A respected travel and hospitality expert and author, Robert Allegrini now takes on a one-of-a-kind role as honorary consul for the republic of San Marino.
When Michigan Stadium is sold out for a Wolverines football game, it fits three times as many people as live in all of San Marino — a nation within Italy that’s so small, it’s referred to in geographic terms as a “microstate.” Its 33,000 residents, spread out over 24 square miles, occupy the fifth smallest country in the world. It also stands alone as a priceless curiosity, with a style of government and copious architectural gems largely unchanged since the Renaissance.
Into the fine fabric of this nation steps Robert Allegrini, who in November became San Marino’s honorary consul. Based in Chicago, this newly minted diplomat comes to the job via a lifetime in the hospitality and travel industries. For more than 10 years, he served as a vice president of corporate communications for Hilton Worldwide; he also wrote the book “Chicago’s Grand Hotels.”
Lou&A spoke to Allegrini about his new role, his adventures in travel and hospitality, and the Italian roots that nourished him and groomed him for the most unique of consulate roles.
Lou&A: Tell us about your Italian lineage; it’s a fascinating mix.
Robert Allegrini: My mother is 100 percent Tuscan with both her mother’s and father’s family coming from the Lucca area. Interestingly, my mother was born in Lucca (province) but her mother was born on the frontier in Nevada after my great-grandparents immigrated there in the late 1800s.
According to all the research I’ve done, the Allegrini name originates in Florence, but my paternal grandfather was born in the province of Viterbo, north of Rome. My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, came from minor Piemontese nobility and was born in Val D’Aosta amidst the Alps in far northwest Italy. Her maiden name was Laurent so there was definitely a French influence as there is with many families in Val D’Aosta and Piemonte. She grew up speaking Italian, French and Piemontese: a mixture of the two.
Lou&A: How did growing up in an Italian family prepare you for your career as a writer and travel expert?
Allegrini: I realized at an early age that I wanted to do something international. I was always drawn to the foreign service, but as an only child with older parents I knew it wasn’t in the cards. That’s when I thought about the hospitality industry. It’s been a great run: more than 30 years with Regent Hotels, Swissôtel, Hyatt and Hilton. And in the course of those 30 years I got to visit and work in more than 50 countries on five continents. I’m only so adventurous though; wherever I go I try and seek out a good Italian restaurant. When you are already used to the best cuisine, why compromise?
Lou&A: How did you discover San Marino? What drew you to it?
Allegrini: I discovered San Marino like many children of my generation — through stamp collecting. San Marino was famous for issuing beautiful postage stamps that were highly collectable. The stamps led me to be curious about the country and to learn about its amazing history at a young age. I discovered that my uncle had been there so I learned more about it from him, and then I was able to visit it myself for the first time in the 1980s. I was fascinated by how San Marino was able to keep its independence through all the vicissitudes of history on the Italian peninsula and how it was already famous as a beacon of democracy in the days of Abraham Lincoln.
Lou&A: How did you become the consul of San Marino?
Allegrini: Honorary consuls are often American citizens with a particular interest in or history with the country they represent. In 1993, I wrote the ambassador of San Marino to the United Nations and told him I would make a great honorary consul, since my job in hospitality public relations put me in contact with the top travel writers in the country and tourism was an important source of income for San Marino. The Ambassador politely wrote me back telling me that San Marino already had a consulate in Detroit, where thousands of Sammarinese immigrants reside. But I never gave up on the idea.
Lou&A: What revived it?
Allegrini: A few years ago, I mentioned my aspiration to a Jesuit priest friend in Chicago; who recommended that I speak to a friend of his in Milan; who put me in touch with a friend of hers in New York; who put me in touch with his mother in Rome; who put me in touch with a friend in San Marino who presented my credentials to the foreign minister, who called me personally.
Lou&A: Now there’s a phone tree!
Allegrini: The Foreign Minister was pleased to have someone who had worked in hospitality and tourism promotion, had been president of the Italian American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest and who would know how to promote the products of San Marino. So they essentially carved out a consular district for me that runs from Illinois straight south through Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not a citizen but very soon I’ll have a San Marino diplomatic passport in addition to my American and Italian passports.
Lou&A: What recommends the nation to the American or Italian-American traveler?
Allegrini: One reason I was given this role is because in San Marino they realize the need to enhance exposure and awareness in a major media market like Chicago. There is a ton to recommend it to the American or Italian-American traveler.
Lou&A: What do you find the most rewarding part of what you do in terms of travel and writing?
Allegrini: Writing is my creative release and a tangible legacy. I’m delighted that my book “Chicago’s Grand Hotels” is in thousands of homes and will be a reference book for generations to come. The same with my writing: I love writing about Italy. It is a passion. Travel is another passion. In 20 years working for Hilton I came away with a great appreciation of Conrad Hilton’s mantra, “Peace through Travel.” The more you travel the more you understand and appreciate people from different cultures. I still have a thirst to see and understand as much of the world as possible.
The above appears in the February 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.