Andrea Grisdale and Virginia Irurita are celebrating 20 years of toppling travel industry titans – though the tactful, resourceful women are too elegant to frame their success in that manner. They are travel advisors who are considered by their hotel, restaurant, transportation and tour partners to be genuine international diplomats.
Neither Grisdale nor Irurita have been appointed to ambassadorships or elected to leadership positions in the countries they represent: Italy, Spain and Portugal. But for the past 20 years, these two women have been celebrated for effectively drawing significant numbers of influential, discerning international travelers to world destinations such as Florence, Barcelona, and Lisbon. . . and providing those visitors with exclusive, memorable experiences. Grisdale and Irurita each, in 2019, celebrated the two-decade anniversaries of independently founding their respective travel advisor companies.
Grisdale’s company – “IC Bellagio” (I.C. stands for “Italian Connection”) – operates from the colorful village of Bellagio on the shore of Lake Como in Northern Italy.
Historic, vibrant Madrid, Spain, is headquarters for Irurita’s company “Made For Spain and Portugal.”
Both companies, in 2003, received and accepted invitations to become members of Virtuoso – the world’s leading network of over 1,000 luxury and experiential travel agencies in throughout 50 countries. Virtuoso provides its travel clientele, through companies such as IC Bellagio and Made For Spain and Portugal, with exclusive amenities, rare experiences, and privileged access. For a number of years at Virtuoso’s annual, huge international “Travel Week” conferences, IC Bellagio and Made For Spain And Portugal have been awarded as industry leaders, winning against fierce corporate competitors.
But how have these two small, individual, custom, boutique travel advisors and facilitators in neighboring countries – who are themselves competitors and yet the best of friends – managed to not only succeed but also to excel against and win recognition against much larger and well-funded travel agency corporations?
“I believe our ‘secret to success’ is that it’s never been about the money. My focus has always been on improving people’s lives through travel and opportunity,” said Grisdale.
Irurita also credits her own passion with purpose. “We don’t look at the many hours involved in creating the best travel experience because we enjoy investing those hours in happiness. Our team loves our work. I am the founder and am responsible for turning authentic places in Spain and Portugal into amazing travel experiences for our clients. I am in charge of telling the story and making the magic.”
The keys to unique, memorable travel
Magic, for the clients of Irurita and Grisdale, means travel dreams coming true.
“I like to do things in a beautiful way,” Irurita told me across a picturesque pan of paella on the patio at La Buganvilla restaurant in Madrid.
Grisdale also embraces “la dolce vita.”
The magic and beauty, to these ladies, is for instance, arranging for travelers to experience the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona. . . from a balcony overhanging the danger but so close to the action they can almost feel the breath of the bulls. Or gaining access to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel after hours for a private opera performance under Michelangelo’s ceiling creation. Imagine a pilgrimage in Portugal to Fatima, during which a meeting is arranged with a relative of one of the girls to whom the Blessed Mother appeared.
Whether it’s a speedy Vespa ride through Rome’s roads, a gondola float under the Bridge of Sighs in canals of Venice, or a pintxos tour in San Sebastian; the experience will be enhanced, efficient, educational and entertaining via the vision of IC Bellagio or Made For Spain and Portugal. The special icing is due to the long-standing, personal relationships Grisdale and Irurita have with suppliers, insiders, hoteliers, villa owners, chefs, drivers, winemakers, artists, guides and even real-life matadors.
Listening and dreaming together
“First and foremost we listen to our clients share their dream tour of Italy along with their pet peeves and must-haves. Then every itinerary is tailor-made to fit. No off-the-rack solutions, here,” Grisdale told me in fashion terms, since she was speaking to me near Milan – Italy’s fashion capital – where her clients can meet with an actual apparel designer in his working studio. So detailed is Grisdale that when she presented me with a scarf as a gift she explained that before she picked a color to buy, she and the shopkeeper at Saraceno’s main boutique in Bellagio perused my Facebook page photos to see which colors I tended to wear. “He felt you wear a lot of blue,” she said as I wrapped the cashmere scarf around my neck.
Irurita implements her own thoughtfulness, too, according to Francisco Glaria Baines, the excitable local who greets and guides Made For Spain and Portugal’s clients when they visit Pamplona.
“Virginia and her amazing team at Made for Spain and Portugal provide me and her other guides with a lot of information about the guests. Why they are coming to Pamplona? What are they interested in? How much time do they have? This makes us know the guest before they arrive and we can welcome them as if they are friends and not clients. I love working this way,” Baines explained.
Indeed, when I arrived in Pamplona to run with the bulls under the guidance of Baines via Made For Spain and Portugal, I checked into my room at the Palacio Guendulain to find a box of Spanish chocolates left by Irurita along with a card. It read: “Welcome to Pamplona! You are finally here! We hope that your time celebrating San Fermin is all that you’ve dreamed and that you have the time of your life. Enjoy and be safe! Un Abrazo, Virginia.”
