The career and passion of Martina Costantino, owner of the Czech Republic’s only tour operator specializing in the Land of Nuraghi, “The most beautiful Island in the Mediterranean”
Sardinia, love at first sight
by Giovanni Usai
From her childhood during the pre-’89 regime, “when traveling and discovering new destinations was not as easy as it is today,” to her realized dream of becoming a tourism professional and owner of Sardegna Travel, a tour operator in its 20th year of operation. In this interview Martina Costantino tells us how she has seen Czech tourism to the island develop and anticipates her new plans to make the most of such a unique and exclusive vacation destination.
How did your career in the tourism industry begin? What was your motivation?
I grew up during Communism. I am part of a generation called ‘Husák’s children’, which means all those who were born in our country when the president was Gustáv Husák, the last head of state of the pre-1989 regime. As a child, when I was going backwards and forwards on the swing in my grandmother’s garden and looking up at the sky, I would see the planes going by and I would feel a strong desire to be able to get on board, to be able to leave for any destination I could think of. At that time, my grandmother and grandfather took me around to discover the beauty of Czechoslovakia. They were young and very cheerful, and they were certainly the ones who instilled in me a love of travelling, a curiosity to go and discover the many corners of our republic and to meet many new people. Then, every year, my parents and I had to go through long procedures to get permission to go to the seaside in Yugoslavia. Communism lost power in 1989, the situation here changed, and immediately afterwards I finally decided what to do when I grew up. So I enrolled in Hotel School, specialising in tourism, with the aim of becoming a travel and holiday professional. We say that ‘the forbidden fruit is the tastiest’.
And what prompted you to specialise in Sardinia as a destination?
After my studies, with the market finally liberalised, I had the good fortune to work with Václav Fischer, the Czech tourism guru. At that time, he had just returned to the Czech Republic from Germany, where he had emigrated and where he had had great success in the 1980s with the tour operator Fischer Reisen. In short, a master of a unique level. Václav Fischer brought professionalism, elegance and the ability to run a travel agency efficiently to the Czech tourism industry at that time. It was then that I began to get to know all the colours, characters, scents and tastes of the world. Not only for work, but also during the holidays that, as an employee of a tour operator, I could afford more than once a year. And it was during one of those holidays that I discovered Sardinia, a place that bewitched me. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I felt at home. It was love at first sight. I knew right away that I would return there and that I wanted to discover more. I felt that the island made me feel too good.
And then how did it go?
When I finished working for Fischer, I had another important working experience, a bit eventful, with the indefatigable Mrs Elisa, who was then co-owner in Prague of a tour operator specialising precisely in Sardinia. Compared to Fischer, two different ways of working, in many ways at the antipodes, but both interesting and important for gaining a more complete view of how the world of tourism works. Then came the classic opportunity not to be missed, a market space to be exploited. In 2004 there was no one ready with charter flights to Sardinia, so I decided to try to enter the market myself. No better time would come. The right wave was coming through and I only had two options: ride it or miss it. I immediately seized the opportunity and founded Sardegna Travel. And since then, twenty years later, I have managed to keep myself balanced on this wave. I can say that Sardinia captivated me and in the office we all share this passion for the island. It has become an addiction that I have wanted and cherished.
How has Czech tourism to Sardinia evolved over the last twenty years?
I must say that I have obviously been able to follow this development very closely. But let’s go back a little further, to when in 1997 Fischer organised the first direct air link for Czech tourists from Prague to Sardinia, just when I was working in the sector. For three years Fischer continued to organise charter flights to Cagliari, taking its clients to the southern coast of the island, from Costa Rei to Porto Pino, for a season that lasted for three to four months in summer. There were weekly flights. The offer was good but not very varied. Honestly, when they came to the agency to buy their holiday in Sardinia, many of them had no experience and did not know the destination, so there was no need to make things more complicated. Over the next three years it was Ms Elisa with her tour operator who organised the flights, direct (or with a stopover in Naples).
