Laura Polla, I Love Rome City Tour Operations and Commercial Director, managed the restart of one of the most historic Italian tourism brands, Carrani Tours.
Transportation in a large capital like Rome is the most complex aspect in support of the reopening of the city’s tourist operations. Thousands of tourists travel on hop on hop off buses every day. For them the bus is the first point of contact with the city, a great way to explore, making it a crucial part of the experience of visiting Rome. However, maintaining physical distance between tourists on a bus can be extraordinarily difficult.
In this interview, Laura La Polla tells us what it was like to reopen the activities following the COVID emergency and what to expect when visiting Rome during this special time for tourism around the world. Thanks to her experience gained on the field during recent months, she shares the lessons she learned and she offers food for thought to plan tourism operators’ restart.
Could you tell us about the reopening experience for you, your team and your first guests on board of the buses?
On June 19 we were the first hop-on-hop-off operator to reopen after the COVID-19 emergency. We reopened with 30 daily trips and with excellent operations built on 13 continuous hours and a frequency guaranteed by 4 buses over the whole weekend and every 30 minutes – an excellent structure with a considerable cost weight for a “restart”. We opened with a lot of expectations, closing our first day of operations with only 45 tickets sold. On the second day we were very happy to have exceeded 100, then on the third day we were back to 66 tickets. We are talking about a service that during the pre-COVID days would have produced an average of almost 2000 tickets per day. Only the tenacity and the willingness to strongly believe, every day until the very last minute of the day, that we would improve sales, with very small steps. Our resilience resulted in a peak of 400 tickets, thanks to every commercial effort such as the promotions we activated for the last hours of the day, the free extensions of validity reserved for first passengers, etc.
COVID has given new meaning and a new value to everything, so the results of a hardworking, attentive, passionate, diligent, but above all welcoming team are praiseworthy. Our attitude was crucial to readjust to the modalities and new procedures and the way we interact with our guests.
Opening was a courageous restart in deserted Rome, our “pink buses” were like lights in the city, the few shops and activities near our stops welcomed us with sincere gratitude.
The first few days, my whole team and I were fueled by this pride, by being there, and by having everything set up perfectly for the complete safety of our guests visiting the Eternal City!
Those who had the privilege of being among the very first 45 passengers on the opening day, as well as throughout the month of June and July, enjoyed an unforgettable experience. This is our new mission: to give a memorable experience to our Guests.
Can you tell us how you prepared the experience to be safe and to welcome your guests after the COVID-19 emergency?
With the new safety COVID protocols there was also a lot of confusion at the beginning. If we think of April, the “era” in which if you wanted to plan to restart the engines, you had to create new ways of running your operations, impacting every aspect of the guest experience in terms of hospitality, communication, graphics, operational, commercial resource management. I can say it was like starting up a new business. I have mentioned the word “era” because during these times we faced many stages of the emergency and we lived in different “eras”.
And then continuing to answer the question, I am a mother of two girls, so it came natural to me to put families first as they might need special care at this time. A safe product that is suitable for families is a guarantee for every guest.
How was it for tourists to adapt to this new normal?
The tourists arrived prepared in the destination, just as they found us equally very prepared, so there was a “match” that traced a new normal in the simplest and most streamlined way.
Can you tell us a story or a special moment you experienced with the guests during the opening period?
I don’t know how to tell it, but I remember them very well: a beautiful Florentine family was with us for 2 days to do “ups and downs”. It was the second weekend of June – when you travel with 50 people you remember your passengers well, especially them – the children were now calling the attendants by name. Feeling the guests in such empathy with our team, even with an empty bus, was a good result. On Sunday morning I met the same family at the stop in Largo Peretti, I approached them to greet them because the validity of their tickets would have expired on Sunday and I was pleased to hear their opinion on the service. The mom thanked us, her eyes swollen with tears, I thought she was feeling bad and instead she was confiding to me that her father-in-law had passed away during the night. She thanks us for giving a nice memory and above all a supportive mood to the little ones. Obviously they remained in my heart. Without going into the sentimental detail of the question, returning to the topic, I continue to believe how much this obligatory physical distancing due to COVID often mistakenly mentioned as social distancing, gave us the opportunity to connect with people.
How has your team adapted to this new normal?
Initially, of course, a bit like when children approach something outside of their habit, and as happens to all of us when we are outside the “comfort zone”, there was a lot of work to do. Today after this first “step” everything is a normal and the past (i.e. 8 months ago) is now history.
What did you learn from operations management during this time?
I have certainly learned to reconsider, redo, remodel, question and start all over again, very frequently.
I have learned to be more patient and also to have more confidence in something beyond my control: time.
I have given new indicators to the value of each commercial, communication, operational issue, etc.
Focusing outside the result of numerical value to pursue that same result with spirit and motivation “slowly”.
What do you think institutions could do to support your business?
To the institutions I would suggest to reconsider the true value of tourism for the country, beyond the contribution to the GDP but also taking into account the impact of people’s lives. We probably all realized how tourism is an essential part of our life.
What procedure or best practice would you continue to implement after the emergency?
Surely the sanitization of buses and guest’s hands in my opinion as it should continue to happen when entering our homes or shops, seems to me a sanitary-hygienic norm to be absolutely maintained.
What would you recommend to tourists to book their next trip to Rome? Is it a good time to travel and why?
Rome has always been and will always be wonderful, but in this period it exceeds all expectations, at all hours of the day and in the evening, it seems to rest, it seems relaxed, less stressed and much more welcoming. There is no usual traffic, there are much less noises, obviously also a lot less people, enjoying it today, it is a privilege of undisputed value, I could say a “luxury stay” that the city of Rome is offering as a “free up-grade ”to all his amateurs.
Gray Line I Love Rome’s Hop-On-Hop-Off service stopped at the end of September to be resumed in the new season.
About Laura La Polla
I Love Rome City Tou’s Operational and Commercial Director
This year is my 24th year of experience in marketing and sightseeing operations, of which 22 with “Carrani Tours”. The characteristics that have accompanied my path certainly range from a natural propensity to problem solving combined with a constant attention to the quality of services, customer satisfaction, measured collaboration with suppliers, training and to the organization and dynamic management of human resources in an empathic and productive way.
“If you can dream it, you can do it”.
Walt Disney – this is the spirit that mainly fuels my desire to do beyond measure.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow and learn as if you were to live forever”.
Gandhi – this is the spirit I look for in the people who have to work with me daily.