At the ripe age of 18, a young, closeted Alessio Virgili walks into a bar in Rome with a group of friends. Little did he know at the time, but that evening he would meet his first love, a man who would soon change his life. There with his own group of friends was Andrea Cosimi, a few years older at age 21. “None of us had a love story before,” remembers Virgili about that first night in Rome. “We immediately got along well together,” he says, “and after just one year we were living and working together.”
Still in school but looking to start his own business, Virgili asked his father to fund his first business, a cooperative of lifeguards in the Latium beaches around Rome. At the same time, Cosimi was scheduled to leave for mandatory service in the Italian Navy Corps, but Virgili and his mother came up with the idea to hire Cosimi as an employee of the cooperative so that he could stay. Thus was born the fast-growing personal and professional relationship between Virgili and Cosimi, who stayed together in Rome for a year before deciding to move to Milan for a new business adventure. “We were very young but, luckily, we found support in institutions, banks, and customers,” Virgili describes.
Shifting their professional focus from lifeguards to restaurants and hotels, and with the help of their first customer, a restaurant owner on the Milanese Navigli, who “trusted those two young chaps and put a check in their hands,” Virgili reminisces, the pair founded Sonders&Beach in 2002. Still thriving today by providing outsourcing services for hotels, including catering, cleaning and management support, Sonders&Beach helps clients optimize revenue and control costs, while offering outstanding service to all guests.
Fast forward a few years to when Virgili and Cosimi were planning a vacation. They were concerned about their safety and acceptance at their destination traveling as a gay couple. At the time, there were no openly LGBTQ+ friendly agencies to be found, and it was difficult to find information about LGBTQ+ tourism. As natural entrepreneurs, the pair decided that this market vacuum needed to be filled.
Enter Quiiky, the premier Italian tour operator they started in 2007 as an offshoot of Sonders&Beach focused on the LGBTQ+ market. “Italy has always been a welcoming country,” Virgili describes. “Because of its position in the Mediterranean, its mild climate and natural biodiversity, it has always welcomed people from the rest of Europe and all over the world. Then consider its commercial vocation for centuries, the strong Greek cultural influences—by which any guest is believed to be God’s gift—have influenced the Italian attitude towards welcoming.” In addition to offering “tailor-made” tours for LGBTQ+ travelers, Quiiky offers a multitude of pre-planned experiences all throughout Italy – from wine tasting adventures, cooking classes, outdoor expeditions, to journeys focused on art and history.
Perhaps one of Quiiky’s most popular experiences is their Untold History Tours. “This is a very important message to us,” Virgili says, “We want to say that homosexuality is not immoral or an expression of modern life perversion, as many believe. We claim that being a part of the LGBTQ+ community has to do only with love, with humanity. LGBTQ+ people have always existed, since humanity’s origins!” Untold History Tours offer proof of this, offering travelers the opportunity to discover how many artists expressed their same-sex love by creating masterpieces, how LGBTQ+ life existed in Italy in cities like Milan, Rome, Florence, Naples, Venice, Taormina, Turin, and so many more. Visitor can discover the beauty of these cities and dive into the untold LGBTQ+ history behind classic Italian destinations. For those who like modern LGBTQ+ classics, they also have a tour dedicated to the film Call Me By Your Name, taking guests to all the scenic locations seen on screen.
Another brand part of Virgili and Cosimi’s Sonders&Beach umbrella is Q Magazine, Italy’s only travel magazine dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community. Q Magazine is currently published in Italian both digitally and in print twice per year. In partnership with Enit – Agenzia Nazionale del Turismo, Q Magazine released an issue of their magazine in English earlier this year specifically for travelers from North America. With this partnership, the pair aims to become the leading source of information for LGBTQ+ travelers interested in Italy and its unique destinations, wines, food and lifestyle.
Launched more recently, QueerVadis is the premier Italian lifestyle and travel portal dedicated to LGBTQ+ travelers, featuring articles on Italian destinations, cuisines, wines, art, history and culture.
Another Sonders&Beach brand is Mitown, the most popular travel site in Italy dedicated to LGBTQ+ Friendly Milan. With over 500 accommodations, restaurants, bars and useful gay travel experience tips, it provides travelers a fundamental reference, supporting decisions about gay friendly accommodation, restaurants and entertainments.
Virgili and Cosimi hope that through their work, the world may come to see Italy as an inclusive destination for LGBTQ+ travelers. While LGBTQ+ people around the world have struggled to overcome the pandemic, varying levels of prejudice, mistreatment, or even criminalization in some cases, Virgili and Cosimi leave LGBTQ+ travelers with one message, or invitation perhaps, “Come to Italy and feel free the way you are!”