As travel quickly rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the strongest sectors has been active and adventure travel. Americans took up new outdoor activities such as cycling and hiking, which saw massive growth during the pandemic, and now they want to take that on the road. At the same time, many realized that life is unpredictable and having great travel experiences now, not “someday,” is important. The more “Bucket List” type trips, from safaris to epic hiking routes like the Tour du Mont Blanc, have also seen jumps in bookings.
Many of the leading tour companies specializing in these kinds of trips are reporting record reservations, and travelers are booking big active and travel trips into late 2023, a year and a half out. Active and adventure travel is my favorite kind of travel, but these trips can be expensive and require advance commitment, so it is important to choose wisely. The knowledge and personalities of the individual guides is key to your enjoyment, and with complex logistics, often in far-flung or exotic locales, you need to use an organization with expertise in this kind of planning and execution. Strong networks of local contacts get you the best, most unique or most charming accommodations, the best meals along the way and memorable local, immersive experiences.
Since summer is prime vacation travel time and many Americans are starting to plan their return to travel right now, I’m devoting June to profiling and speaking with the women who run some of the best tour operators in the business. After all, the majority of travel decisions and bookings are made by women, so whether you are traveling solo, with other women, or with your husband, boyfriend or partner, you might appreciate the perspective these women have about what will make your trip the best. The first entry was giant global cycling and hiking luxury specialist Butterfield & Robinson (read here). The second was the boutique and all-bespoke active travel gurus at Gray & Co. (read here). The third was world-renowned safari company Micato Safaris (read here). The fourth was four-season adventure specialist Dolomite Mountains (read here). Today, for the final installment, we have Tourissimo.
Tourissimo is a bike- and hike-focused tour company specializing in all things Italy, one of the world’s greatest destinations – and the most desirable international destination for U.S. travelers right now. There are of course a lot of companies doing trips in Italy, but Tourissimo stands out in several key ways. First, co-founder Heather Dowd’s husband and business partner, Beppe, is Italian and has deep-rooted, special connections in the biking, culinary and hospitality community, giving the company extra special personal entrée. They have designed bike tours in all 20 regions of Italy, and their deep dive into local culture includes a fleet of top quality Bianchi bikes, Italy’s most famous brand.
They also have a very strong focus on food, including cooking classes, insider meals, and an emphasis on wine and wine regions. Heather’s grandmother hails from Calabria, and she is still imprinted with fond memories of growing up to “nonna” cooking. Most uniquely, Tourissimo offers an annual series of about five chef-led bike tours, where renowned American chefs lead a group hungry for cycling and food across a region in Italy, collaborating with Italian counterparts on meals and demos along the way. No one else I know of has such a dedicated chef cycling program, and as an example, one repeat riding host who covers a different region every year (for 2022 it was Sardinia) is James Beard award-winning chef, cookbook author, restaurateur and TV personality Mary Sue Milliken, co-founder of the acclaimed Border Grill eateries and star on the Food Network’s Too Hot Tamales.
Tourissimo also offers an unusually broad array of effort levels on its scheduled group rides, and as you will hear below from Heather, an unusually large focus on catering to women clients. Most competitors skew towards the easier end of the output spectrum, but Tourissimo does it all, from easygoing to its collection of aptly named Ambitious Tours, which typically venture into mountains for some epic climbs. They also offer a chance to ride the famous Strade Bianche or white roads of Tuscany, a very old, and very famous gravel ride. Gravel grinding is all the rage now, the fastest growing segment within cycling, but because it appeals to the more athletic, very few tour companies have embraced it. Tourssimo also has rides designed around the Giro d’Italia, second only among races to the Tour de France, and some specialty offerings including a 9-day coast to coast traverse of Sardinia. But at the opposite end are a roster of low-key Bici Basics tours, “for anyone who has always dreamed of a cycling vacation in Italy but doesn’t know where to start.” There is truly something for everyone.
Finally, the company offers an excellent value proposition and is more affordable than many luxury-focused competitors, while offering a broader slate of scheduled group departures for both hiking and cycling, in a segment of the industry that is increasingly going to exclusive private custom trips. They also welcome solo travelers. If you are looking for an active taste of Italy at a reasonable price, whether you are a casual rider/walker or an avid enthusiast – or a dyed in the wool food lover – chances are Tourissimo has something for you.
Interestingly, Heather didn’t leave the United States until she was 21, but her first trip, to Nicaragua, gave her the bug and hooked her on travel – as she puts it, she “has been afflicted by wanderlust ever since.” Heather is not kidding – she’s now visited 25 countries on 5 continents with no plans of slowing down. After college she turned her newfound passion into a career, working for several adventure travel companies until 2015, when she and her husband, Beppe, launched Tourissimo, which is based in Boston with an office in Italy. When she is not out scouting new trips and hotels, she manages sales, marketing and customer service. Heather is also a certified yoga instructor and designs and leads yoga and wellness retreats in Italy.
Q: Have you seen an increased interest in active travel among women travelers in the past few years?
A. Yes. This increase started before the pandemic and now that international travel is resuming, we are seeing it continue. We’re receiving many more requests from solo female travelers, as well as from groups (friends, book clubs, cycling clubs, etc.).
