what looked like, from afar, a simple tent, but what I quickly discovered was one of the most quintessential seafood restaurants ever. It was here that I learned about Bob and Ian’s commitment to one another — about the nuances of relocating countries as a gay couple, and about the virtues of hard work.
Referenced at several meals together, but exemplified moreso in their actions was Bob and Ian’s business philosophy. Woven into the working fabric of Casal Dei Fichi are certain priorities: reminders to have fun, learn new things, enjoy life, grow.
Oftentimes, owners and managers find themselves becoming slaves to their business, allowing the demands of the job to consume their lives eventually leading to stress, exhaustion, and burn out. (And the following is not to suggest that Bob and Ian’s success has not come without a great dose of hard work — in fact, that was another of my big takeaways: how hard these guys work — whether it be gardening, maintenance, marketing, meeting guests —every single day!) But throughout it all is an honest discipline. Regularly, Bob and Ian force themselves to reference back to why they started this business in the first place: reserving two days a week for trips to the beach, accepting only guests who they know will be a perfect fit, supporting their community on a daily basis: these mechanisms seem to recalibrate the guys and their business — bringing everything they are working for back to center, and being true to themselves.
I left Le Marche with a newfound appreciation for how the personality of a host can play a big role in a vacation rental business’s success. As huge advocates of the environment, Bob and Ian do all the little things that — when added up — begin to really make a difference. Things like solar panels for electricity, a flourishing garden of fruits and vegetables (welcomed picking for guests), a private initiative that donates 10% of select restaurant bills to plant trees in Africa…these small gestures begin to rub off on you as a guest from the moment you arrive to the moment you’re dreading to leave: If Bob and Ian can eliminate plastic from their bottled water consumption, I found myself thinking, then why can’t I? It’s almost like their small business was making me a better version of myself. And at the end of the day, I don’t know that a vacation rental industry could aim for anything more noble.
Matt Landau is the Founder of the VRMB and the Inner Circle, two online resources dedicated to helping vacation rental owners and managers generate more bookings.