Travel Agent Talk: John Stewart Bowerman

Travel Agent Talk: John Stewart Bowerman

Italy specialist John Stewart Bowerman shares what he loves abut Sicily and southern Italy By: Megan Brickwood
John Stewart Bowerman in front of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily // © 2014 John Stewart Bowerman
John Stewart Bowerman in front of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily // © 2014 John Stewart Bowerman

The Details

John Stewart Bowerman is a passionate travel advisor who came to the profession after working in many different industries, from recruiting professionals and creating large events to directing theatrical productions and sailing as a merchant seaman.

Bowerman, a travel agent with S.R. Travel Service, a BCD Travel Affiliate in San Francisco, has traveled extensively in Italy with a recent focus on exploring southern Italy and Sicily. He thrives on helping clients come home with a memorable experience, usually accompanied by a tasty local glass of wine.

You recently returned from Sicily and southern Italy. What did you like about those destinations? 

The food is delicious, the people are warm, the landscapes are varied and stunning and it’s not crowded, so you feel like you really are immersed in the culture rather than having to jockey for position with a lot of other people who are visiting. It was phenomenal to be able to walk down the streets of an authentic Italian village and not feel like you’re fighting your way through, but you’re able to interact with the local population. It really makes you feel like you’re part of the country.

What kind of client is a good fit for visiting southern Italy or Sicily?

Maybe somebody a little bit more intrepid, or somebody who’s trying to find an Italy that may have been what they expected in the movies or yesteryear — it seems to be a bit more authentic. It’s definitely less traveled than other parts of Italy such as Rome, Florence or Venice, which many people do on their first visit. 

How do you help prepare your clients to travel to Italy?

That depends on where they’re going and on the time of year they travel. I did pop over to Rome and Venice on this trip. It was April and it was already noticeably more crowded than other parts of the country that I visited this time. 

If people are going to Italy in June and July and they’re going to Florence, I’m going to tell them to be prepared for crowds. You have to do some pre-planning to skip the lines for museums or to go to the Vatican or a gallery. You really want to plan ahead for that kind of visit, or you’re going to spend half of your time waiting in line. It’s going to be like a bad version of Disneyland, and you don’t want to do that! You want to see the beauty. You want to spend your time enjoying it.

Do you have any favorite hotels in Italy?

There’s a great hotel, a Roco-Forte hotel, in Rome, that’s called the Hotel de Russie. It’s right off the Corso, on the Piazza del Popolo. It’s close enough to the Spanish steps but a little bit away, so you get a little bit of the cafe culture without the maddening crowds. Another luxury hotel in Rome that I just stayed at is called the J.K. Place. It’s also right in the center of things, but far enough away that you don’t feel that you’re in the muck of it. But it’s five blocks away so you can walk. 

How about favorite hotels in Sicily or southern Italy?

There were two new discoveries on this trip that I found that were really gorgeous. One was Sicily’s Verdura Resort, on the southern coast. You can do anything there, including visiting Greek ruins or a famous Sicilian winery or going to an Italian hill town, all from the resort. And when you get back you have this really fine food and an amazing beach. It’s quite gorgeous.

For a really off-the-beaten path, undiscovered gem that’s also authentic Italy, Frances Ford Coppola has a hotel collection and a property in the South of Italy called the Palazzo Margherita. It is a restored Italian palazzo in a really untraveled destination called Bernalda, which is a lovely Italian town where everybody is out walking at night and you can walk down to the town square, and the locals stop to talk to you. Not a tourist in sight. 

I’m going to go back in August when they have a festival in town, and it should be really interesting to see what it’s like then. It’s luxury, very high end. But you also get everything you want out of Italy while there — the white-washed hill town with the old grandmothers and the men in jackets and hats walking in the evening, gelato and coffee. It’s lovely.

Do you find that it’s easy to stumble across experiences like that in Italy, or do you have to go in with a plan?

Everybody at least wants the idea that they’re flying by the seat of their pants, but in Italy you really can’t, especially if you’re traveling during a popular season. I guess the challenge for everybody is to let it be a little loosey-goosey, but you have to have hotel reservations. But, unless you want to dine at Michelin-star restaurants or you have a specific restaurant in mind, you can play your eating out by ear. I think it’s necessary to do a little bit of planning to get the most out of any destination.

How do you stay current with travel-related developments in Italy?

I network a lot. I network with hoteliers — general managers, sales directors, suppliers. I put a lot of emphasis on building a relationship with them. They are the people who are going to make me look good in the end. I’m friends with so many of them on Facebook, so we can keep in touch even if we’re not speaking on an everyday basis or if I’m not sending somebody to them for a couple of months. We still know what’s going on in each other’s lives, so when there’s something new they reach out to me as well as me reaching out to them. 

I’ve been doing this for about 4.5 years, so I’m not an old-school agent. I’m someone who came in with the new wave of travel agents. There are a couple of people in San Francisco, from different agencies, and we pool information. We’re all friends rather than competitors. We call ourselves the Big Four. We meet regularly and talk about challenges, what’s going on, what’s new and what we’re seeing. It allows us to network with each other across agencies so we can problem-solve, troubleshoot and keep our information base current. 

Do you have any tips for colleagues?

Go on an empty stomach. That’s a safe bet. And go with an open mind. Traffic laws in Italy are more like guidelines. You have to understand that if you want to get things done quickly it’s better to just relax into it instead. And that’s the purpose of a vacation, right? Take a step back. Have a glass of wine when you get there and calm down.

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