Q: Have you done anything as a company to encourage or facilitate travel by women?
A. Yes, especially for our cycling trips. I want to send the message that our cycling trips are for everyone!
I started a line of cycling tours called Bici Basics, which caters to women who are brand-new to cycling and to cycling vacations. Many cycling companies offer “beginner” cycling tours, but they still assume a certain level of skill and often attract experienced cyclists. This can make those who are new to cycling feel intimidated, afraid to ask questions and worried about falling behind or slowing down the group. Tourissimo’s Bici Basics tour was designed for those who want to experience a cycling vacation in Italy in a fun and judgment-free environment. Maybe you haven’t been on a bike in 20 years…or ever. We’ll have at least one departure in Puglia in 2023 and are working with groups of female cyclists on this project as well.
On our Chef Bike Tours, our chef cyclists are mostly women, and they do a great job of attracting female travelers. While on tour, they are welcoming and inclusive.
We sponsored Vitoria Bussi, an Italian athlete and former World Record holder for the hour record, while she was making her attempt. Later, we invited her on our Dolomites tour so she could ride with our guests.
I’ve also made it a point to reach out directly to female cycling clubs and we have several all-female groups coming on tour with us in 2023 and 2024.
Q: What trends have you been seen recently or expect for the future in terms of types of travel or who is traveling?
A. Multigenerational family travel is a big trend that I think will continue. We’ve also been seeing more groups of friends, as well as solo female travelers.
Q: What destinations are hot right now and going forward?
A. We operate tours in Italy only, and right now the hot destinations for us are Sardinia, Puglia and Piedmont. Our tours focus just as much on culture as they do on adventure, and in Italy culture includes food and wine. These three destinations, while all part of Italy, are geographically and culturally diverse and are great for those who have been to Italy before and want to experience something different. Many of our guests are returning customers or they’ve been to Italy with other companies before. They’re ready to come back for something new and they trust us to take them to these lesser-known areas and provide an incredible, unique experience.
Q: What does your company do to make travel as great as it can be – what makes your company special?
A. What sets us apart is our personalized service and our expertise. In our mission statement we say we don’t want to be the biggest adventure travel company. We want to design and run the best tours in Italy. We are Italy experts with deep roots in this beautiful country and we want to share our favorite places and people with you, in small groups and at a slow pace by bike or on foot.
We’re a small company and we have our niche: active travel in Italy. Most of our guides and tour designers are Italian and have deep, personal knowledge and expertise in the regions of Italy where they guide. We are personally on the ground in Italy throughout the year, and we have deep connections and personal contacts throughout the country. We don’t try to be everything to everyone, and we often turn away business (or refer them to our trusted partners) if we feel we can’t deliver a superior experience.
We create active travel vacations that are full of intense, meaningful experiences for our guests and for our hosts. We have several decades of combined experience in all facets of the adventure travel industry, and came together to combine our strengths and focus on what we do best: create and operate cycling and hiking tour programs that feature some of Italy’s most genuine, welcoming and amazing areas. We know Italy better than anyone else and in addition to offering fixed departure tours, we work with private groups, tour operators and travel agents to provide high-quality, intelligently designed and exciting custom itineraries all over the country.
Personal connections are important to me, and so even as we grow, I continue to be heavily involved in sales and customer service. I love picking up the phone and talking about our trips. It’s also very important for me that our guests know they are in good hands after they book. We try to answer emails quickly and offer solutions to travel problems that arise. During the pandemic, once we started running tours, we made sure to provide the most up-to-date travel rules and restrictions to make the travel experience as easy as possible during a difficult time.
Q: Do you have any advice for planning a trip or picking a trip or destination?
A: The popular months to travel to Italy are July and August, and with few exceptions these are actually the worst months to visit. April/May and September/October are perfect. In some locations, conditions are favorable even in March and November.
Expand your idea of what a trip to Italy means, even if it’s your first time. Rome, Venice and Tuscany are all amazing, but you can travel to Italy without going to any of those places and still have a magical experience. Every city is packed with history, art and culture. Countless hilltop towns are filled with charm and curious locals who are excited to welcome you. There are many bonuses to going to lesser-known places. The crowds will be manageable (or non-existent). You’ll often find better deals on food and accommodations, and you’ll generally have a more authentic and much more pleasant experience. So many places in Italy are suffering from under-population as the younger generation leaves in search of work and opportunities. By bringing your tourist dollars to these places, you’re contributing to the local economy and creating jobs in places that desperately need them. You’re also lessening the negative effects of over-tourism, which is a serious problem in some locations in Italy.
Q: Any other thoughts that would be of interest to active travelers or women travelers?
A: It might be a cliche, but it is so true – spending money on experiences over things is always more rewarding. If you’ve been thinking/dreaming about travel, especially an active travel adventure, do not put it off. If you can’t find anyone to go with you, go yourself. Joining a group, such as one of Tourissimo’s cycling tours, takes a lot of the logistical planning out of your hands, gives you a built-in group of travel companions, and still leaves plenty of room for self-discovery and adventure. When joining a group, don’t be afraid to ask questions to find the trip that’s right for you.