Industry Update
Opinion Article21 October 2020

A Passionate Professional from Puglia has a face-to-face with the Pandemic! Lessons from Italy

By L. Aruna Dhir, Author, Columnist, Communications Specialist, YouTuber

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The current Pandemic is behaving whimsically with different people!

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Himmat Anand, a hotel owner friend has been sticking to his promise of reopening his Tree of Life resorts one after the other. He is also opening new resorts in a couple of locations in the portfolio of his second brand of hotels - A Dog's Story.

The above is a promising streak to watch. It puts hope, promise, and optimism back on track and bolsters the faith that it will all get better soon enough.

On the other end, stream in such bleak news - of cruise lines closing, of restaurants bringing the shutter down permanently, of high end hotel chains crying in pain as they find it excruciatingly difficult to balance out the bottom line.

These inordinately, unprecedented tough times are calling in for tough measures; by one and all.

Marriott Bonvoy, Marriott International's travel program, recently observed a "Week of Wonders" aimed at guest-engagement, reinstating the joy of wayfaring and wanderlust, encouraging responsible travel and bringing happiness to the members via a range of well-thought out experiences. For instance, "Members can discover more of the Marriott Bonvoy portfolio by being able to book rooms with points for up to 33% less than standard rates at more than 7,000 participating hotels and resorts worldwide for stays through November 30, 2020. All redemption pricing for participating hotels will be in off-peak rates," reads the Press Release that has been sent to me.

Another offer from the Press Release reveals that "Travelers can rekindle memorable trips and dream about future journeys by taking home the comforts of travel with 30% off Marriott Bonvoy Boutiques on all merchandise including brand signature items like The Westin Heavenly Bed, The Ritz-Carlton Fragrance Collection, EDITION Hotels La Labo amenities, St. Regis Frette Collection and W Hotels robes."

During the COVID 19 challenges, I have been looking at different industry players, markets and destinations on how we are grappling with the dire situation. My aim has been to bring to the table, lessons from strategies being put into place by leaders in their areas and regions.

This time I travelled virtually to Puglia, the picturesque southern region of Italy, known for its hill towns in shades of white, farmlands that go back to a few centuries, the baroque architecture, and a long, heavenly coastline dotting the emerald and azure Mediterranean. 

My e-voyage landed me at the doorstep of Dr. Silvestro Silvestori, the Owner, Founder and Director of The Awaiting Table (https://awaitingtable.com/) Cookery School in Lecce.

Silvestro Silvestori has been teaching about food and wine out of his picture-perfect home since 2003. In 2008, the Baron of a local castle dating back to the 1400s built Silvestori a large bespoke kitchen from where he organizes special classes about ten times in a year. The classes at the Castle have themes such as cycling tours, making Olive oil, How to Eat and Drink to live to be a 100 and more.

In addition to being an expert on the Pugliese food and culture, Silvestro is a nationally certified Sommelier. Quite the TV personality, he has appeared on American, Australian, Belgian, British, Chinese, Dutch and Italian television. Silvestro has been called "a national treasure" by Italy's most respected newspaper for his work in preservation and promotion of Salentine and Pugliese food and wine. He is heralded as "the anthropologist of the traditional cuisine of the Salento."

The Awaiting Table, the region's oldest, is counted amongst Italy's top cooking schools and attracts students and visitors from around the world.

The mission statement of The Awaiting Table lists its key priorities as - "to teach the Pugliese food and wine culture in new, informed and fun way, to create and harness high quality and sustainable tourism, to reinforce what makes the region so historically and culturally special, to create jobs locally, to attract Puglian talent back to the region and to make the community thrive."

Silvestro Silvestori is a highly experienced leader in his field, with three University degrees under his belt and a pronounced global exposure. Incidentally, he grew up in the USA and moved back to Italy when he was a teenager.

The Awaiting Table is not only a Cookery School that also offers a Wine programme; it is a tourist destination in itself. The appeal of the School is further enhanced on account of its beautiful, culturally rich and historically significant location.

I was quite piqued to know how the Pandemic has played up with such an almost-perfect scenario.

What unfolds is a lesson in resilience and reinvention, masterful strategizing and steely stock-taking, unstinting hope that it all will get better soon and most importantly harnessing of one's rich talent pool to create new opportunities.

Here follows my conversation with Dr. Silvestro Silvestori -

L. Aruna Dhir - What has been the effect of COVID 19 on the restaurant and dining industry in your area?

Silvestro Silvestori - The combination of physical affection, cultural kissing and multiple generations living in one house killed many very quickly here in Italy. But Italy closed radically, early on, and suffered hard but early.

Since then things have been bouncing back. Many restaurants never reopened but those that did were given liberal use of outdoor spaces, to serve food in the open air. This made the reopening seem even larger, as not only are there people in the streets again but there are outdoor restaurants everywhere. Yet, I think it is an uphill task just trying to stay alive commercially.

I know people - friends and friends of friends, who wait tables and keep moving from restaurant to restaurant as the pay has plummeted. The added responsibility - of walking across streets to serve food, clear dishes etc. while wearing masks and protective gear has worsened an already difficult job.

