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Episode #220: Italian Hospitality – Come as a Guest, Leave as a Friend

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Italy is not only renowned for its rich cultural heritage and delectable cuisine but also for its special kind of hospitality. We explore how to experience this Italian warmth and hospitality, which, while it comes naturally to many Italians, might be a little trickier to find on the mass-tourism trail. Giovanni Guida of Joe Banana Italy shares with us his philosophy on welcoming his guests and alongside creating magical experiences for them, also having them leave as friends.

Show notes
In this episode, we welcome back Giovanni who runs Joe Banana Italy, with his brother Pierpaulo. Joe Banana has been helping travelers explore Italy for well over a decade. As well as offering tours in their home area of Naples, Pompeii, the Sorrentine Coast and the Amalfi Coast,  they also offer custom-built private tours all over Italy (and a little bit beyond) to fit your personal needs and interests. Taking one of their luxury private tours, not only means you can pick and choose what you do, see and eat, but also means you get to just sit back, relax and soak it all up with no hassle or stress, no worrying about the logistics. 

What you’ll learn this episode

  1. Giovanni, alongside his brother Paolo (from episodes 1089073 and 67) runs Joe Banana Italy. They have been in the tourism industry since 1998, and Giovanni first started Joe Banana Limos in 2009, which has now evolved from a driver service to a full travel company offering tours all over Italy – both packages and bespoke
  2. They are based near the Amalfi Coast and the weather is now getting glorious and they are already starting to take people out on boats, visiting Capri and the Amalfi Coast. People are starting to eat outside again. They are seeing a lot of tourists as many now aim to avoid the very busy peak seasons on the coast
  3. Giovanni loves his job and takes hosting guests very seriously. As he says, of course, they like getting paid, but they also do it as it is a passion. They love to welcome their guests and have them leave as friends
  4. When somebody visits Italy, they want their hospitality to be like it would for a friend, welcomed into your home. They take people around to the places they like to go to themselves – restaurants and beaches etc. They take care of their guests as soon as they step into Italy until the day they leave
  5. Giovanni and Pierpaolo both speak fluent English and have lived in other countries. Giovanni visits the US every year, so they are well versed in international clients’ needs and points of view
  6. He has friends in the US who are travel agents and when they had the limo company, he used to pick them up at the airport to take them around to visit Rome, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast etc
  7. Gradually, they opened their own travel agency, and they sell everything in terms of tourism. So you don’t have to worry about booking your hotel, your boat trip, your tickets, booking guides – they take care of everything
  8. Each year they like to include little add-ons away from the mass tourism choices. It is a beautiful thing to show people things off the beaten path
  9. One of the things that they offer that has proved very popular is the mozzarella making. They take guests to a very small mozzarella cheese factory where they get to handle the cheese and make mozzarella balls for themselves
  10. Another option is pizza making – it is amazing for people to be able to eat the pizza they made with their own hands. Pasta making too. These little experiences make Joe Banana different from many of the other tour companies beating the same, mass tourism path. Of course, they make money, but they would actually make more money taking people on the regular Amalfi Coast tours, rather than things like the mozzarella experiences. They love showing people what the usual tourists don’t get to see
  11. What Katy really appreciates about Giovanni and Joe Banana as a company, is the care that they take to ensure every customer has a wonderful experience, whether they’re joining a full private tour of Italy, or a special boat tour along the Amalfi Coast, or even simply taking a transfer from Naples to Positano
  12. Giovanni travels a lot and he wants to welcome people in the way he would like to be welcomed to a country
  13. When a guest is picked up by a driver, going from Rome to Positano, for example, you can get the classical limo service with no talking to the client – like a business transfer. Joe Banana don’t do that. They like to chat, stop somewhere picturesque on the way, let the guests take wonderful photos. The landscapes of Italy are beautiful wherever you go, from Lake Como down to Sicily, wherever you drive, it’s really beautiful so letting people stop to take it in is important
  14. Giovanni had a recent experience with a guest, a party of 14 from New Jersey who are planning their private tour with Joe Banana. They told him they wanted to visit Como, Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, and go to Sicily. He did tell them that from North to Sicily, it’s about a thousand miles, so it is possible, but you would need about 15 days. The last stop before heading to Sicily will be Sorrento and they going to spend  4 nights in Sorrento and take a boat tour of the Amalfi Coast and go on the gastronomy tour. They told him they wanted to go to Sicily, but they didn’t want to drive there. He pointed out that to go to Sicily by plane, it is 1 and a half hours from Sorrento to the airport, then you have luggage check-in etc so you need to be at the airport 2 hours before the flights, and then you get to Catania Airport, pick up your luggage and get transport to your next location. This is all going to take about 7 hours. Giovanni offered that in 6 and a half hours, they could drive them in a luxury, comfortable Mercedes (their new Mercedes Sprinter is a bit like first class of a plane). In those 6 and a half hours, you don’t drive through the desert, you drive along the Coast and get to enjoy the panorama. Of course, that was the option the clients went for!
