An Interview with Tour Leader Lisa Merighi
Upon meeting Italian tour leader Lisa Merighi you’ll quickly learn she is a well-traveled woman of strong character. She has cycled much of her home country – Italy, but has also cycled though the likes of Africa, Asia, Cuba and India on her faithful touring steed, Wanda. In addition to her many personal cycling adventures, Lisa has guided over 50 tours for ExperiencePlus! throughout Europe.
Naturally, these travels have helped her develop and cultivate the idea of “tour leader culture and cultural ambassadors,” which was discussed at the annual ExperiencePlus! Tour Leader Summit this spring. The basic skeleton of this concept is to allow each tour leader to explore and embrace their role as a cultural ambassador for their own country – using their own experiences and passions as the foundation. Tour leaders are storytellers who not only hold knowledge in their hands like a bottle of good Sangiovese, but also possess the ability to pour it, combining history and personal accounts to provide context and meaning to what they share with foreign visitors.
“The idea is to create a culture within ExperiencePlus! that encourages each other and shares each other’s goals,” said Lisa. “To motivate us all to learn more about our own regions and share it in the right way with our travelers.”
“You cannot force anyone to learn,” Lisa said. “It’s up to each of us to be responsible for our professional development and goals.” Simply creating a manual and dispersing it to tour leaders to memorize would not achieve the goal of empowering tour leaders to learn how and what to share of their country. Plus, if you narrow the scope of what you are trying to share to what you are passionate about, you are more likely to reach your goal.
Though all ExperiencePlus! tour leaders are expected to be local ambassadors of their countries when guiding tours, this spring’s tour leader summit was the first time we specifically discussed the concept of personal growth and how each individual tour leader is their own cultural ambassador that has to be fostered and grow – but it has to be exciting for each individual. In a peer to peer session, tour leaders discussed various areas of local expertise and passion and made a commitment of sorts in front of each other, Lisa said, so now they are responsible for continuing their own “education” for how to learn and share their own country’s traditions that they care about. Sometimes it can be as simple as talking about growing up in that area, school, family life, sports passions.
It’s a fitting approach for a dynamic, family-owned company whose fleet of tour leaders, bike mechanics, office staff and every other member of the team has unique knowledge and skills to share.
Perhaps the sweetest gift of perpetual learning, storytelling and self-facilitated growth (like a tiramisu that finishes off a long Italian-style cena, or dinner) is this: the ability to offer a unique sense of connectedness. In trying to give customers a slice of their countries, tour leaders also often end up giving them a slice of their lives.
Lisa personally wishes to present cultural information to clients on tour like a platter of lovely sandwiches at aperitivo (the Italian version of happy hour). And in the process to ease the hunger of travelers to know and understand her own country. During her last Venice to Pisa tour, she accompanied clients on a visit to Ravenna and its splendid mosaics. She said it was the perfect opportunity not only to facilitate their cultural growth but her own.
“It was important to refresh that [for me] and give them a historical perspective before taking them in the museums,” Lisa said. “They liked it and it served me, too.” Lisa expounded a bit more on the importance of imbibing visits to churches, castles – and Mosaics – with a bit of cultural and personal flavor.
“If you walk into a monument you’re not familiar with, you say oh, it’s good looking, whatever,” Lisa said. “But if you give it a little perspective then everything becomes more relevant. In that way you are ambassador and interpreter.”
“I think that after all the culture, they like to see us tour leaders in our personal environment,” said Lisa. “On the last Venice to Pisa tour my grandma showed up decked out on bike, she even brought delicious cake that we ate on the way to the pass [to Florence].”
Lisa’s 80-year-old grandma rolling up on her bici (bike) with cake in hand gave the people on tour the greatest gift travel can possibly offer: humanity – a human connection with food and a smile.
“We are all human beings,” Lisa said. “That is [what clients get and look for] from exposure to the most authentic culture.”