L. Aruna Dhir - How has COVID impacted your business?

Silvestro Silvestori - The entire year cancelled, one by one and I had to clear out my life savings to refund all the money. I'm starting new next year from scratch, at 50, after 17 years running my two schools. It's hard to imagine anything that would have been as devastating.

We have had a few emails but it's clear that they won't lead to any bookings - from the British guests who want to bicycle to wineries (the weather will not be conducive), and a few Americans that live in Italy but can't return right now.

In short, I don't see us in operation during the COVID era. Whether we can survive that closure remains to be seen!

I honestly don't see any bookings happening before spring of 2021.

L. Aruna Dhir - What corrective measures have you been taking to counter the effect?

Silvestro Silvestori - We changed our cancellation policy.

It was very, very helpful for years, as many booked with us knowing that they didn't carry any risk (Southern Italy is a new destination to many). Now we will no longer refund money but will allow rebooking.

We haven't had any bookings since January so it's hard to know how this will affect the business.

L. Aruna Dhir - What have you been doing to keep yourself afloat?

Silvestro Silvestori - I ran a crowd-funding campaign to create a television series about Southern Italian wine. Former students and extended family contributed. I'm using that money to pay the staff until they can collect unemployment, to sustain myself and for the production of the show.

I used the quarantine to study filmmaking. The funds won't last through the autumn so I will need to find the next solution.

L. Aruna Dhir - How has COVID 19 affected the morale of your employees and you personally?

Silvestro Silvestori - Our cleaning lady comes to work unpaid once a week to clean and organise and move things from room to room. I think it makes her life feel closer to normal.

As the unmarried owner I'm mostly alone and my employees are with their families so I think the virus has been much, much harder on me than on them. They say as much.

Still, we are all in it together. Not just as a severe pandemic fall-out, but to also ensure employee safety, we are closed for the year, perhaps longer.

L. Aruna Dhir - What is the blueprint you have drawn to get back on the road?

Silvestro Silvestori - I built a television studio at the school and am doing live broadcasts about southern Italian wine.

This is helping me in two ways - both in rehearsing the content for the series but also building an eventual audience for after the series release.

I'm hoping that this draws lots of attention to keep us top of the mind for returning students and brings in new ones, once the world is able to travel again.

L. Aruna Dhir - What can companies such as yours do to work out a sustainable disaster management strategy?

Silvestro Silvestori - Keep more liquidity in the future, although the annual budget kept in the slush fund seems unlikely.

Our business is international but COVID, mixed with Brexit and a weak Canadian dollar means that our biggest countries - Australia, Canada, USA, and the UK no longer come to Europe.

We should have done more to reach out to the Eastern European countries, as that is who is in Europe now as tourists.

Our prices are often too high for them so we'd have to create a shorter, thriftier course. Most travellers book food and wine courses early in their travel plans so there are no easy solutions for this year.

There is the risk and the perception of risk, by governments and by individuals.

I assume that we won't have bookings for a long time after both the risk and perception of risk are gone. If I had to predict, I would assume a very long closure but if and when we reopen again, that things will quickly return to normal.

The economic fall will need to be resolved as well, as cooking schools in Italy are a luxury expense.

I'm trying to think of this year as a low-budget sabbatical, spent on television production versus the collapse of 17 years of work.

L. Aruna Dhir - Are people taking the COVID threat seriously or do you see a sense of apathy around?

Silvestro Silvestori - I visit wineries nearly every day. They make me fill out forms and take my temperature and everyone wears a mask.

I'm filming a lot outside using a telephoto lens for maintaining social distancing.

We were on national television here in Italy a few weeks back and no one on the 12 person crew wore a mask. (Italy has had single digits deaths as of late July).

L. Aruna Dhir - Looking into your crystal ball, what do you foresee to be the state of the industry in the coming half year and the next year? (Financial perspective)

Silvestro Silvestori - I suspect more and more restaurants will abandon fine dining in favour of higher profit foods (restaurants becoming chicken roasters and pizzerias).

Staff will continue to turn over and the service levels will go down.

As a school many have asked about online lessons but my friends that have moved their entire business over to that platform, complain about public perception on what online classes should cost. There is the expectation to get for free what a customer used to pay for.

Some businessmen are looking for product-placement sponsors but the numbers are so low that few sponsors are interested. I don't think many will have long-term success.

In my industry, I would say those that teach out of their own rooms are better covered, as they are not maintaining secondary structures. I think many of us will feel this for decades to come.

For a long time, the challenge will be to constantly reduce overheads and control the variables without dropping the quality standards.

L. Aruna Dhir - Going forward, what will be the NEW NORMAL for your industry?

Silvestro Silvestori - As a school, I am of the opinion that the new model will be to master more channels, to have multiple revenue streams and the ability to move from the physical world to the digital one, from online sales of product to live events, etc.

I wish I could say more but I don't have solutions. It's been the hardest thing I've ever been through.

Having said that, my contention is that these rough times will coerce us to look at new ways of doing things and at new things to do!

