In the eyes of a Grand Circle traveler, the success of a trip depends not on the beauty of the scenery, the richness of the history, or the warmth of the sunshine. Instead, above all, a truly memorable trip depends on the Program Director who leads it. A great guide can elevate travel from a simple vacation to a life-changing experience—and we've met none greater than Lucio Levi, a longtime Grand Circle Program Director in Italy.
Born in Genoa to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Lucio learned the dark side of history at a young age as a child during World War II. He grew to appreciate history on a much broader scale, however, and his vast knowledge of Europe led naturally to a career in tourism. In 1964, he began guiding various European tours out of London. At the time, he was happy with the variety—but eventually he witnessed a shift in the tourism business that would lead him back to his homeland. "More and more organizations moved into regional tours of one nation at a time," says Lucio. "So, being Italian, I toured Italy."
Over the years, he found himself growing a bit uncomfortable with the "business only" attitude of the companies he worked for. "There was no vision," Lucio remembers. "They had no sense of doing something special." When Pino Negrin, Grand Circle's Senior Vice President in Central Europe, contacted Lucio about a Program Director position, Lucio accepted. "I've been happy here ever since," he says.
From the very beginning, Lucio embraced Grand Circle's intercultural approach to travel. "We strive to help travelers become aware of the real essence of the country they visit," he says. "This was not true with the other companies." He found himself reconsidering his approach to guiding, which had previously focused heavily on history. "I felt more and more that my job with Grand Circle was totally different," he remembers. "The Program Director is the go-between that links travelers to the culture and everyday life."
Adjusting his style was ultimately a worthwhile challenge. He found that he greatly enjoyed the intellectual discourse between his travelers, himself, and the local people—even more, in a way, than he enjoyed traveling on his own. "When I travel alone, it's not as satisfying. I approach things with my own mind, my own heart," he says. "But when 30-40 people are interacting with each other and with locals, there are so many angles."
Among the most rewarding interactions for Lucio are those between his travelers and local children—especially at sites sponsored by Grand Circle Foundation. "It's wonderful to hear the questions that travelers ask the children," Lucio says, "and the children, in contrast, are so simple and direct. Travelers have so many different ways of looking at things."
"Almost Like Utopia"
Having worked previously for so many tour operators with no apparent social conscience, Lucio cites Grand Circle Foundation as a source of pride. "You can imagine how many companies I worked for since 1964," says Lucio, "and I never encountered anything like it." On every trip he leads, he makes sure the travelers feel connected with the Foundation—that they can really get in touch with the people they're helping. "It's heartwarming to see the reaction of both the travelers and our beneficiaries at schools, museums, and archaeological sites," he says. "It's the best part of the experience."
He has especially fond memories of visiting a school in the town of Bolzano, Italy (on a Grand Circle vacation that is no longer running). "Bolzano is on the Italian/Austrian border, so people learn both languages and try to get along," says Lucio. This particular school also represented more recent immigration into Italy, with some students hailing from Bangladesh, Central Africa, North Africa, and China. "Grand Circle sponsored a theater program to get children involved in their local culture," Lucio remembers. "The double culture was complicated enough, but now with newer arrivals it was an extraordinary combination—a bit like America, actually."
When the students performed together, Lucio's travelers were moved every time—especially by the program's conclusion. "All together, they sang 'Imagine,' by John Lennon, and it was so beautiful for the travelers, for the children, and for me," says Lucio. "It was almost like utopia."
Lucio speaks of this memory with the unique appreciation of someone who has experienced life on the opposite end of the spectrum—of someone who has learned to never take beauty for granted. No wonder, then, that he's able to create beautiful experiences for everyone who travels with him.
From One Leader to Another
When asked about what it means to be a leader, Lucio, with characteristic humility, steers the spotlight away from himself. He speaks of his daughter, Shannon, who also works for Grand Circle and has indeed inherited the strength and integrity of her father. He also speaks of Alan Lewis: "A tremendous, charismatic figure," he says. "When a leader like Alan is around, you can sense his presence."
And Alan would say the same about Lucio, who has become a respected friend of the Lewis family over the years. "Lucio is a man of tremendous wisdom, which he earned through tough life experiences," says Alan. "He also has a passion for people and a lifelong wonder at the world around him." Having personally learned so much from Lucio's example, Alan now calls on his friend to coach associates, Program Directors, and Trip Leaders around the world.
"I count on Lucio to give me the truth," says Alan, "a truth that comes from his heart."