I’ve been writing posts as part of a series to share the stories of interesting ventures from around the world. If you haven’t already, check out the story of this advertising professional who trained under a Michelin star chef in Spain, and this UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s redefining skincare through grapes! But for now – let’s talk about an offbeat travel company in Italy!
What does it take to start your own company in the offbeat travel space? It’s exciting and exhilarating for sure, but also hard work. Sierra Busch quit her job in New York and moved to Italy (a place she had fallen in love with during a semester abroad) to start her own experiential-based travel company, Creative Edge Travel. She spends her time traveling to lesser-known towns and villages in Italy, and scouting out interesting activities to take her travelers to, such as a family that’s been making gelato for 100 years. When she isn’t creating meaningful experiences for her travelers, she’s figuring out how to use social media to market herself, and building relationships in a new country. I caught up with Sierra to learn all about her offbeat travel company, Creative Edge Travel, and how she got started.
Let’s start with your love affair with Italy! How did that begin?
Ahhh! Where do I begin? I grew up in the US, but when I studied abroad in Italy, I knew I wanted more out of the experience. In addition to my classes, I studied Italian in my free time so I could communicate with locals. I became friends with a local chef who showed me around and a family that invited me into their home for a long Sunday lunch! Being outside of the university setting and being immersed in the raw culture, trying to speak a foreign language – it brought out a side of me I hadn’t seen before. I felt confident, expressive, curious and excited – all at once. I felt alive! So when people ask me “Why Italy?”, I just don’t know what to say. It’s something deeply personal and intangible.
*side note* Sierra’s face LIGHTS up when she talks about Italy. I don’t think it’s a feeling that can be captured in words.
So… when did you start thinking about starting your own offbeat travel company in Italy?
I love art and ever since I was 15, I wanted to start my own business. I always thought I would set up a creative arts center, and perhaps lead art-based tours. While sipping rosé in Central Park on my 25th birthday, I announced to my boyfriend at the time that what I really wanted to do was lead my own trips in Italy. But I knew I would need some experience in the travel industry before setting something up on my own.
So, I started networking. I began by reaching out to a group for women entrepreneurs, asking for tips on getting into the travel space. Through some really kind contacts, I got an invite to attend an event exclusively for travel agents. I felt so out of place – I wasn’t a travel agent! I wasn’t even in the travel space yet. But I was determined to build relationships, so I printed out some business cards for my “dream business” (even though it didn’t yet exist) and came up with a pitch. Through a connection that I made at that event, I eventually ended up landing a job with a luxury travel startup in New York.
Super cool. What was that like? How did that push you to eventually set up your own travel company?
I learned a LOT at that job. I made connections with airlines, hotels and tour operators, and started understanding how the travel market worked. But New York was a stressful place – I grew up in the countryside, and the city life just wasn’t working for me. I knew I had hit my limit and it was time to make a move.
So in February 2017, I quit my job and moved to Puglia (a region in Southern Italy) while I worked for a tour operator. My plan was to work in Italy for a couple of years before finally starting my own offbeat travel company. But somehow everything I had felt was missing in order to feel ready just fell into place and I leapt through that door. Within 6 months, I had registered Creative Edge Travel and finally begun the journey towards realizing my dream.
What was next? Take us through all the crazy days involved in setting up an offbeat travel company in Italy.
I set a goal to lead a trip by Spring 2018. This meant TONS of research in Italy, finding great partners and creating unique activities for travelers. My goal was to curate trips that didn’t just focus on one aspect of Italian life – like wine, food or art. I wanted people to travel in a deeper and more meaningful way; connecting with locals and experiencing a similar personal transformation as I had. So each activity needed to be more than sipping wine in a beautiful place. Rather, I wanted my travelers to have authentic conversations with the vineyard owner about what it means to be a winemaker today compared to four generations ago, and understand how things like immigration and global warming affect production. I want to build human connections.
What were some interesting ways in which you researched offbeat experiences for your trips?
Of course, I used Google to find interesting workshops, artists, food and wine connoisseurs – anything that was an authentic local experience. Invariably, the first few websites on Google are the super commercialized, tourist-friendly ones. They are curated with a conventional tourist in mind, so they may not be the most authentic. So I started searching on Google in Italian, I chatted with local friends and sourced recommendations; sometimes, I would just look at Google Maps and find farms and vineyards around tiny villages. In fact, if it doesn’t have a website, I want to visit it even more! That’s when I know it’s truly a hidden gem – something travelers won’t otherwise be able to find or experience. I was looking for places that were based on an artist or farmer or vineyard owner’s passion – a place guests could step into, to experience the daily life of locals.
What are some cool offbeat experiences that people can expect on your trips?
One of the most recent activities we’ve created is going on a hike to gather chestnuts from the forest and visit old mills where they grind the chestnuts into flour. Then, we sip wine and learn traditional recipes using chestnut flour which we cook right on an open campfire. This is an area that even other Italians don’t really know much about. The coolest part is getting to meet a young entrepreneur who is passionate about revitalizing the mountain traditions and has started a street food business selling chestnut flour crepes called “necci” (which are sooo delicious!).
We also have folk music concerts in the countryside, workshops to learn about art restoration techniques, picnics to beaches with white cliffs, meeting an 88-year old fisherman on his trabucco (ancient fishing machine), exploring a village from the Paleolithic era…I can go on!
What were some challenges you faced along the way? What have you learned about starting your own business?
I made the mistake of sorely underestimating the amount of time needed to market and fill my first trips. By the time people were finding out about them, the flights were way too expensive. Since I had already made payments and bookings with my local partners, I had to figure out a way to somehow get bodies on that trip. So I invited a few influencers, bloggers, and photographers, and was out in the streets of Florence chatting up tourists until I had filled it up! Turns out we got some much-needed content to use in our marketing and great feedback and reviews to use on our site! You’ve got to be able to think on your feet and convert any situation into a learning opportunity. Never give up!
I’ve also had to learn marketing from scratch – playing around with ads on Facebook and Instagram. This is especially important when you’re building an offbeat travel company in Italy. We recently announced our Secrets of Southern Italy trip in May 2019 and saw our hard work pay off because after just two weeks, the trip was sold out! We had to add a second trip in June and that one is filling up now, too!
I met Sierra two years ago, through a women’s travel group on Facebook, and have been in touch ever since. It’s amazing how social media allows you to build these connections. I met Sierra when she was still working at a startup in New York, and am so excited to write about her journey starting her own offbeat travel company in Italy!