Then Sardinia Travel was born
Yes, exactly. It was Sardegna Travel in 2004 that resumed the connections, with a weekly flight to Cagliari. We now have five weekly direct flights between Prague and Sardinia, and before Covid there were seven. We always try to extend the season and expand the offer. The clientele has matured a lot and continues to demand more and more. We offer over 200 accommodations, because our customers often know exactly what they want and we want to offer each one a tailor-made trip, like a tailor-made suit. The range of our services is increasingly broad, ranging from helicopter trips, yachts, quad bikes, horses, canoes, jeeps, but we are also organising more and more trekking, donkey riding or canyoning trips. We are preparing tailor-made thematic trips on many different topics related to history, culture, gastronomy, wines, traditions, nature and sport. By now, customers want to enjoy their holiday all-round, be pampered with appropriate services and feel good. They travel for this and are willing to spend. And more and more, unlike in the past, they are looking for authenticity and originality.
What do you think will be the medium- and long-term trend, in terms of both quantity and quality, of tourism between Sardinia and the Czech Republic?
I think many have realised that quantity often comes at the expense of quality. Sardinia has clearly placed itself in a defensive position with the adoption of closed or paid access. I am talking about oasis beaches and even entire municipalities that adopt the same criterion. Tourism must be managed and organised to avoid further damage. We are experiencing these changes, so perhaps we understand the reasons better and cannot disagree. For us it is a different challenge to be fully prepared and to prove that we travel better with professionals. Sardinia during the summer months is now constantly and inevitably crowded, so it is not difficult to understand that if we want to have more satisfied visitors, we have to offer more than just the summer and not just the sea. And we are working hard on this, confident that sowing seeds now with passion and willpower will bring important results for everyone, for us and for customers.
“My mission is to present Sardinia as a destination to visit and spend a nice vacation there throughout the year, not just in summer”
How did the pandemic period affect your tour operator’s business?
At first Covid completely paralysed us, but we reacted very quickly, trying to reposition ourselves appropriately. The pandemic cost us a lot of money in one single swoop, preventing us from predicting what the future would hold. Hope, however, as we know, is the last thing to die. And fortune favours those who work for it and are prepared to benefit from it. Covid ultimately allowed us, from a work/business point of view, to get rid of everything we didn’t need, forcing us to implement new management tools and processes, in the name of greater organisational coherence, preparing us for this new era of smartworking. At the time of Covid, we also paid a lot of attention to presenting Sardinia as a destination worth visiting and spending a holiday there throughout the year, not just in summer.
And how do you assess the recovery of tourism to Sardinia after this health emergency?
As for Sardinia, I must say that it has recovered just as quickly, so much so that the main problem is no longer the price, but finding a place. And this situation gives space to what was previously secondary tourism, such as rural and experiential tourism. These sectors are now booming and are precisely the ones to which we have been paying the most attention for some years now.
Is it possible to outline a typical standard of clientele that comes to your agency?
It is obviously no longer the clientele of the 1990s. Now it is people who have often travelled a lot and experienced many different kinds of tourism, people who want to experience what makes Sardinia so unique and exclusive. This is a clientele that can rely on truly qualified professionals who know their job well, but who also know Sardinia well, not just the details of transport or individual accommodations.
What is the feedback from Czech customers about Sardinia and how do you use it to improve your offer?
The feedback is almost always extremely positive, which is why we have a very stable and large base of regular customers, which was one of the main reasons why we managed to weather the economic storm caused by Covid unscathed. Customers love the Sardinian land, its matchless sea, wildlife, gourmet gastronomy and warm yet discreet people. It is a magical and balanced cocktail of everything, with colours, flavours and aromas that leave you pleasantly stunned and with which you cannot help but fall in love. All with a wholesomeness that remains etched in everyone’s memory. Sardinia, on the other hand, is renowned for the longevity and vitality of its inhabitants, with an impressive number of centenarians. A stay in Sardinia makes life more pleasant and longer. In twenty years, it has of course also happened that there has been some feedback that has not been entirely positive, but we have always dealt with it and resolved it with painstaking work. And this is an approach that always bears sweet fruit in the end.
And which fresh ides do you have in mind for the near future?
We are currently finalising a new website, supported by an interactive app, which I firmly believe will reach an even greater target of potential customers. Let’s say the best gift we could give ourselves for this year’s 20th birthday of Sardegna Travel.