L. Aruna Dhir - How is the present Pandemic preparing us for future, unforeseen disasters - both as people in the Hospitality business and as humanity? What are your important takeaways?

Silvestro Silvestori - I think there will be a shift to measuring a business by its customers' loyalty versus physical assets.

The more I maintain content creation and create value in the minds of our former and future students, the faster I think we will recover. The pandemic has prolonged the perception of the buying cycle to - the years before the purchase and years afterward!

Before COVID 19, the modern economy meant that each worker would have to reinvent him or herself every five years or so. COVID might have sped that up but hopefully all of us who survive will be more self-contained and self-sufficient, taking it upon ourselves to take courses that update our knowledge of our current industry and the next one.

I think we will see jobs as short-term platforms rather than long-term providers.

Restaurants will focus on maintaining their relationships with the customers and will have to forge deeper and stronger equations. Rather than knowing the customer's names as the CEO of x or y, knowing your customers' children's names will have a stronger impact. And it is the same whether you sell high-end sushi or take away sandwiches, but this approach will allow you to move more seamlessly between the two.

Businesses will adapt to emotional intelligence, as part of their business model.

L. Aruna Dhir - What do your days look like at the moment? How are you keeping yourself gainfully occupied?

Silvestro Silvestori - I'm now harvesting grapes every day, and filming the process. It started in late August and will go on to the late part of October.

I'm sleeping in my car, which I have converted into a solar-powered editing studio and camper bedroom. That way I can stay away from home for 5 or 6 days, without spending money I don't have on hotel rooms, for the better part of 18 months.

I return home to Lecce each weekend to upload and edit the footage and to do a live streaming of the online food and wine class that is seen by people from 5 or 6 different countries.

It's the only money I have coming in and helps me maintain staff. The Italian government won't allow me to fire them for them to receive money through unemployment, so we are trapped together, bond in debt together. I pay them as much as I can through the streaming.

I'm working hard on the streaming each week, but it's more television than teaching cooking, with three cameras, no director or camera operators, live questions coming in and all technological problems needing to be resolved, while I'm in front of the camera.

The hardest part is trying to do all that without letting my emotions reveal how difficult it is.

On the better days I force myself to recall that this is a new business model and that all new ones are painful, wasteful and fight against the inertia of consumer perception of me, of us, of the business and industry.

The other hurdle at the moment is trying to find the time and energy to do MORE streamings, for free, just to get better at it.

I'm trying to film myself live, just preparing my own meals, just to be able to hide my hand as camera man and director, while I'm on camera, doing something physical and answering questions about it. It is particularly vexing when some viewers suggest that I be more like x, a person who only does one (recorded and edited for mistakes) of the 6 jobs that I'm doing live.

This is not to complain, but to point out the universality of pivoting in a business in hard times. It hurts. It stings.

You'll waste a lot of time and money trying to figure out what the next thing will be. And maybe it won't be the 'next' thing for us, but the 'only' thing for us in the future, so this painful thing we must do to stay alive will not be temporary, just 'for now or until things improve.'

I think that is an important realization, especially for those with small or individualistic businesses.

L. Aruna Dhir - Silvestro, your present journey is one of tenacity and grit, of spunk and steadfastness, of determination and a sort of dare-devilry that sees you draw up a new game plan and to rebuild and resurrect yourself. It is not easy, but the times are uniquely hard-hitting and unmatched. You have talked of developing a new business model, educating yourself and arming yourself with a new skill set and creating novel avenues. What makes you so gritty and persevering?

Silvestro Silvestori - In March when Italy was hit hard very early on, we had 100% cancellations of the entire year and we had to refund all the funds; the entire annual budget. It was the hardest thing I've ever been through and I would wake up during the night terrified that there would be more cancellations, and each day there were. It wiped me out financially, at 50, after working this job for 17 years.

I talked to a lawyer and I changed my financial code for the next year and a half, registering as a TV/film producer/director and I ran a crowd funding campaign to gain funds to make a television series about Southern Italian wine.

I'm writing/shooting/editing/directing/financing it all myself, although I am working with a BBC producer who is up in England. To date we don't have a contract, as few channels have much money right now.

It's painful to be forced to reinvent oneself at this stage in life but the goal is that when our bookings return, that I'll have an entire television series produced and ready to air.

The moment our conversation comes to a close, I'm loading up my film gear to visit a winery. I long to feel as accomplished in my new sector as I did in my last one, even if the new one turns out to be only temporary. I suspect that I am not alone in this feeling.

Silvestro Silvestori is a photographer, filmmaker, journalist, nationally-trained sommelier and the owner of two food and wine schools in Italy, The Awaiting Table Cookery School in Lecce, Italy, and The Awaiting Table at the Castle, both in Puglia. He's at work on a 10-part television series on Southern Italian wine.

This has not been an easy conversation for professionals in the same boat as Dr. Silvestori. But I am certain that it has been one of the more inspiring ones.

Dr. Silvestori is hell bent on making his new professional choices a success, as he plans his best to lay a stronger foundation for when his famed cookery schools reopen.

And he is not letting his fame or past accomplishments get in the way!

L. Aruna Dhir

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