  15. When Joe Banana picks someone up, from Naples to Positano, for example,  they stop on the way, and let people take pictures. There is also a favorite lemon granita spot, they take people to if they can (schedule permitting). And the driver gets to know you, you chat about what you’re going to be doing in Italy. They’ll suggest some restaurants to have dinner. It is the first impact that you already building a relationship even if you never met before. Katy can attest that the granita is very, very good! As is the gelato from Paolo’s favorite gelato shop, which they also detoured to
  16. Lots of people have the gelato in Florence, Rome, and other main cities where millions of tourists go. When Joe Banana does the gastronomic tour, for gelato, like the mozzarella, the pizza, the olive oil – they love to take people to the best places. They take them to a famous gelateria, famous locally, but where tourists don’t go. You can explore all the freshest of flavors because when they make hazelnut ice cream, they don’t make it with the concentrate or the flavoring – they make it with fresh hazelnut. The gelato you may get in a tourist center may well be good – but it won’t be THIS good! 
  17. Giovanni says that they were raised being hospitable. When someone rings at your door, you welcome them in, give them an espresso and you give them a cookie. Even if they do hospitality as a business, they have it in their blood already
  18. People do have expectations when they come to Italy. They think about that warmer, more connected experience with the people that you hear about, read about or see on TV or social media. It’s not just about taking photos, it’s about having a conversation and learning a bit more about people. That’s a really beautiful thing for tourism in general, not just in Italy, but all around the world. Katy believes that if everyone gave a little bit more hospitality the world might be a friendlier place
  19. Giovanni travels a lot and does think it is in many Italian’s habits to give hospitality. Not everyone of course, and perhaps even someone who is naturally hospitable, is less so when dealing with mass tourism and not-so-grateful customers in the tourist hubs, but many are doing their business with a little bit of passion, which fires giving the hospitality that clients deserve
  20. Flexibility is another way to give hospitality to people. Giovanni recently was in Rome for a strike (Italy is a beautiful country, but the politics and the bureaucracy are not so great) – he had clients who were in Sorrento but their luggage had got lost along the way and had turned up finally in Rome. Giovanni said to them, “Listen, I’m going to Rome – I’ll go to the airport and pick up the luggage for you, and bring it to your hotel.” So they say “How much I owe you?” and his reply is that they don’t owe him anything. He is going to Rome anyway so of course he will do this. Obviously, if he had no nobody in Rome and he had to send a vehicle especially, he would likely have to charge something, but that wasn’t the case so it was just a simple act as a hospitable gesture
  21. Katy did the Lemon Tour with Joe Banana not long ago and to this day gets dreamy-eyed about the lasagna, they had with the smoked mozzarella and the lemon rind. The place where they take their guests – they didn’t even really know what tourists are not long ago. They were just running their local business with passion, but when people from the tour were brought there, they were just naturally hospitable and welcoming
  22. Joe Banana Italy goes from strength to strength and they now have about 10 vehicles and all their drivers are trained one on one. Givonni said to a driver he was training, I said, “Okay, now tomorrow, you have to transfer, pick people up in Sorrento, take them to the station. And he said, “Okay, Giovanni, do I drop them off outside?” I said, “No! You go in the car park.” He said, “Why do we go in the parking? We pay the parking?” and Giovanni replies “Yes, you pay the parking. You pay at the machine and you take the people and their luggage inside the station, show them the train schedule board, show them the track number and THEN you bye-bye.” It is important to do this. It’s treating people like you would like to be treated if you go to a foreign country or place and you don’t know how things work or where things are. You don’t want someone that kicks you out of the car outside the station. If there have been delays and the driver is in a rush, because they have another service scheduled, maybe they don’t go in but they check everything is ok and tell the clients “Guys, I’m going to drop you right here, you walk inside there.” and point them exactly to where they have to walk. But when you have time, you have to go in. This is Giovanni’s philosophy in practice 
  23. Giovanni and Paolo, train all the drivers, and the guides and ensure they practice this kind of hospitality
  24. About 10 years ago Paolo became a professional licensed guide (this takes a long time and a lot of study in Italy). He takes people to Pompeii, to Capri, to Herculaneum etc. He has a lot of guides working for him, and he trains them himself, thoroughly. He is not training them to explain the archeological site to someone – they have already studied that. He will train them on how to treat the clients. The same with the drivers, they don’t train them to drive the car, they don’t need to, but they train them how to treat the client and make sure they are happy. And making clients very happy is of course worth their while, so they might get a good tip. In Italy tipping is not standard practice – you should do it only when you are happy with the service – when someone has gone the extra mile
