In Memoriam of Roberto Wirth
A Tribute to Roberto
by Terry Giansanti
This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve thought about this over and over. How can I put into words what I want to say about this unique man? There are two sides to Roberto that I want to share – a personal side and a business side.
One thing is for sure: Roberto was exceptional in how he succeeded as a deaf person in such a difficult line of work. Being in the hotel business, especially the luxury hotel business, requires such a high level of attention to detail – a whispered voice here and a fleeting comment there. At that level, it’s imperative to stay on top of everything. Roberto once told me that every morning he had to “tone” his voice in the bathroom to get ready for the day ahead. I don’t think any hearing person understands how difficult it is – how much more work it is, to just prepare oneself as a deaf person, to stay on top of a volatile daily routine of a luxury hotelier.
Despite him not having any deaf peers within his industry, he continued to be generous with his time and energy. He never forgot his identity as a deaf person. Roberto was adept at bridging both worlds by being generous in letting other deaf people have a peek through the window of his world at the Hassler. You’d assume that a person in his position would consider himself superior to other deaf people, but he very rarely gave that impression. He invited deaf people from many walks of life to the Hassler to have dinner and to chat. He listened, told stories, and made people who sat next to him feel special and important.
Roberto led by example. He really did not bog himself down with theoretical diatribes. He was adept at interrupting a stream of conversation with a friend to intervene quickly on a problem whenever needed.
The Hassler was his home. His workers respected him and you could feel it in the air. Roberto’s aura reflected his high standards, his level of class and style, and how he wanted the Hassler to be represented. At the same time, he was generous about giving so many deaf people access to his “living room.” He was the archetype of an old-school European independent hotelier, a dying breed in the era of chain hotels.
Those are the words I’d use to describe his personal side. Determination, generosity, and high standards.
As for the business side, I am eternally grateful to him for what he has done for Hands On Travel.
When I moved to Rome in 1999, it was a different time during a different era. It was intoxicating for me to be in such a great city, especially for a kid who grew up in suburban America where the most historical sight for miles around was probably… nothing?
It wasn’t easy to navigate such a different culture and a new language in a different reality, but Roberto was a mentor to me from the beginning. Every time I had an issue, a problem or a challenge, I knew that a dinner with Roberto at the Hassler would resolve it and walking into the Hassler made me feel like royalty. Basically, it gave me the confidence that anything was possible. He didn’t have to say it. It was all right out in front of you: The world is yours if you work hard enough to make it happen.
After dinner in the private area behind the bar (and after plenty of good red wine) we would go up to the terrace of the hotel and survey the Roman nightscape. He would point to the Quirinale (the home of the President of Italy), St. Peter’s Church (where the Pope lived) and then he’d point down to the Hassler. It was his way of showing pride in what he had been able to accomplish. That terrace was, and still is, my favorite part of the hotel.
In 2002, I worked on a project to provide guided tour services to groups of deaf people who wanted to visit Rome and other parts of Italy. I had already lived there for a couple of years and fell in love with the city, so I wanted to share all the beautiful parts and provide experiences that would make visitors feel like locals.
I prepared that project while I worked under another tour company, so when it came time to agree on terms, they offered me a 50-50 split. I was unsure what to do, so I visited Roberto at the Hassler to have dinner, and we talked about it. I explained to him what I wanted to do, and he told me that the project was an essential one. He was a born and bred Roman. He wanted to be proud of his city, and wanted deaf people to come and visit and leave with good feelings and good impressions too.
At one point, he told me frankly: “Forget that 50-50 offer. Go and do it yourself. Set up your own business.” He said it in such a way that made it all seem like a no-brainer, but at that time, I had no idea how to do anything like that. I had never even taken Business 101 at Gallaudet. So my first reaction was, “Oh, I don’t know how to.” Instead of providing words of advice, he just said “go ahead and go to Deaf Way 2 at Gallaudet” (held during summer 2002).
Roberto put up the money for us to reserve a booth at that festival in addition to helping us fund the brochures and DVD we created and distributed. He wasted no time in trying to tell me what I had to do, or be a helicopter investor, or anything like that. He just said “set up your own business” with such confidence that you could only follow along. He emphasized that I had to wait three years to know whether or not it would be a success. So I rolled up my sleeves subconsciously and followed his example of hard work. I’d go back to see him often and he never once expressed any doubts over the likely success. Roberto had way more confidence than I did that the business would flourish.
I close my eyes: it’s now been a bit over twenty years since he told me that, and Hands On Travel is still here, thriving as the only deaf-owned tour operation that focuses on providing local-style tours for deaf people. It was precisely what he had envisioned from the beginning. It is my mission to carry it forward for as long as I can, continuing to maintain the same high standards that he has always expected and practiced in his lifetime.
We will miss you, Roberto. Thank you for everything.
To honor Roberto’s memory, we kindly ask you to write a testimonial about him.
It can be short stories, special moments, photos, a special memory, or even a thought. Anything you share would be appreciated. Our team will collect all testimonials and share it to Roberto Wirth’s family so that they can have a rich collection of the impact he made on the deaf community worldwide.
Please send all testimonials to this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org