By SHARYN COLLINS
Giovanni where were you born?
I am Italian. I was born in Palermo but, as my father was in the army, my family moved around a lot, so there isn’t a particular city, which I would call home.
So, let’s begin with your youth, I understand that you were an athlete.
Yes, I was an eight hundred metres runner and competed for the Italian National Team. Actually I ran in the B race in Florence in 1981 when Britain’s Sebastian Coe broke the world record in the A race.
You mentioned that you became involved with the Italian Paralympics team, how did that come about?
With my love of sport and particularly athletics, I became a sports teacher in Italy and I started to do some coaching with disabled athletes. Within a short while I became the Italian National Paralympic Coach and took my teams to the Paralympics in Barcelona and the World Championships in Berlin; it was a great honour.
When and why did you first come to England?
I wanted to further my career in sport and also improve my English and so I went to Essex University to do a Masters in Sport Science. I really enjoyed my time there and became a real Anglophile.
What did you plan to do after you had completed your Masters?
I really didn’t have a plan but it seems that there was a plan for me, because in the summer holidays of my first year at Essex University, three hundred Italian students came to do an English course and I was asked to be the course activities manager. I loved that job, we had some great times and I managed to repeat it for the next two years.
Did that experience lead you to a career involving student travel?
Yes exactly. After I had finished my Masters I was offered a job by an international company, which specialised in organising English language courses for foreign students. Again I was the activities coordinator.
By this time I was married to Laura, who is also Italian and since we both loved England so much, we decided to basically close our lives in Italy and move everything we had to England. It was a decision I would never regret.
I got on very well with my boss at this company and I learnt so much from him about the language business. We had summer programmes running in seventeen universities throughout England and I started to run programmes to train activities managers.
What made you leave the company?
As they say in the film the Godfather; “I got an offer I could not refuse” and I moved to Lewis School of English in Southampton where I still live today.
Here, I started to deal with the cut throat world of student travel agents. I discovered that we paid a lot of money to have a stand at various language travel conferences, where we were in competition with all the other language schools, which had huge marketing budgets. I realised that if we could find a more financially efficient way of marketing our school, we could pass those cost savings on to the parents who were paying for their children to come to England to study.
Fortunately, the head of Lewis School of English gave me full rein to be creative and I came up with the idea of “Fresh Approach Conferences.”
The idea was that we would organise conferences in different European cities for our school only, where we would offer free teacher development courses for English teachers. We took a risk and funded the conferences ourselves but in the first year alone, we helped a substantial number of teachers throughout Europe. Our conferences were a hit. We also brought teachers to Lewis School for further training at our expense and in turn these teachers started bringing groups of students to us, so we increased our business very quickly. At the same time, as our reputation grew, other language schools in England asked if we would represent them. Our business model worked very well.
Another idea I had was “Theatre Express”. For this, we sent British actors to schools in Europe where they taught English through the medium of acting. This was a one or two weeks’ course, where we worked with the students three hours a day and at the end of it, the young students performed theatre pieces for their parents in English. It was amazing to hear young students performing Shakespeare.
You seem as if you enjoyed your experience at Lewis school, but I know that you finally left. Why was that?
Well, I was now 52 years old and still working for someone else. That wasn’t in itself a bad thing but with the wealth of experience I now had and with the contacts I had made over the years, I wanted to finally have my own business. My boss understood completely and we remain friends to this day.
With the support of some very prestigious language schools, I created Gallery Teachers, a student travel company, organising travel and language courses for international students at various institutions throughout England, which I now represented. The company took off immediately, mostly dealing at the beginning with Italian and Russian students. I am extremely grateful to all of these schools, because without their trust and belief in me, my business would never have taken off in the way that it did.
You have called your business Gallery Teachers. Would you explain why teachers are so important to your business?
Without teachers we would have no students. These amazing people work so hard in their own countries and now under the umbrella of the Gallery Teachers we can help them develop and feel part of a community. It is the teachers who bring their students to England. In the past this has taken a lot of organisation on their part. Our job now is to make that part easier.
Also in the world of English teaching and particularly in the world of freelance teaching many English teachers feel isolated. Now with our community we can offer development courses, we can give them a platform and even introduce them to other teachers and basically broaden their own horizons.
How many students would you say there are traveling under the name of Gallery teachers each week?
In the summer probably about five thousand and now these students not only travel to English courses in England but in North America, Ireland and Malta.
You seem to have grown at a breath-taking pace, possibly even faster than you imagined, how have you coped with that?
When I first started I have to admit I sometimes worked 24 hours a day, which was just not sustainable. Now I have a firm structure in place with defined roles for my staff and I am able to act more as a control tower monitoring everything. However I still travel all the time and am in the air at least once a week.
Looking after international students on holiday can be a risky business, do you feel a big responsibility towards the students and their parents?
I do indeed. Their safety is paramount and that is why I recruit my managers and my staff extremely carefully. Although I hold the ultimate responsibility, my staff, the heads of language schools, the teachers and activities managers all carry responsibility to make sure that our students a have a safe and enjoyable experience. We get little glitches from time to time but our team is on call 24 hours per day and all members are very capable of sorting out problems.
As your company grows, is the core business still student travel?
Yes it is, and I imagine it always will be, but we are diversifying and we have now started “Gallery Teachers Abroad”. The idea behind this is to enable students, who cannot afford to come to England or to the other countries I have mentioned, to further their English studies in their own countries with programmes and projects designed by us. We also have “Go create English Camps” in the summer, where students can learn English through doing various fun projects such as rapping, acting art, photography or film.
What is your latest innovation?
I am constantly thinking of new ways for our students to learn English. Through our collaboration with EFL magazine, we are now going to have a section called “Gallery Teachers Reporter” where students from secondary schools, can upload their projects for the world to see. These will be in the form of videos which the students make themselves and they may be singing, rapping, doing interviews, anything really where students can show off what they have achieved or produced in English. These videos will also be there for other Gallery teachers and EFL readers who may well want to use the ideas presented for their own students.
Finally, could you tell me about your amazing friend who is sitting next to you and gazing up into your eyes?
This is my dog Reuben, a chocolate coloured Labrador. My wife bought him as a puppy for herself, but it was love at first sit for Reuben and me. You asked me how I cope with a growing business. Well, Reuben is my secret weapon. He is the one who forces me to take time out to walk and spend time with him. He is indeed my best friend.