Nestled along the Amalfi coast, in the small town of Ravello, is a shell pink palazzo with ancient roots. Bought by the Avino family in 1995, after several years of major renovation it’s become a jewel in the colorful coastline with a multitude of awards and accolades to its name. The brains behind this blossoming family business? Two sisters with innovative and inspiring ideas. Thea Hawlin caught up with Mariella to find out more about how she and her sister Attilia are building upon the beautiful foundations of their family business, her plans for the pink Palazzo Avino, and her thoughts on what the future of hospitality holds.
Thea Hawlin: Since you’ve taken on managing the hotel you’ve really made it your own. I understand you grew up there.
Mariella & Attilia Avino: Yes, we grew up there in a way. I was thirteen when my father bought the property and my sister was ten. We have also a younger sister born in the same year that it opened, so she’s now 21.
TH: So, a true family experience? What details did you focus on?
M&AA: I would say we try every step of the way to make the guest feel that they are actually on the Amalfi coast, so it starts from the breakfast in the morning where we have many delicacies from the area. Also, in the main restaurant we have these amazing local Campania dishes, I think it’s important that everything has that very local touch.
Then in the spa we use products from the area, so we have three different fruits which are used to make our own products. They are very true to the territory as well so guests feel they are on the Amalfi coast with the scent and the smell [for the curious: Sorrento Lemons, Vesuvian Apricots, Annurca Apples]. We also recently opened ‘The Pink Closet’, the hotel boutique, which was almost a research project for us looking into different niche brands to establish that it was not really a destination for shopping but more a place for our guests to enjoy and explore. It was designed by a very well-known Italian architect, Cristina Celestino, and she added her own individual pink touch, which we loved.
TH: What’s the most enjoyable part about working at the hotel?
M&AA: The hotel itself is a labour of love, so every day is different. Having such a varied international clientele makes the day-by-day activity very interesting. The other side is also to deal with the staff and the team – keeping them very involved in projects – and the third part that we try to cultivate is always trying to think outside the box so that our guests have something different when they come here.
TH: I guess you and your sisters must have had the best training being around the hotel from such a young age. Did you watch your father a lot growing up?
M&AA: Yes, but he has always been involved in the property in terms of the big decisions, not always the day-by-day operations. I did my studies on the finance side, so I worked in a bank for a couple of years before joining the family business. As I was the oldest, I had to take on those responsibilities, but before coming back home I did a hospitality Masters in Milan. I have to say the senior members of the team were amazing to me, it was such good training just being next to them and they were so supportive.
TH: What have been the most difficult moments so far?
M&AA: I started at the hotel at a young age but also at a time when I was at a very early stage in my knowledge of business. It was a lot of hard work; gaining a reputation among your peers and other people in the business, that’s very important.
TH: How did you cultivate that reputation?
M&AA: With a lot of hard work; you have to be strong. I try always to strive for myself and push myself, teaching myself more and more. But you have to have a sense of things which sometimes you can’t learn from the books; it’s more about how you deal with people and how you deal with guests, and of course there has to be a passion involved — that always has to be there.
TH: Passion must be such a driving force; it’s an incredibly social job and honing those skills — that must take a lifetime!
M&AA: Yes, and in different ways. During the opening months it’s really more a lifestyle job, there are no real working hours. Now my younger sister has also joined, taking care of the growing markets for us so we are making our presence stronger in certain areas where we perhaps weren’t as well known in the past, like Australia and Brazil.
TH: What’s it like working with your sisters?
M&AA: It feels incredible that’s for sure. We can divide and conquer! (Laughs).
TH: In your day-to-day do you get to interact a lot with each other? Are you constantly swapping ideas or is it more separate?
M&AA: Indeed! We constantly interact! We have different roles but we always share ideas and thoughts. It’s a great exchange flow.
TH: What’s been the best part of working together? Does your youngest sister have plans to become involved in the business?
M&AA: Well there are many! One of the best is that you do not need to talk that much; you understand each other by looking at the other’s eyes! Furthermore, you can be direct. No need to use many words to express something. In our case we are very different in personality, so we can get different perspectives of things, which is always important.