  25. Many people miss out on some wonderful experiences, because with the mass tourism, it is a bit of a machine that churns customers over quickly and en masse. It is nice to do something different and more personal. Joe Banana Italy are flexible, they customize the itineraries and try to make their clients’ wishes and dreams come true
  26. Lack of flexibility with shared, larger group tours can lead to disappointment if things don’t go as planned. Just this week Giovanni had 2 drivers assigned to  13 people staying in Sorrento. They were supposed to do the Path of Gods, a beautiful path that goes along the Amalfi Coast, but yesterday, they had some rain and the Path of Gods is spectacular, but not only might it not be so spectacular in the rain, the walk can actually get a bit dangerous. So Giovanni changed the schedule around, Instead of doing the Path of the Gods, they got sent 2 vehicles and they went off to enjoy touring the Amalfi Coast, as well as going to an olive oil mill because one of them really wanted to see how the olive oil is made. When you buy an Amalfi Coast tool on a mass tourist website, you are joining with maybe 10/20 other people. If you want to change it, you can’t. Of course, Giovanni could decide to tell the clients that they will take them anyway, even if it rains as that was the plan. Who cares? But he would never do that because you do your best to welcome guest, accommodate their wishes and try to make them enjoy the vacation time they have spent their well-earned money on
  27. It is easy to be disappointed because you’ve booked something thinking it was going to be quick and easy, and then something’s happened and you may need to cancel it or change plans, and then you’ve got nothing to fall back on because you are part of a bit of a machine. Especially going to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast nowadays – it can be more difficult to have a special experience
  28. Katy has always had a great time with Joe Banana. One story involves Giovanni’s brother and fellow Untold Italy podcast guest Pierpaolo. Pierpaolo wanted Katy and family to try a tuna dish that someone had made, and he’d forgotten to bring the tuna on the last day that they spent with him. So he then ran around organizing to drop it off at a bakery near the airport, so they could get it on the way out and on top of that he also bought them some delicious pastries! He made it so easy for them to go and pick it all up, and then was such a surprise. Maybe it was a little thing to him (though it probably wasn’t as he he had to drive a long way) , but it was very special to Katy and family. Those little touches can really make a big difference. You remember those experiences. Katy’s kids know Paolo and his amazing ability to eat a lot of pizza (his claim to fame). They definitely experienced the best of Italian hospitality with Giovanni’s family and team. It was really very special. Katy travels around Italy frequently and has a lot of experiences and they are not all so memorable
  29. Another of the things that Joe Banana offers are Capri boat tours. They decided a few years ago to stop doing shared boat experiences. They can definitely make more money because people don’t want to spend too much money so demand for the cheaper options is high, but Giovanni felt that going with 12 other people you don’t know and on a fixed itinerary and often short timings – they were not able to give the hospitality they gave in other areas. So they decided to give only private boat tours to Capri etc and with flexibility. You need flexibility not just for when for clients plans change but for the weather 
  30. A few days ago, Giovanni had a family booked on a Capri tour on their 38-foot boat (the famous Gozzo boat of Sorrento). They booked to go to Capri. At a certain point, after setting off the skipper and the husband of this client were chatting and the husband asked about Positano and Nerano and the little places along the Amalfi Coast. So the skipper said, “Well, we can definitely switch. You don’t want to go to Capri, we go to the Amalfi Coast. There is no extra cost. The day is eight hours. We are going to enjoy.” So they completely switched the day. And in the office, they didn’t even know that had happened. Only when one of Giovann’s assistants, Maria, made a courtesy call and asked “How was your day in Capri? Did you enjoy on the boat?” and they replied, “Oh, we actually switched it – we are on the Amalfi Coast!”. You could never do that If you do a sharing tour
  31. Giovanni is very well-traveled. He has never been to Australia (it is on his bucket list) but he has spent a lot of time in the United States and has been to around 30 states. He has done all of Europe too. And although the hospitality is nice wherever you go, it’s a different culture. Giovanni has had clients that he has taken to his home. You don’t expect a driver in the United States or in Australia to take you to his home for a lunch
  32. It is wonderful to get appreciation when you explain things to a client – even on a 1-hour transfer, from Naples to Sorrento, you drive past Pompeii, Herculaneum, you go through Naples (which is the third largest city in Italy and is older than Rome), you can point out Capri in the distance, as the view is fantastic
  33. When you see that people are appreciating what you are telling them, that is what sways things over from guest to friend.  Giovanni finds 99% of their clients are appreciative – although it might be a surprisingly high figure – it makes it easy to build relationships

