Annie Frances Grey is an Australian entrepreneur who has been working in Rome for the past ten years. She left her 9-to-5 job to start Rome Walks, offering English-led walking tours of the Eternal City to small groups of tourists. In this interview, she shared her views on entrepreneurship, cross-cultural awareness, working in Italy and the evolution of the travel industry. If you happen to be in Rome and wish to immerse yourself in its beauty and art without falling back onto the beaten track of standard tourist trails, we warmly recommend you book your tour with Rome Walks.
Let’s start with your background. What’s the story behind Rome Walks? How and when did you decide to launch a business in Italy?
I was working for the United Nations in Rome and fell deeply in love with the romance of the city’s architecture and atmosphere. Every day, I couldn’t wait to leave work for the embrace of the city. I would go into the office super early only so that I’d be able to leave early enough to enjoy all that Rome had to offer. I have a passion for video and photography, but the 9-to-5 grind didn’t leave me any time to pursue those creative outlets, so I decided to follow my Roman calling. In 2002 I started up Rome Walks, as I could see there was a need for small-group walks conducted in English. As I learned the ropes of running a company in a foreign city, I gradually pulled away from my work with the UN to build the business that Rome Walks is today.
Why Italy and why Rome in particular?
Anyone who has lived in Rome can tell you that the city casts a spell over you. As a foreigner living here, you find yourself repeatedly putting off your departure date. “Well, maybe I’ll stay until just before winter comes.” Then you discover a new bar, a gem of a museum, a hidden set of steps leading up a hill overlooking a spectacular view over the city’s rooftops—and BANG! Once again, you’re seduced by the city’s magic. Then spring comes and—well, Rome is exquisitely beautiful in the springtime. And—BAM! Love hits again, and you put off that departure indefinitely. Before long, you’re no longer a newcomer, but a local fixture. Your friends and family visit, and you see the city once again through new eyes. More time passes, and you no longer feel you live in a foreign place. You feel at home. That’s Rome.
What type of clients is Rome Walks addressing? What’s different about experiencing the Eternal City with your guides, as opposed to traditional tourist routes?
Rome Walks has been in business for over 10 years, and has built its excellent reputation by offering a wide variety of high-quality historic walks with friendly, passionate, expert guides. Not only are our guides fully licensed — which is not always the case for guides in Rome — but they have advanced degrees (in art history, archaeology, art curation), and possess a high-level command of the English language. Because of this, they’re able to answer client questions and go off script in a way that other companies’ guides cannot. Together with our guides, we create custom itineraries that allow our clients to explore the less beaten paths in the city. Never been to Rome’s environs? We’ve got an itinerary for that. Want to meet the city’s ghosts? Our guides can introduce you! Remember, for many clients, this trip to Rome is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, something they’ve saved up for after working thirty years or putting their kids through college. Because of that, they want it to be special. We’re different, too, in that we work only with small groups, to preserve the quality of the client experience. The city of Rome is big business, and unfortunately we’ve watched a lot of companies and agencies spring up merely to take advantage of the money that can be made there. Rome Walks is not one of the big, faceless companies one often sees advertised. It is a small business, and small businesses offer a sense of intimacy and exclusivity that our clients have come to value. As the company founder, I value that. In fact, my business ethic is based on interpersonal integrity: a sense of community responsibility, fairness, and friendship.
We get a lot of new clients merely through word-of-mouth recommendations from previous customers. And travel writer and television personality Rick Steves has praised us in his books for our helpful video guides to navigating Rome (e.g., 48 hours in Rome, Fiumicino Airport to Centre of Rome, Civitavecchia Port to Rome Walks – Going Local and Understanding Rome’s Public Transport). These are available on our website and on our Youtube channel.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an entrepreneur in Italy?
Italy is a tough place to do business, make no mistake about it. It straddles the extremes of utter lawlessness and petty bureaucracy. I don’t want to blacken the country’s name, but Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, gave Italy a high corruption index rating in 2014 and claims that the state of affairs has deteriorated since 2009. Operating a business here has its challenges even if you’re a local. So for an outsider (I’m Australian), it’s that much more difficult. Apart from the day-to-day struggles of getting things happening efficiently, the pace in Italy is—how should I put this?—not at the level of New York or London or, frankly, the rest of the world, and I say this with a smile. That being said, whether you’re a business or a tourist, you’ll find that it’s still Rome, and Rome is definitely worth the effort!
What are the perks of working in Italy?
All the good things in life you’d expect: natural beauty (in the places and the people), food, wine, and sun! The wine and food need no further explanation. Rome, in particular, is an ideal base from which to travel to see the amazing and endless cultural patrimony of Italy. Compared to my native Australia, which as you know is quite far from the rest of the world and very large, it is also a convenient spot from which to hop around to the rest of Europe! Living in Rome has provided me many opportunities to travel more frequently and visit places I might never have got around to in my lifetime. The icing on the cake for me, of course, has been the Roman lifestyle.
The travel industry is evolving rapidly, hyperlocal travel apps and networks are growing more popular by the day and there’s barely a square inch of any world capital that has not been reviewed, rated and mapped. What do you make of this trend?
Visiting Italian cities can be a good lesson in the disadvantages of or the gaps in these technologies, in my opinion. It is the confusion and chaos, the labyrinth of streets and avenues, the charming chaos of Rome and Naples, for example, that can win your travel lover’s heart. I think that one’s personal likes and dislikes are so unique, too, so exclusive to a given visitor, that these mass ratings don’t capture the outliers, the little-known experiences or places that often make or break a trip.
Rome Walks has been a leading provider of walking tours in Rome for over 10 years. This means you have lived through the crisis and have seen many changes happen in the Italian system and economy and have established relationships with a wide network of Italian business owners. What advice would you give an entrepreneur wishing to do business in Italy for the first time?
Ha ha! I might say: Don’t! Things’ve gotten only more competitive and more difficult over the past decade. But if you do insist on starting a business here, my advice would be to bring your patience, tenacity, and perseverance with you. Wake up every day in this wonderful country with a new outlook, and there will be rewarding experiences and surprises for every challenge you may face.
What’s the secret to a successful working relationship with an Italian business partner?
Flexibility and cultural sensitivity are the keys to doing business whenever you’re in someone else’s country. It isn’t reasonable or fair to project Australian/British/American business expectations onto locals in Europe/Africa/Asia or anywhere else, for that matter. Rather, it is you who needs to adapt to the place, to understand what is expected of you. Otherwise you just become an economic colonialist!
Where are you at now, with Rome Walks? Are you planning on expanding your activity to other Italian regions?
I think it’s time to invest some more and grow my business. So we’re in the process of transforming Rome Walks into Rome Walks and Beyond. To do this, we’ve built networks with Naples, Milan, Florence (Tuscany), and Venice. For years now we’ve been hunting down the best-qualified and most electrifying guides in a given area. I’m a big believer in thinking locally, right down to hiring locals as guides. In fact, “going local” is a recurring theme for RomeWalks and Beyond: only the best of each region.
Tell us one thing about Italy that you would never have guessed before moving here.
That I could feel so connected and at home in a place that is not my country of birth. Also, local and regional identities trump the sense of national identity every time. Italy is not a country, it is an idea.