Newlyweds Huw and Rossella Beaugié were camping on Stromboli, a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, when the earth moved for them.
“We were woken up at 4am by eruptions,” said Huw, remembering that night back in 2000. “We saw lava pouring out with bits of rock flying up into the air against the night sky. We watched for hours.”
As the sun rose, they ran 900 metres down the volcano and dived into the warm sea. “We knew then we didn’t want to go back to our old life.”
Their desire to share the beauty of what they had seen led the couple to quit their jobs and create the Thinking Traveller, which has 150 exclusive villas and apartments for rent in Sicily and also Puglia, southern Italy, and the Greek islands. The company, based in east London, posted sales of £7.3m last year and expects that figure to top £9m for this year.
The couple originally launched the website thinksicily.com, which offered scenic walks, picnics and some accommodation, including hotels, on the island where Rossella grew up. The hotels and walking tours were dropped after the first year, however.
“We soon realised that villas were the way to go,” said Huw. “Our clients love them — and they get a taste of local life with them.”
Thinksicily now operates under their umbrella domain, thethinkingtraveller.com, alongside thinkionianislands.com and thinkpuglia.com, set up in 2012 and 2009 respectively. They were added to cater for returning clients who wanted to try somewhere outside Sicily with the Beaugiés.
“The key to our success in Sicily is our local knowledge; we know all the properties extremely well as many are owned by close friends,” said Rossella. “To provide the same expertise elsewhere we hired property experts from local travel agencies.”
Rossella, 42, was born and raised in Palermo, where her parents are pharmacists. Her younger sister is a psychologist.
She completed a biology degree in Palermo before winning a scholarship to study biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1995. “We travelled with my parents but not as much as I would have liked,” she said. “I wanted to go out and explore; research seemed a good excuse to travel.”
Rossella then went to Barcelona for a year and on to Paris where she began a PhD in cell biology. When she met Huw there in 1998, she was working on vaccination for cervical cancer.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if somebody told me I was going to drop my research, move back to Sicily and start a travel business. Meeting Huw and travelling together changed everything.”
Huw, 46, was born in Whitechapel, east London. His mother was an anaesthetist and his father a surgeon at the Royal London Hospital. He boarded at the King’s School, Canterbury, before studying mechanical engineering at Edinburgh University.
After graduating he became a quality manager for a hydraulic systems supplier in Bologna, Italy. “We worked with Ferrari and Lamborghini cars,” said Huw. “It was fun but I didn’t see myself as a manager in the automotive industry. I did an MBA hoping it would be a breath of fresh air.”
He studied at the Ecole Centrale Paris in 1997 and then joined Transitions, an American optical lens maker. After three years managing European marketing projects from its Paris office, he was restless. “I had a strong desire to run my own business, he said.”
The couple moved to Palermo in 2002 to pursue their dream. They persuaded friends and relatives to let their homes to tourists. The business got off the ground with £100,000 of savings, including a small inheritance following the death of Huw’s younger brother in a cycling accident.
“That event threw everything open,” he said. “I wasn’t a risk taker before, but after that I had no doubt that if I didn’t put everything into this it would be a waste.” His sister, Sian, joined the Thinking Traveller in 2003 and is now the finance and HR director.
The Beaugiés set up the Thinking Traveller from a desk in the Old Truman Brewery, on the City fringe, which they rented from Moodia, the technology company that built their first website. They took over the office from Moodia and employed two of its software developers. The Thinking Traveller now has 35 staff in London and Sicily.
The couple moved from Sicily to London last year, setting up home in East Finchley with their children Julia, Clara and Alexander. Huw advises entrepreneurs to plan meticulously: “You have to have a very clear idea in your mind, and on paper, about what you want to do. Be prepared if it doesn’t survive the first test.”
Rossella adds: “Work ethically with high integrity; if you behave properly, hire people for the right reasons and gain a good reputation, it will help.”