What do Joe Banana’s tours entail

  • The Joe Banana Italian packages are really popular at the moment. They have a tour of Italy which is 12 days. It includes basically everything and costs about €7,000 per person for 2 people. For 4 people, it costs about €5,500. All 4 or 5-star hotels, a driver, who acts as a host and is with you throughout each day, all tickets, local guides, boat tour, all these things are included and they take care of them as soon they set foot in Italy
  • There is a vast difference with the big tour operators, where you pay X amount of money to go on a big bus with a group tour, and you cannot say to the driver, “Stop here or stop there or I want to take a picture of that”. It is all fixed. Joe Banana has created these little packages, which are priced reasonably and which include almost everything. Everybody can have access these and get treated like a VIP
  • A great way to visit a foreign country is to have someone with insider knowledge sorting things for you beforehand – booking your hotel, organizing the planning, the tickets etc and then taking care of you from the moment that you land – picking you up from the airport, carrying your luggage, taking you to the hotel
  • Even seemingly simple things can be a challenge to do on your own. Tickets to the Colosseum and the Vatican are more complicated than they have ever seen. Jo Banana buys the suitable tickets and arranges a suitable local professional licensed guide which is very important for those visiting Italy, especially in Rome and in Florence, to guide you and teach you the stories of the cities
  • Katy used to travel very much independently and do everything herself. She was very proud of doing everything by herself, but as time has gone on and she has a busy career as well as a busy family and she gets more experience traveling, she now really appreciates being looked after.
  • When she is on vacation she doesn’t really want to feel like she’s working. She just wants to relax and have everything taken care of for her. This would probably shock her younger self! If you haven’t tried this style of travel, Katy really encourages you to do it because it’s really a different experience. You don’t miss out on any local experiences, in fact you are more likely to have access to local people and experiences – through recommendations and introductions. You can make a relationship with your driver. We’ve had some amazing stories where drivers have taken them to visit their family farm in Puglia because the guests wanted to hug an olive tree. It’s a very different style of travel, but if you haven’t tried it, you definitely should give it a go!

Find out more from Joe Banana

  • You can find Joe Banana at Joe Banana Italy. They have a live chat on the website. They have about 6 people in their office helping people, discussing and building the private package tours etc. When you are in Italy, they offer 24/7 assistance. They do shifts to make sure someone is always available – real peace of mind 
  • You can email them. You can check out their various packages
  • Most of the single services are purchasable on the website directly – like the single transfers, single tours (the Amalfi Coast, the gastronomic tour etc). You can buy and check the availability right there
  • If you have any questions, they are very welcome to get in touch with us. They are there to help. That’s what they have been there doing for about 20 years. For a more personal package, it is always better to have a call. They have a toll-free number for the United States and Canada too where clients there can call them for free and talk with someone in the office who’ll have suggestions and can help plan the trip

About our guest – Giovanni Guida

Giovanni runs Joe Banana Italy with his brother Pierpaolo and they have more than two decades of experience in the tourism business.

Giovanni’s nickname ‘Joe Banana’, is the inspiration for the name of my company. Nicknames are really popular in the southern part of Italy, where basically, every family has one. Giovanni was given this nickname when he was 9 years old. His Grandad used to sell fruits using a three-wheel minivan, and he used to sit on the back trailer as he drove street by street through their little village. One day he was eating a banana while riding on the back of his grandad’s trailer when a few of his school friends saw him, and from that moment his nickname became “Banana”.

Giovanni began his career as a tour director and driver of tour buses, taking tourists from all over the world to visit the main cities around Europe. In 2010, he started his own little business with driving and guide services. He was soon joined by brother Pierpaolo, who started his career studying management of touristic enterprises and who with further studying and a lot of experience under his belt, in 2015 became a licensed professional tour guide.

Year after year they have grown and have added private boat tours, private guided tours and other services, until the realization of their dream to become a full travel agency. In this way, they feel they can meet all the needs of their guests. Their fully customizable private tours can take you all over Italy, and even include some nearby countries such as France, Switzerland, and Austria. Everything is taken care of for you so you can just make the most of your vacation time and have no stress – only memories. 

You can find Joe Banana on these channels:

Places to visit mentioned in the show

  • Herculaneum – the town hit first by Vesuvius’s explosion and where people died the quickest, without warning – such as the ashy rain that fell on Pompeii hours before (though few recognized it as a warning sign)
  • Nerano – village near Sorrento famous for inventing Zucchini/Spaghetti alla Nerano
  • Capri – pretty and popular island off the Amalfi Coast
  • Sorrento
  • Naples – the capital city of Campania
  • Sicily – Italy’s largest island, just off the toe of the boot

Resources

  • Gozzo – the traditional boats of the Sorrento and Amalfi Coast

Resources from Untold Italy

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