Amie O'Shaughnessy and her son outside of Rome's Colosseum. // © 2015 Amie O'Shaughnessy
Feature image (above): When visiting Rome with a toddler, O’Shaughnessy points clients toward Piazza Navona for playtime and coffee. // © 2015 iStock
Amie O'Shaughnessy has long loved to travel, but it wasn't until her son was born that she turned her wanderlust into a business plan. After noticing a lack of international family-travel resources, she launched family travel agency Ciao Bambino in late 2003, focusing initially on one of her own favorite destinations: Italy. In 2007, Ciao Bambino added a blog to its website, which has since gone on to win noted journalism awards and help increase business.
O’Shaughnessy spoke to us about the history of her company, as well as how a destination known for wine and fine dining can be a veritable playground for young explorers.
Putting as much content online as Ciao Bambino does might make another travel agent nervous. How does your model work for you?
Our business is certainly unique. Though we started as a travel agency, there was demand to put some information online. Some readers didn’t want a travel agent; they just wanted tips and advice. We started to put ideas online, including our hotel reviews, in 2007. And while we had momentum as an online supplier of content, people eventually came to us saying, “You know, we love all this information, but now there’s too much. I need a travel planner.”
So, ironically — and I know other travel agents are seeing this as well — the plethora of travel resources online has brought people back into the travel agent fold.
With so much content online, why do clients still come to you for planning help?
What people want from their travel agent has changed. Yes, there is a baseline of travel information accessible online, so by the time clients get to us, they’re pretty educated. That means they expect more from us. They want specificity; they want unique experiences. Clients will ask us, “What aren’t you publishing on your blog?”
Italy is your top-selling destination. What does a typical family trip to the country look like?
Our most popular itinerary in Italy remains a combination of Rome, Venice and Tuscany, which includes Florence and Siena. There’s something for every age and stage in these stops, which is why so many of our families go to Italy. This itinerary also offers variety, bringing clients to both urban sights and rural settings.
What you do in each place will depend on the age of your child. If you’re in Rome with a toddler, there are great piazzas. You might let your child enjoy the open space of Piazza Navona with kids from all over the world while you sit and have a cup of coffee. Maybe you’re not going to the Vatican Museums on that trip, but you’re still getting to know the local culture. The piazzas, pigeons and food in Siena are also phenomenal for toddlers.
As kids get older, their needs and likes are more refined. With school-age children, we love to recommend gladiator school in Rome — an opportunity for them to play gladiator for the day, using foam and wooden swords, to imagine the action of the Colosseum after they have seen that site. The group might also take a pizza-making class. Kids’ level of engagement with the destination goes up as they get older.
Where do you recommend families stay when traveling around Italy?
Italy, in addition to other European countries, has what we at Ciao Bambino call “resorts.” These are essentially “borgos” — ancient villages or hamlets — or “agriturismos” (farmhouses) that have been converted into guest accommodations. There’s a huge range of amenities, but at their highest level, they offer apartments and stand-alone villas in a resort setting. Families have their privacy and space, but there are also likely to be other families here, making it a social atmosphere. Some have playgrounds or pools where everyone hangs out, as well as restaurants.
An excellent midrange option in this category is Montestigliano, a working agricultural estate 25 minutes from Siena. It’s owned by an Italian family that is still very much involved in running the property, and it offers quintessential Italian accommodations for families.
In the cities, we see more “apart-hotels,” or hotels with apartment-type units. There’s a front desk, but units have small kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms, making them ideal for families. In luxury categories, a lot of chain and independent brands are thinking about how they want to accommodate families, because families are such a vital part of the market — there are few companies that aren’t catering to them. And I’d say that has changed since 2004.
As a company that is both a travel agency and a blog, do you recommend a similar model for other agents?
I manage a two-headed beast, and I don’t know that I recommend that to everyone. Producing content and planning travel are two different things. We publish stories four to six times per week; we’re paying writers. That’s a big endeavor, but we’re far down that road and we’re going to stay on it.
That said, I think a blog is a really easy thing to have, so long as you clearly define what your content goals are. If your goal is simply to make your website more engaging, terrific. You might publish one post per week, or every other week. A blog can be great for providing some level of self-service for your clients while also validating your expertise in a category.
The dance is all about how much do you share online. There has to be a little mystery involved.