So You Want to Own and Run A Bed & Breakfast in Italy?

Updated 2018.

Jason and Ashley Bartner are American expats living the dream in the Le Marche countryside where they own an agriturismo (organic farm, inn) and cooking school. From the hustle-bustle of life in NYC to organic farmers and inn keepers at the age of 25 years old, their life changed forever! Ten years ago they founded La Tavola Marche and have been celebrating life at every meal – from the farm to the table – ever since!

Jason is a professional chef and culinary instructor with over 15 years of high-end culinary experience in San Francisco, New York City, Amsterdam and Italy. Jason studied at the prestigious French Culinary Institute in New York, training with culinary legends including Jacques Pepin, and has a passion to cook for anyone with an appetite.

Ashley Bartner, his wife, wear’s many hats: food and travel writer/photographer and filmmaker, host-extraordinaire and free-range chicken wrangler on the farm. Ashley has contributed to numerous international magazines including 5+years writing a monthly column in Italia! and Taste Italia! She strives to promote sustainable & culinary tourism.

Jason and Ashley are now using their decade of experience owning a hospitality business in Italy to coach and teach other expat couples who dream of moving to Italy to run their own B&B or something similar. They’re hosting a consulting workshop in November at La Tavola Marche. Dream of Italy chatted with Ashley about what it takes to make this kind of dream come true.
Dream of Italy: How much of running a B&B in Le Marche is a dream and how much is a nightmare? Or does it ebb and flow?
Ashley Bartner: It is what you make of it. One thing I’d never call it is boring! I wouldn’t call it a nightmare or a dream either but it sure is a beautiful life! The positives and quality of life completely out weigh the negatives by a long shot. There is an ebb and flow we now live by: the seasons – both the “season of guests” and seasons of the year.

Spring through Autumn means early mornings, busy days, working long into the night – always “on” knowing there are guests in your home. Then comes winter and everything slows down, it’s a time to recharge, travel, visit with friends and plan for the following season.

DOI: You’ve run a B&B for 10 years now. What has changed in either how you view your job, the overall industry, what it is like in Italy or all of above?
AB: All three have changed, of course Italy at a slower rate, as it’s in her nature. However I think the small changes we’ve seen in Italy are more obvious. We have to keep things constantly changing/updating for not only our guests but ourselves – creating new ways to connect our guests to the land, food and people. The industry of sustainable tourism and culinary tourism is also constantly growing which is exciting to see and be part of.

DOI: What was your biggest misconception about running a B&B?
AB: We honestly were incredibly prepared and looking back had no misconceptions of what we were getting ourselves into. We came from the hospitality industry. However I think there is a MAJOR general misconception of running a B&B: that this is a holiday, where you will spend your evenings pouring endless wine to dreamy guests under the warm setting sun. There is serious physical labor involved and a stamina needed to sustain your season.

DOI: I listened to your podcast about trying to sell your B&B. What were the lessons from that attempted sale? Is that how this course on running a B&B in Italy was born?
AB: Looking back and trying to analyse the situation we can see that we we put on blinders to red-flags since were so excited at the opportunity to sell our business and watch it succeed in anew set of hands. We were also naive and didn’t protect ourselves financially. It was an expensive lesson, but a one we will learned from greatly.

We began to look at the situation from the other side of the table and that’s how the workshop was born! We realized most people are ‘dream drunk’ which can be a wonderful thing but also dangerous if you are ill prepared and don’t really understand what it takes to move and start a new business. Saying you are ready to do this is very different than being mentally, physically (and at times financially) prepared. We wanted to share with others this opportunity to learn from us and our panel, ask all their burning questions and get honest answers. It will be a good dose of reality.

DOI: Is it absolutely essential to be fluent in Italian to make this dream come true?
AB: At first, no – but it sure helps and I would highly recommend it! If you are planning to move to another country and especially operate a business, why would you not learn the language? It’s shows a great sign of respect, eagerness to learn and commitment you are making. When we first moved we knew just the basics. And I means basics but we quickly learned to bring to bring our dictionary everywhere, muddling through it at times and always continuing with more lessons either locally or now on Skype. If you want to integrate into the community than speaking Italian is a must!

DOI: Italy is full of red tape and paperwork. What was the most difficult permit or piece of paper to get and why?
AB: The self-employed visa for living in Italy. The rules of the game are not really defined, there is an unpublished grey area that can change day to day, office to office.

DOI: What would you have done differently if you could go back 10 years?
AB: Honestly nothing – we’ve loved it all, the good and bad and wouldn’t change a thing.

DOI: Entrepreneurship in any country requires certain attributes – flexibility, tenacity, innovative solutions, ability to bootstrap. What is the single most-needed attribute to start a hospitality business in Italy?
AB: Problem solving. From bureaucratic to plumbing be prepared to solve problems any time day or night.

DOI: Tell us about the hospitality consulting course you and Jason are hosting at your B&B in April.
AB: After years of consistently receiving detailed-question packed emails from expat hopefuls curious on how in the world we did it and wanting to know all the particulars of moving and opening a business, Jason and I began our second business No Half Measures Consulting (and a bit of film making too!) For the past year we have been working with couples eager and excited with a passion to move to abroad to Italy to start a hospitality business.

So, what better way to merge our two businesses but host a No Half Measures consulting workshop at La Tavola Marche farmhouse?! This will be a four day crash-course covering all the basics and answering your burning questions to put you on the road to a successful start of your new life in Italy!

The mornings will be spent doing activities at the farmhouse with time to explore the area. Then return to the for apertivi and interactive seminars before dinner covering topics ranging from finding a property to how to start a business, grass roots marketing to culture and expat life.

On hand will be insiders and experts including an Italian commercialista (tax accountant and business adviser specializing in European financing), a business attorney, small business owners (expats and Italians) and of course Jason and me!

The business owners are a mix of entrepreneurs who operate in diverse settings from the rural countryside to the heart of Rome. They will give you a better understanding on the pros and cons of city vs. country locations and living while sharing stories of their struggles, successes & what keeps driving them forward. This will be an honest, informative, (I’m sure humorous), engaging and inspiring series of seminars/lectures over the five days!

DOI: What have you learned from each of the people/couples who will be teaching the consulting course?
AB: Paola and Antonio have taught us the differences in operating in the city versus country. They have built a beautiful high quality brand without wavering in their integrity or vision always coming up with new creative ideas.

Caroline and Louk have taught us age means nothing, in their early 70’s they continue to challenge themselves, pour more love and work into their restored farmhouse and have created a sincere bond within the community.

Linda and Steve are always evolving entrepreneurs,I’m in awe at the way they are able to juggle multiple businesses, in multiple languages, in multiple locations WITH multiple kids – that’s a feat and major multi-tasking that I’m sure we can all learn something from!

Fabio Centurioni: He’s the shark, he taught us how to navigate the beauracratic seas of Italy.

DOI: I notice the consultants are mostly couples. You and Jason are a couple obviously. Provokes an interesting question! What are the pros and cons of doing this with a romantic partner? Any advice for couple thinking the same?
AB:You must have a partner, this is not a one man band. You will find out how strong your relationship is! It can be hard at times separating work and marriage since everything is done together and intertwined. But you realize this is who I can count on most and that you are truly at team. There is something incredibly satisfying about coming up with an idea, working it through (all the blood, sweat and tears) and creating a beautiful life together.

Advice: Be organised, communicate, clearly define your responsibilities, at times you’ll need a thick skin and have a good sense of humor.