Raised to appreciate all of Spain and Portugal
Irurita’s attention to detail may have been both inherited and ingrained. It was definitely also enhanced by 18 years in Madrid’s business world while she worked for Citibank – a job that would ultimately propel her into her passion.
“I always worked to be able to travel. I come from a family in which we are all crazy for travel,” admitted Irurita, who said that while growing up her father made sure she slept in every Parador and discover the magic of every monument, church, and art collection, while tasting the regional gastronomy of the Iberian Peninsula. “It taught me to love the history, arts, crafts and local cultures of Spain. Once I admitted I was truly bored of working in the bank, the magic was being able to turn my passion into a business. I did some research and found there was no travel company offering the type of intimate trips inside Spain I could create and provide.”
But it was also the discovery of an heirloom – the honeymoon diary of her grandparents – which inspired Irurita.
“They went to Rome and Paris in June of 1914 before the big war. They wrote down everything they ate and how much they paid for each meal in every restaurant. They listed all of their lodging, as well,” said Irurita, who now creates detailed itineraries before her clients embark on holiday. “They listed the names and descriptions of people they met. And I read of their surprise when they arrived in Paris and were taken to their hotel by a car powered by an engine instead of a horse!”
Now, in a similar manner, honest post-trip feedback and reports from the clients and the guides about their experiences are important to Irurita and Grisdale so they can hone and their offerings as artisans might refine their sculptures.
“For me nothing is better than to receive a call of and email from a traveler or their travel agent saying that we created an experience that somehow changed their life,” said Irurita.
From England’s Lake District to Italy’s Lake Como
Grisdale emerged from England’s Lake District and ended up at Italy’s Lake Como after traveling the world as an overseas representative for a British tour operator. After her growing IC Bellagio team became successful customizing insider tours throughout Italy for holiday-goers from around the world, she even opened her own boutique lakefront luxury villa – renovating the historic dwelling Palazzo del Vice Re – so her clients and travelers can live among the locals (and the royalty who occupied the palazzo!) in Lezzano on Lake Como.
“Andrea is a power of nature: always strong. She’s always ready to discover new products and services. She always personally tries the experiences and hotels in the IC Bellagio portfolio,” said Silvio Vettorello, general manager of the timeless Grand Hotel Tremezzo just across Lake Como from IC Bellagio’s headquarters and Palazzo del Vice Re. We spoke on the fanciful hotel’s scenic, colorful balcony each sipping an Aperol Spritz while Vettorello continued. “What I really love about her is the fact she has become the best Italian ‘dolce vita ambassador’…even if she has a British passport! She has totally embraced the Italian lifestyle and sometimes I think she’s more Italian than someone born here.”
Both Grisdale and Irurita have the admiration of other travel colleagues they are supportive of in destinations such as Slovenia, Cuba, Africa and Turkey, but the similarities and parallels between Irurita and Grisdale are undeniable.
Birds of a feather
“We had very similar companies and the great thing was we could work so closely together and learn so much from each other because both companies grew and faced the same opportunities and challenges without ever being competitors. We at IC Bellagio sell Italy and Virginia sells Spain and Portugal,” Grisdale explained. “We have enjoyed a wonderful relationship over the years and still to this day we have yearly meetings where we share how we are doing and discuss new opportunities and continuous improvement – which is a huge focus for both companies.”
Irurita recalls, after founding Made For Spain and Portugal, feeling a little lonely in her the new business she was still learning – until she was introduced to Grisdale by one of her first clients. “I was able to share and ask for opinions and for other points of view. It was good for each of us and it has become a great friendship.” Irurita then also partnered with Alonso Alvarez de Toledo to manage Made for Spain and Portugal’s business affairs as CEO. “I am a social creature,” admitted Irurita, who was has homes in Madrid, Sotogrande and the Ribera del Duero wine region.
Where to go?
When pressed for advice on her personal favorite parts of Spain, she lists the view of the rock of Gibraltar from the beaches of Cadiz province; the garden of the mosque of the Cristo de la Luz, in Toledo; Oma forest and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe near Bilbao; the bay of San Sebastian; the Cathedral Mosque of Cordoba and the vilage of Baeza.
For Grisdale the region in Italy in which she started her career captures her heart.
“My favorite corner in Italy has to be the majestic Dolomite Mountains with their incredible sunsets, mountain air and amazing food.”
Visit Virtuoso.com, ICBellagio.com and MadeForSpainAndPortugal.com to connect personally with Grisdale and Irurita and their friendly team members.
Michael Patrick Shiels is a radio host and travel blogger. Follow his adventures at GoWorldTravel.com/TravelTattler. Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]