Funny and charming, I was excited to interview the founder of Italy on a Budget Irene Chimenti, the mastermind behind this incredible brand. Founded in 2007, the company focuses creating once-in-a-lifetime tours for budget travellers aged between 18 to 35.
Throughout the interview, I was struck by Irene's honesty when she shared about her challenges and her struggles. She was also generous in sharing advice on her wins. Here's probably the most genuine Spotlight interview to date. Enjoy.
So, if the grip on your wallet is as tight as most Italian men's trousers, you no longer need to miss out this beautiful region. Italy on a Budget are the local superheroes and in the words of Super Mario, your friendly Italian plumber, “Life is a game, kid! It all depends on how you play.”
- Italy on a Budget
Irene fell in love with travelling and began working in the travel industry when she took up a part-time job as a tour guide in England while completing her degree in Foreign Languages. During her travels after university, she realised how backward the concept of travel was in Italy so she decided to do something about it. She founded Tuscany on a Budget and soon outgrew the name as she began offering tours around Italy.
"Was it scary?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. I was excited and young. It’s only after you started that you realise what you’ve started", she replied.
Italy is a well-known for its luxury travel options but Italy on a Budget goes against the grain by focusing on the young budget traveller. She decided to do so because the luxury travel market is saturated and not all travellers can to travel on a big budget. However, she did admit to some challenges along the way.
"It is not easy to start a business in Italy because of the high costs so it is almost impossible to start a budget tour company. It is really difficult to find cheap options for travellers."
An authentic travel experience
From solo travellers to backpackers from all over the world, Irene and her team do their best to deliver an "authentic travel experience". We discussed how that term seems to be used so much today, on every website, blog post and travel magazine. I’m not sure if people actually know what it means or how to deliver an “authentic experience". For Irene, this was simple.
We want customers to experience the good and bad of our country.
An authentic experience to Irene includes bringing guests to local wineries when on a wine tour, "not the big fancy ones that cater to tourists". She wants to give guests a real experience with no frills so she works with local suppliers who don't usually work with tourists.
"We don’t look for suppliers who only work with tourists because that changes the experience. We've worked with the same suppliers for a long time and they are guarantee that authenticity we look for."
Her efforts have clearly paid off as Italy on a Budget has been awarded TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for two years in a row, with 99% of her reviews accompanied by 5 star ratings. I was keen to know how she has managed to replicate the same high-quality experience again and again, across all her tours. She credited this success to her team of amazing guides.
Click below to learn more about hiring & training of tour guides:
"Firstly, we get guides from local regions. We want to hire the right people. We look for people who are enthusiastic, flexible, adaptable and understand that people from different cultures have a different sense of humour. We also want them to possess a strong personality that works well with the young market. And then we put them through an intense training to learn to work with younger crowds."
There's a difference between a good guide and great one. We obviously look for great tour guides.
She also noted that negative feedback usually comes from people who are expecting something completely different. These are people who usually don't read the descriptions of her tours. For example, when she takes travellers to the Amalfi coast, they spend the night in a camping village, not a hostel or hotel. She acknowledges that her tours aren't for everyone but she continues to curate experiences for her target market, "it's important to keep them in mind."
Reaching the young market the best way possible
While researching on the company for this article, I stumbled across their YouTube channel, watched all of their videos and loved them. They are mostly videos taken on one of her many tours, where viewers get a glimpse of what it's like to go on a tour with them. When I asked Irene about her decision to include video clips onto her tour page, her answer was simple, "Videos are important because they get to see what we get up to. It’s a great marketing tool."
"Many people start a business without prior research. But for me, whenever I have time, I’m researching ideas for new tours and the market I'm targeting. I'm looking at how they travel, how they work, how they want to experience Italy."
TripAdvisor is also a great marketing tool for Irene, it's where many of her American customers find her. Otherwise, Google searches and word of mouth has been invaluable for her. The team is also currently working on their social media presence by uploading photos daily.
Growing Italy on a Budget
As I mentioned earlier, her business has recently expanded and they've launched Italy on a Budget to include tours all over Italy, not just Tuscany, Irene's hometown. Tuscany on a Budget wasn’t working anymore simply because of the different tours they began to offer.
"Ideally, I would like to cover many other Italian destinations but the Italian mentality is pretty behind so it’s hard to develop certain tours. It’s also difficult to work with some local suppliers and certified local guides because some of them simply don't fit. I can't always work with the people I prefer."
"The one partner she's been able to count on to help her business grow is TrekkSoft. She met Jon Fauver, one of our co-founders, early on and decided to adopt TrekkSoft as it was "an easy system to create a website."
We at TrekkSoft wish Irene the best in all her future endeavours and we look forward to reaching greater heights together.