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Italy may not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking of countries that nurture a spirit of entrepreneurship, but it’s rapidly gaining a reputation as a hub for nascent business ventures.
No longer just seen as a beautiful spot in which to take a break and indulge in some great food-fueled sightseeing, Italy is holding its own as a business destination. With the third-largest economy in the Eurozone and the eighth largest in the world, the country is considered a leader in global trade with a growing reputation for business innovation.
In this article, we’ll run through the basics of doing business in Italy and examine the unspoken rules of Italian business etiquette and best business practice. We’ll also take a look at some of the challenges you may encounter while doing business in Italy.
Italy’s busiest international airports are in Rome (Fiumicino) and Milan (Malpensa), which between them, welcome nearly 74 million passengers a year. Both airports have great public transport connections to their respective city centers in the form of regular express trains. Given the frequently gridlocked traffic in both cities, we recommend opting for the train over a taxi when traveling between either airport and the center.
Where to stay
Milan has no shortage of business hotels and serviced apartments and is seen as the more “industrialized” city when compared to the history and culture of Italy’s capital. If you only have a few days in the city, you may want to base yourself near the beautiful Piazza del Duomo in the heart of Milan, where you can enjoy the best of both worlds. Here history and modernity combine, with Italy’s largest church (because Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica is actually in the Vatican City) adjacent to the flagship stores of world-renowned fashion houses and art museums nestling next to hip bars and the city’s trendiest restaurants.
Meanwhile in Rome, be aware that hotel buildings in the historic center are usually hundreds of years old. This means a lot of the facilities and amenities you would take for granted in other locations (such as an elevator) may be lacking. Public transport is also a challenge and sometimes the only option for getting from A to B in these neighborhoods is to walk. For business trips, we recommend staying in the Prati district or the business-friendly suburb of EUR, both of which have good transport links.
If you should find yourself in smaller business centers such as Turin, Modena, or Bologna, bear in mind that these cities are usually relatively small and walkable, so don’t feel geographically limited in your choice of accommodation – stay in the nicest place, not the nearest.
Milan and Rome have good public transport options, including bus, taxi and metro. Both cities also have tram networks but while Milan’s trams connect the outer suburbs with the center of the city, the trams in Rome are few and far between, and do not go everywhere you need into the city, making them a less viable option for visitors – but Rome’s metro covers most central urban areas. Uber exists in Italy but the outcry from taxi drivers in both cities when the service was launched means it can only be used to book the more expensive limousine option.
Bologna and Turin are renowned for the efficiency of their transport options, while despite the perennial Italian issue of where to park, Modena is the kind of city where driving is almost de rigeur.
Italian business etiquette
The assumption in most other parts of the world that business meetings should begin precisely on time (or even earlier) doesn’t necessarily apply in Italy. Meetings will usually begin late, meaning they run over the allocated time – but those in the know will have already factored this into their plans. In this situation, flexibility is required and expected, and an Italian business associate turning up late for a meeting shouldn’t be taken as a sign of disrespect. However, if there is a strict deadline in place for a particular project, this should be communicated clearly and frequently from the outset.
On arrival at a business meeting, make sure to greet people in an acceptable manner. Although you will frequently see close friends in Italy greet each other with a kiss on each cheek (left cheek first, then right, and between members of either sex), this is not considered appropriate in a business context unless you have a long history of doing business with each other. If in doubt stick to the more professional handshake and only go in for the kiss if the other party extends their cheek. Note too that Italians place a lot of importance on polite eye contact. Don’t be perturbed if an Italian associate stands closer to you than you would expect, and look out for a flurry of hand gestures and body language during business negotiations.
English is the most widely-spoken second language in Italy, but competence lags behind that of other EU countries and using an interpreter for business meetings is an accepted practice. If you have a smattering of Italian, your efforts will be greatly appreciated – Italians are generally delighted if a foreigner can speak a few words their language, no matter how rudimentary their skill. If using Italian, make sure you understand the difference between the formal version of “you” (Lei) and the informal (tu). In a business context, Lei should always be used.
The giving of gifts is not usual when doing business in Italy, particularly in the early stages of a business relationship. However, exchanging business cards is commonplace. It’s good practice to present a business card with an Italian translation on the reverse. Business cards in Italy will usually include a person’s professional title and educational qualifications. If such credentials are crossed out when the card is presented to you, it’s a sign your relationship has moved to a less formal footing.
Dress the part. The right attire and how you present yourself speaks volumes in Italy and will go a long way to cementing your standing as a viable business partner. Remember, this is the country that gave the world Prada, Gucci, and Armani, to name just a few and if your budget stretches to it, wearing an Italian designer will gain you extra brownie points. It’s generally best to wear dark-colored suits and, if female, to be smart and elegant keep make-up and jewellery simple. “Business casual” has a whole different meaning here. If in doubt, dress up.
Arrive hungry. Italy’s love affair with good food means a professional meeting will nearly always involve a meal, either during or after business talks. If invited to eat, be aware that a refusal – no matter how polite – will most likely be taken as an insult. Italians are hospitable people and that extends to how they do business. Be aware that business lunches can go on for two or three hours – if invited to one, plan accordingly.
The challenges of doing business in Italy
First off, prepare for the bureaucracy. It’s been a fact of life in Italy for a long time and it’s not going anywhere soon. Get ready to be confused by ever-changing rules and a lack of clarity on what exactly is required and when. Although the government is trying to streamline the process, anyone trying to start a business in Italy can expect a whole load of red tape and for everything to take three times longer than expected. This applies in particular to obtaining construction permits and connecting to an electrical supply, while just trying to understand the tax liabilities of your business will leave you scratching your head. Engaging the services of a local consultant to help you get set up will save a lot of time and frustration.
Hierarchy plays a huge role in Italian business culture. If trying to strike an important business deal in Italy, it pays to check up front if you are talking to the final decision-maker. Companies in Italy will often have a chain of command comprising several layers and you may find that you need to move several steps up the ladder to get the agreement you’re after. Italian employees generally show a large degree of respect for their superiors and will also seek out overall buy-in from the majority of colleagues before reaching a decision.
The practice of speaking bluntly and “telling it like it is”, which often works well in business negotiations in the US, can be seen as aggressive to Italians. Similarly, moving away if you feel someone is invading your personal space (see above) can be viewed as unfriendly. Tuning in to such cultural differences may pose a challenge for those not familiar with doing business in Italy.
Italy is a relatively new country made up of a conglomeration of regions that have proud and distinct ancient histories.
A running joke – but sometimes one harboring real resentment – is the difference in cultural and business practices in Italy between the north and south of the country. The stereotypes in the country speak of largely rural disorganized and chaotic business practices anywhere from Rome southwards, while the north is seen as an industrial powerhouse, with processes rivaling the efficiency of their Swiss counterparts just north of the border. On the flipside, northern Italians are typecast as cold and snobbish, while people from southern regions are classed as warm and friendly.
Naturally the truth lies elsewhere. As with all stereotypes, these should be taken with a recognition of the prejudices they inherently contain, and thus a huge pinch of salt – but when doing business in the country, it is good to temper the generalizations we’ve given above with some prior research into the culture and practices of the region in which you’ll be doing business.
Despite its infamous bureaucracy and the amount of time it can take to get things off the ground, Italy is still home to many international organizations across a variety of sectors. The fact that things do not always work as expected is part of the unique charm of doing business in Italy, where the rewards will nearly always outweigh the challenges.
Written by: Jim Whittle, founder of Rome Vacation Tips, one of the first independent travel advice web sites about Rome and C-Rome art tours.