The Coronavirus Economy: How my job as chief of one of Italy’s top tourism companies has changed

April 5, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.

As CEO and cofounder of Rome-based Imago Artis Travel—one of Italy’s leading luxury tour operators, offering a range of exclusive itineraries and experiences throughout the country—Fulvio De Bonis began 2020 with high hopes for another banner year. And with good reason: International tourism spending in Italy totaled $46.6 billion in 2019 (versus $38.7 billion in 2014), and showed no signs of slowing down.

Then COVID-19 began wreaking havoc in the country’s north in late February. Now the entire population of 60 million is in virtually complete lockdown as the government scrambles to contain the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, which had claimed 4,827 lives in Italy alone as of March 23, according to the World Health Organization.

Fortune spoke with De Bonis for a special series, The Coronavirus Economy, about the impact of the coronavirus on Imago Artis, the Italian tourism industry, and the country in general, and his unwavering faith in Italy’s eventual—and triumphant—recovery.

Fulvio De Bonis, CEO and cofounder of Rome-based Imago Artis Travel—one of Italy’s leading luxury tour operators.
Courtesy of Fulvio DeBonis

Fortune: Can you recount how and when the coronavirus started affecting Imago Artis?

In January and February, we’d basically doubled our number of visitors compared with the same period in 2019. And we had a stellar 2020 ahead of us—or so we thought. Then, within three days of the onset of the coronavirus epidemic here, our bookings had fallen by some 80%. Virtually everyone who was booked from March on started canceling or postponing.

It was literally a nightmare come to life. We’ve worked so hard to build this brand, and then suddenly: “Is this real? Can this be?”

How have you been managing bookings for the remainder of 2020?

Our mission is to keep to our clients dreaming, which for us is synonymous with traveling. We’ve been in close touch with them—asking them to take a wait-and-see approach, rather than canceling their bookings entirely—and encouraging them to use their deposit toward a future journey. I’d say 30% to 40% of the 60% to 70% who requested their deposit back at the beginning have changed their mind. We’re guaranteeing they won’t lose even one euro if they postpone.

Has the adjustment to working from home been a challenge for your team?

We had some people working from home several days per week already, but obviously not at this scale. We’ve upgraded our network so everyone has access to shared folders and booking software and can do everything remotely that we do in the office. We’re also using Zoom and Skype to stay in close touch with our clients and each other. The other night we had a virtual dinner—six of us ate pizza together over our computers, and it was fun.

How do you anticipate weathering this storm as a company?

To be honest, it’s going to be very hard to keep my entire staff of 24. For now, the government aid we’re receiving is helping to pay everyone’s salaries, but I don’t know what the future holds in that respect. But my team has been great—everyone understands what we’re going through—and is staying focused and positive.

Do you have any guess as to when tourism will begin to rebound in Italy?

We discuss that every single day, but it’s like predicting who’s going to win a soccer match. At first we said June or July, then September or October. I don’t know the answer. But I am sure that we’re coming back, and even stronger than before. I can feel the unity of this industry, and I’m so proud to be part of it.

Have you been in touch with others in your industry during the crisis?

A bunch of us have actually formed a new group since this started, comprised of members of the tourism industry from all over Italy—hotels, destination management companies, et cetera. We’ve come together to try to create the most innovative, unified ways to market Italy as a destination going forward. It doesn’t have a name yet but so far includes about 75 people and some of Italy’s best hotels—the Rocco Forte properties, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo and the Mandarin Oriental in Lake Como, the J.K. Place Capri. We already have some initiatives we’re excited to unveil once we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Are there any positives for Italy that have emerged from the coronavirus so far?

The unity—it’s inspiring—that’s the only one. You’ve seen the videos of Italians singing with each other from their balconies in the evening. The coronavirus is bringing us together—making us move forward in the same direction, something we haven’t always done before.

What inspires your faith in Italy’s eventual rebound?

I’m an art historian, and the answer is in the history books. In 1348 we had the Black Death in Europe—an unimaginable situation that’s in some ways reminiscent of what’s happening now. After the plague, the Renaissance—the Rinascimento here—began. Having endured such horror, Italians emerged more conscious of Italy’s countless gifts and their quality of life here. They wanted to celebrate it, and so this golden age of art and culture was born.

Watching as we fight this battle…I’m even more in love with Italy than I already was. I can feel it changing—it’s coming back, better than ever. I want to show people more and more and more of it. We have a new appreciation of the value of this incredible country.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

How to get a refund on your Broadway tickets after the coronavirus shutdown
—The oil sector takes its next hit: The coronavirus on offshore rigs
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating the coronavirus
—How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing the coronavirus
—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks the coronavirus can help business
—The coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Travel IndustryBooksSmarter ShoppingSports