In early August, I returned to Lake Como and the family-owned Grand Hotel Tremezzo for a couple of days of vacation. While I wrote about the trip, and what it has been like traveling through Europe as the borders reopen, I also wanted to dive into the personal side of the hotel more. It is jaw-droppingly grand and beautiful, but noticeably personal and friendly—all led by owner and CEO Valentina De Santis, who has been leading the charge since 2014.
While there, I interviewed her in the hotel’s Greta Garbo suite. The full 20-minute interview is below if you want to watch—or just read the highlights!
Why is Lake Como forever going to be a dream destination for people?
It’s very much like taking a step back in time when you arrive here. The shores are untouched for decades—you see beautiful villas and gardens. At the same time, it has reinvented itself in the last 5 to 10 years, attracting a new, younger crowd. This has pushed us to keep investing to make the destination look good, cool, and appealing with great food, experiences, and things to do. It’s this mix of past and present—with the feeling that it’s the place to be—that makes it very unique.
What does the Italian spirit of hospitality mean to you? It does somehow feel different.
It’s something we very much have in our DNA. So many of the Italian hotels that are legendary and inspiring in the travel industry are family owned. There are many famous, iconic hotels—especially in the luxury segment, but it’s actually all over the hospitality industry—that still belong to families. It’s a big part of the offering that Italy has. All of the families like us that still own a place like this put a lot of passion, effort, and entrepreneurial spirit into it. This is part of our culture, so even outside of hospitality when you’re just with friends, Italians are very warm and hospitable.
Do you think that will help in the COVID recovery, because of people trusting family-owned properties?
Yes, I think this will make a bit of a difference. I can say personally seeing the hotel closed was one of the things that made me suffer most during the lockdown. You can’t imagine how much I cried, and my mom cried the first time we got back. The fact that there is a family behind the hotel makes you feel more comfortable because for me personally, having a guest is my personal responsibility.
Before I arrived, I got an email saying, “we will do everything we can to make you feel safe and comfortable.” And I loved the word “tailoring” for personalizing where guests are coming from. Can you talk about how you came up with the safety standards and strategies?
Our decision on a date to reopen was taken from the heart and, as we say in Italy, dalla pancia—the translation would be “from the belly.” You feel it, you know it.
We knew that guests would have different attitudes to the situation. There will be ones who are super relaxed and they don’t want to feel so protected, and others need to be more reassured of all the safety measures. We wanted to find a balance and try to understand the level of confidence each guest has and to personalize the stay. So we sent some short questions to the guest before arrival, asking if they want to be escorted to the room, if they want the welcome amenities or not, if they want housekeeping service and how often.
Our aim was keeping all safety measures as invisible as possible, but for those who need it, they can find it immediately. Another aim was to transform things that are not invisible, like masks, into something memorable and Italian. We are giving silk masks to each guest to remember the strong silk tradition that Como has. It turns something that is not really fancy or beautiful into something happy, with flowers and colors.
A few of the staff members here have said, “We miss Americans so much.” I know it’s a generalization, but how do you think American travelers differ from others? Usually, they’re a large portion of your guests.
What we are missing from our beloved American guests is the enthusiasm, the love for everything that is Italian, and curiosity for our culture, food, and history. This passion has always been a strong engine for us, giving us power and energy.
We do miss it but we are finding a beautiful, different guest coming from Europe. At the moment, we notice a different behavior and I don’t know if it’s driven by nationality or also by the situation. The guests we have now are mostly from Europe and they are living in the hotel much more. We’re used to American guests who are very into experiences, like cooking, painting, and photography classes. They pack their stays here on Lake Como, trying many local restaurants, doing boat rides, and more. European guests have a completely different attitude—they come here to slow down and most of them don’t even leave the hotel. But here at the hotel, you are also living Lake Como every minute.
We’ve talked a lot about this hamster wheel—wanting to constantly try the next thing. But maybe it will be different, and people really will seek out that slower pace of travel.
Yes, I cannot really explain this different behavior only by nationality but also from what each of us has been living in the past months. I think it taught us to slow down, to appreciate living in the moment.
If someone came to the hotel—what is the one dish you recommend they eat?
One unmissable dish is our rice with gold, our signature dish at La Terrazza. We started to work in 2011 with Gualtiero Marchesi [who died in 2017]. He was the first Italian chef to get three Michelin stars and one of the fathers of Italian cuisine. His most popular, iconic dish is this rice with gold. The dish is very rooted in our Italian tradition. In the end, it’s a perfectly executed saffron risotto but the overall experience is what it looks like, the preparation, the philosophy. It’s served on a round black plate, and then the very bright yellow risotto and a square of gold leaf. It’s not just satisfying your taste, but your eyes. You eat it with a gold spoon and at the end, you receive a certificate because the number of risottos served are counted.
If you want to be more simple, you cannot miss the pizza!
What other things do guests say they love about the hotel?
The compliment we receive most often is about the people. We call it the GHT family, not “staff.” There is a real family, ours, that is present every day, but we love each person who is working here. In such a difficult year, they are giving the best of themselves. They are grateful that the season has finally started, and that people are back. They see the hotel being busier and this is making everybody happy.
If you’re not in Lake Como, where else do you love going in Italy?
I love all of Italy, so it’s hard to pick a place like Amalfi, Capri, Sicily, Tuscany—there is not a place that I don’t love to be. But now that I have a family and two kids, Puglia has a very special place in my heart. I go every year, and now I spend a longer time there with my kids. It is a region that offers so much—a beautiful seaside, fantastic people, food that is out of this world, many villages to explore, culture. It’s a little bit more on the beaten path, though it has very much been an emerging part of Italy in the last few years.