Yes, Mariavittoria is studying at the Ecole Hotelier in Lausanne. She is currently in London for an internship. She loves the hospitality world and will be a great addition to the Pink Sister Team! She is far younger so she has time to experience the world and bring her creativity when she’s ready.
TH: It’s incredible to see such powerful women running such an ancient palazzo. What would your advice be to other women in business?
M&AA: Work with the team. Follow your passions because I do think that’s a crucial ingredient. I always had a strong passion for fashion so with ‘The Pink Closet’ I got the opportunity to dive deep into that. I don’t think you should limit the journeys you take. We are living in a very interesting time where lifestyle, design, travel are connected and there are so many opportunities to move from one side to another looking at the right angle of things. I think that would be my suggestion, to dive into different fields, otherwise you tend to limit yourself by heading in just one direction.
TH: I notice you have an art project currently running at the hotel as well.
M&AA: Yes, we were able to get in touch with a brilliant composer who is doing a performance in one of the churches near Ravello and showing one of the installations they’re famous for. We decided to bring the art project to the next level by having this exhibition every year with a different artist. I think it’s important for the hotel to invest in the arts, especially when it’s artists that we can build relationships with over the years. We didn’t want to do it the easiest way by just going to an exhibition and buying a painting or something; We wanted something that was specific to the property. The performance we are doing in August is an interactive video art installation, which will later go on to the contemporary art museum in Naples. That’s doing a great job in attracting artists to come, a tradition that was already in place with the Sasso family houses [the original owners of the Palazzo] where they used to always invite artists and at the end of the stay in exchange for their hospitality they would leave an art piece.
TH: So, you’re not just creating an experience for your guests, but a community. What do you think will elevate the hospitality industry in the future?
M&AA: Today it’s more about the feeling, the experience the guest can get. Because we can all have the most beautiful textiles, when it comes to that it’s only about budgets. Now it’s the experience, the setting, that really sets a place apart from the others. I firmly believe the connection of the team with Ravello and with the Amalfi coast is truly important. The smell, the scents in the area, like the lemons, everything has to be linked. In terms of the experience they want to get more and more involved with the cooking school, looking at wineries for example and they don’t want the important ones, they want the most rustic ones, they want to get their hands dirty doing the parmigiana. I think that’s what makes a place different.
TH: With more women traveling alone, how do you think the industry can establish safe spaces or make things more enjoyable for solo travelers?
M&AA: One of our most loyal guests is a solo traveller: she comes twice every year from Brighton. I know for her the luxury is that over the years she has started to become kind of friends with the team. She also has her routines, she’ll go to the pool at a certain time, we know the way she likes things in her room. For her I think we are special because when she comes she doesn’t even have to order. As a resort I think the family approach for a solo traveller really is something special, because we never make the guest feel awkward – even if it’s a very romantic destination!
TH: Do you feel you’ve achieved success in achieving your goals? Or is it more of a process?
M&AA: No, not yet, no (laughs). Yes, it’s a constant [process], and as a family owned property we’ve had access to smaller networks than larger corporations. We have to constantly work to compete and make the property stand out on a different level. I’m always trying to anticipate and be one of those that go first in the right direction.
TH: How do you do that? Are you talking to your customers? How do you predict the future?
M&AA: It’s a mix of things I’d say. It’s a bit of feedback from the guests, because a lot of the time they travel around the world, so I do take that very seriously. Then talking to other colleagues helps a lot, there’s always a little bit of intuition involved, trial and error too: you try and you see what works. Something I still can’t wait to do is take one day for just thinking per month. It’s not easy, but I think it’s important that at a certain point during the day you stop and think about what you have been doing, what you have achieved, and where you want to go. Otherwise you can go off path very easily.
TH: On your current path what are you proudest of?
M&AA: I feel like more than before it’s really all about making the team feel part of the project, so you’re all going in the same direction. It’s everyone working together.
This interview has been edited and condensed by the author and Grace Davin.
See more of Palazzo Avino in our Ravello editorial as shot by our Chief-Lover, Tamu!
Take note from other Pretty Birds, too: