I’m sitting at the pool at the Agriturismo Castello de Vezio high on the bluffs above the lakeside village Varenno, on Lake Como, Italy, basking in the stillness and vastness of the lake below. There is a crispness in the morning air before the sun blazed mid day. I imagine inhabitants of the land from in the 16th century as the bells of the three village churches chime in the background signally the hour and the half-hour. It’s all on the other side of a gate, at the turn in a street in Vezia, the small hillside village where the remains of Castle of Vezio stand, once a refuge from attacks of various warring European tribes. Vezio is reached by car, or a 20-minute hike up an ancient Roman foot path straight up the side of the hill from Varenna.
But for the Internet, I would have never known of this place, much less found myself enjoying a Monday with the place to myself, dreaming of my return before I have left. With the Internet has come the opportunity for brands to become global travel brands, with guests from Holland, Australia, Germany, UK and the US frequently in residence. My referral came personally from one of the many sold out hotels down in Varenna. For others, there may have been a review on TripAdvisor.
TripAdvisor may not turn out to be the trustworthy source of reviews it would have us believe, especially after hearing Maria’s story.
The place is set among 35 hectors that has been in Maria’s family since the 16th century. Maria’s grandfather had 11 siblings. One of those, her father, had two. This place holds her favorite child hood memories and she’s committed to keeping the place intact. She has bought out the remaining family members and over the years there are now a total of 13 private homes and village apartments that are for rent, and nearly always full. Two shared pools, several houses with private pools. Olive oil from the trees so wonderfully tasting I was ready to start swigging from the bottle.
There is no flash and circumstance, only a connection to history and the land, and quiet and peacefulness in scarce supply in my everyday world of life in L.A. The interior of the houses and apartments were designed and furnished by Maria’s daughter in Milan, with the utmost attention to detail including careful instructions for recycling. There are chickens for fresh eggs, and a vegetable garden tucked away for those few guests who want breakfast included.Maria and her husband Maurico were in residence for the weekend when I arrived on Friday, up from Milan, where Mauricio, with Maria’s support, serves as President of the largest branding agency in Italy. While there is officially no restaurant, I was nonetheless invited to share juice and coffee with the owners and learn some of the story of this sacred and special place. Maria and I walked the grounds and the village for a tour of the units being cleaned for arriving guests. Each unit features some family mementos albeit library books, family photos, and in one unit a photo of Maria and Mauricio on their wedding day.
I am taken with the love and commitment that has gone into developing the place, ever a work in progress. Next year’s projects include a small gym and spa, and hill side gardens. So you might exactly what exactly does Trip Advisor have to do with this gushing piece about my special Italian getaway?
A few years back two bad reviews appeared on Trip Advisor purportedly written by unhappy guests who had stayed at Agriturismo. Soon after, a letter followed from Trip Advisor in which Maria was asked to pay $3000 to Trip Advisor, who in exchange would guarantee a series of several hundred good reviews to overcome the impact of the bad ones! Maria refused to pay, and the bad reviews apparently stayed. She also hired legal counsel both in Italy and in the U.S. but received no response from Trip Advisor. Business is so good and the following so strong, she has decided to ignore it.
I’ve heard rumblings of these tactics by on-line review sites second hand, but never from someone who has actually been the subject of a shake down from a review site. The story serves as a reminder, and word of caution, for all online brands, particularly those in the food and travel business. Managing one’s online brand reputation takes attention to detail and some proactive effort. For the consumer, the old adage, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet” is appropo.
I didn’t read TripAdvisor before booking here. Thank goodness. My guess is, no one from Trip Advisor make a “hikeup” to Vezio, instead of attempting an online “stickup.” Their loss.