How Andrea Grisdale & IC Bellagio Shaped the Italian Experience
XO Private Conversations

It is always a real pleasure to meet with strong women entrepreneurs from the travel industry to hear their stories and learn of the challenges and triumphs they have experienced, and this week, the most influential of women is Andrea Grisdale of IC Bellagio

When we sit down to skype one warm Wednesday afternoon, she has only just returned from Cancun, where she was present at the conference held by the World Travel & Tourism Council of which she is a member. They have been presenting the Cancun Women’s Initiative Declaration, Supporting Women in Travel and Tourism. It’s clear that Andrea is extremely proud of the effort that has gone into the initiative and the global support that it has garnered across the private and public sectors as well as academia.

The declaration is aiming to get businesses to recognise the important contribution that women have, and continue to make, in the Travel and Tourism sector, and to ensure the provision of equal opportunities, a fair and safe working environment and the closure of the pay gap. It has been discovered that while 54% of jobs in the sector are occupied by women, far fewer of them have seats in positions of power. The declaration is to ensure that this is resolved as well as many other changes in the next ten years.
“The soft lap of water on the side of a boat as you drift through Venice’s quaint minor canals… That’s my Italy!” - Andrea Grisdale
I ask if Andrea has come across this challenge herself in the past and she says that she is actually one of the lucky ones, as evidenced by her position as founder of IC Bellagio and member of the WTTC. She has never felt held back throughout her career and as such, she is passionate to ensure the young team who work for her have the same opportunities. When I research the team on the company’s website it is clear that it is very female-friendly. Even the three dogs are girls she says with a wry smile. However, she is keen to point out that this was not done on purpose and each member of the team has been hired on their skills and merits. As she says, this is about equal opportunities and not positive discrimination and if a man is the best fit for the role, then she would hire him. This attitude is refreshing to hear and an important step in the right direction.

We begin to talk of her history and the path that has brought her to this very moment, and she says that it is certainly one that has shaped her and left her with more stories than any one person could possibly need. When I ask why that is she explains that she started out as a holiday rep in Corfu, and she really need not have said anything more. The litany of motorbike crashes, drunken brawls, divorces and jail bailouts she had to deal with as a young woman in the early 90s required her patience, negotiating skills, and an innate ability to deal with any situation presented to her. It also left her with strong feelings about a certain type of traveller, a million miles away from her current clientele.
Andrea Grisdale is the Founder of IC Bellagio and member of the WTTC
She didn’t stay in Corfu for long and was headed off to Mombasa when plans changed and she ended up in Playa de las Americas. Cue more of the same tourist antics. She finally swapped the sun for snow and headed to France for the ski season. She eventually landed in Italy, in the Dolomites dealing with broken bones and a very foggy airport. She spoke no Italian at the time, and as the Italians in the local area spoke very little English, it made for some very entertaining mimes. She smiles as she says that it was certainly a baptism of fire, but definitely the best journey she could have taken on the way to where she is now. Finally, as fate would have it, rather than head down to the Sorrento and the Amalfi coastline as planned, she was sent instead to her now beloved Lake Como, where she swapped out the slightly more boisterous guests for septuagenarians, and promptly found herself with a lot of time on her hands.

It was here that she got her tour guide license and noticed a gap in the market for bespoke, luxury travel, that targeted mainly US travellers. And so it was, in 1999, after nine long years learning the travel industry and dealing with every situation that it could throw at her, that she founded the DMC, Italian Connection Bellagio. It has now been more than 20 years that she and her team have been creating tailor-made Italian experiences for discerning clients, and IC Bellagio has won countless awards from the likes of Conde Nast, Wendy Perrin, and Travel + Leisure.

It is clear that Andrea loves her job and I ask her what it is that’s so special about it. She says it’s the ability to make every guest feel like royalty and have them leave knowing that they have experienced something special and unique. It’s about going above and beyond the ordinary. She also clearly has a love of her team and they of her, and the devotion they put into creating these experiences is palpable. She says she has met some of the most interesting people and visited once-in-a-lifetime destinations, as part of researching and designing these authentic experiences. 
The Wonderful Team at IC Bellagio (Picture taken in 2018)
I ask if the face of luxury travel has changed in the last two decades and she says that it has for certain. It’s no longer about hiring Lamborghinis and zipping at high speeds along the Riviera. Instead, it’s about sitting down at a kitchen table and tasting grandma’s secret Bolognaise sauce or learning from artisans how to make the perfect gelato. It’s about those authentic Instagram moments that are so special they can only be booked through IC Bellagio.

It’s at this point that she says her current raft of new experiences neatly goes back to what we were discussing at the beginning, about the empowerment of women in travel. The team has put together a list of experiences with a focus on women from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe, but who now reside in Italy. It’s aimed for when the clients are all or mainly women. Moments such as stopping for a special coffee in Bellagio to talk to Camelia from Romania, who is more than happy to share her story. Or visiting the Cavana Tintorett of Gloria Rogliani, the world champion of the Regate Storiche in Venice, where she will tell you all about her life. Once again these are authentic, exclusive experiences that have been specially crafted by the IC Bellagio team.

Talk turns back to the office and she says that she has always instilled the values around equality in the team. Everyone is to be treated fairly and without malice or harassment, no matter how harmless it can be perceived. She is always concerned that everyone is able to juggle both their home and work life, and she knows how important that balance is. Even pre-covid many of her team were able to work from home if it helped their situation, and she often runs ‘lunch and learns’, discussing such topics as ‘mums juggling life’. The investment in her staff and their personal and professional future is reflected in the offerings such as the Academy whereby long- and short-term internships, with key global partners, are offered to members of staff who are interested. Just one more way Andrea is helping her team to flourish.

It’s easy to see why Andrea has succeeded. She is quick to laugh and her gentle Cumbrian accent puts you instantly at ease. When I look at the clock, I realise that we have been talking for almost an hour already and the time has just flown by. I am sad to cut the call, but I’m very aware that having only just arrived back from a long conference and flight, she herself is probably looking to even out that balance slightly, with a home-brewed cup of tea.

So, I ask her if she has any final thoughts and she says it’s simple really. Be passionate about all you do, be a good person, do whatever it takes to keep your clients and team members happy and ultimately, don’t be a dick. I for one think that that is a wonderful mantra for life, and I hang up the phone feeling empowered and inspired by one of the truly great female entrepreneurs of the travel industry.
Victoria Pearce
Victoria is an experienced writer, copywriter, proofreader and editor with a background in Sales and Marketing for multinational companies such as Cosmopolitan Magazine. Having moved to Mallorca a few years ago she has been able to combine her passions of yachts and writing, covering everything from restaurants to destination guides, high profile interviews to technical company overviews.