On May, 3, 2024 18 members of the stone industry set out on a journey from North America to Rome, Italy, to take part in the 2024 Stone Fabricator’s Alliance (SFA) Italy Tour. While excited and having heard about the trip from previous participants, the group could not fully grasp what was instore for them until they experienced it for themselves. The tour included eight overnight stops in eight days, covered approximately 1,070 road miles by bus, many scrumptious meals featuring regional cuisine, countless glasses of wine, spectacular views of the country and sea sides, and most memorable, Italian hospitality. Moreover, the many hours on the bus allowed time for new lifetime friendships to be made.

This year’s tour was led by industry veterans Mike Dean and Tim Zeng, both members of the SFA executive board of directors. The first tour was established in 2011 with the intention of broadening fabricators knowledge of Italian machinery, tooling, stone care and maintenance products, and stone production. Much gratitude is given to Tenax, who has partnered with the SFA since the beginning to make the trip possible. Specifically, Daniele Scasserle and Tatiana Savoia, who each year dedicate many long hours to the carefully planned itinerary and joining the group on its journey to ensure it remains on schedule.

Each person on the 2024 tour hailed from a different state, as well as Canada. In addition to Dean, who is from The Top Shop Inc. in London, Ontario, Canada, and Zeng of Zeng Granite in Lincoln, NE, this year’s delegation included: Blake Christensen of Valley View Granite in Tremonton, UT; Yancy Devine of Old World Granite & Stone, LLC in Pilot Point, TX; Miranda Falloon of Stellar Stone Works in Bourbon, MO; Tanya Fischbeck of G3 Glass Granite Group in Mesa, AZ; Jeff Ford of Ford Stone in Rockford, MI; Ben Kalkman of Cutting Edge Kitchens in Boise, ID; Jeff Kerr of Kirkpatrick Stoneworks Ltd. in Fonthill, Ontario, Canada; Dillon Lathrop of United Marble in Watertown, MA; Steve McIntosh of Astonia LLC in Rogers, MN; Noah Marques of Marques Countertops in Chalmette, LA; Angie Moster of The Stone Studio in Batesville, IN; Richard Pelayo of The Colorado Floor Company in Henderson, CO; and Cristopher Rodriguez of Stone Craft LLC in Midlothian, VA. Moreover, Tony DiBartolo from Elgin, IL, and Matt Brickey from Flowery Branch, GA, both of Tenax USA, as well as myself, a Jersey girl, had a seat on the bus.

“This year’s 2024 SFA Italy tour had a wonderful and very diverse group of fabricators on the bus,” said Dean. “There were companies ranging from three to 27 years experience, company sizes from four employees to over 50, and each and every person was from a different state! Everyone got comfortable quickly, and after the week, I’m sure each of them would tell you we are now a close family.”

Starting in the south of Italy and crisscrossing across the country to land in the north, the bus made many stops along the way to visit Italian host companies. They included (in the order of the stops): Helios Automazioni (San Salvo), Sassomeccanica (Monteprandone), Denver (San Marino), Infinity Surfaces (Pavullo nel Frignano), Nicolai Diamant (Massa), Henraux Quarry (Monte Altissimo), Henraux Factory (Lucca), Donatoni (Sant’Ambrogio), Tenax (Verona), Antolini (Verona), Comandulli (Castelleone), CMS (Zogno) and GMM (Gravellona Toce). From wineries to mountaintop restaurants to lunch and dinner on the sea, each host company treated the group to amazing meals, as well as taking time to explain their company history, products and answer any questions.

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A Deeper Dive into the 2024 SFA Italy Tour

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Several participants from the Stone Fabricator's Alliance's 2024 Tour of Italy sat down with Jason Kamery and Jennifer Richinelli to recap some memorable highlights of the weeklong adventure. Those who joined the podcast were Yancy Devine, Old World Granite & Stone, LLC in Pilot Point, TX; Ben Kalkman, Cutting Edge Kitchens in Boise, ID; Noah Marques, Marques Countertops in Chalmette, LA; and Angie Moster, The Stone Studio in Batesville, IN.

According to Dean, “The host companies on this year’s tour were fabulous! Each of them presented a different flair to our visit -- showing their products in a completely different way than the others. Of course, they are also very proud to show off their home country and the beautiful things that come with it. The food! The wine! The people! These companies are also very excited to show us things the normal person just won’t get access to. The one thing in common with all the hosts is that each of them see the value with hosting the SFA Tour, the SFA overall as an organization, and all of them genuinely treated us to wonderful Italian hospitality!”

With an extensive amount of time spent on the bus together (the majority of trips averaged between an hour and a half to three hours), everyone in the group had plenty of time to get to know each other. Dean and Zeng encouraged each person to pick a different seat on each ride so that they could have time to get to really learn about each group member. Friendships and mentor and mentee relationships certainly developed during the trip.

“My favorite part of the trip is always the ‘bus time,’” said Dean. “Watching the group network for the entire week with over 25 hours on the bus shows how much they want to grow as a business. (Of course, this is mixed in with power naps and maybe some ‘bus wine’ or a ‘buspresso!’) The amount of knowledge and ideas that are shared ensures each person goes home with a ton of thoughts on how they can grow. This is what the SFA is about. Learn. Share. Prosper.”

Sharing Dean’s sentiments, Kerr also expressed how he enjoyed meeting, talking and the time spent with everyone. “My favorite part of the trip was the openness of both the attendees and our host companies,” he said. “No questions were over the line, be it about business, production or family. Normally, in my life, that sense of comfortableness is something reserved for long-time friends, and that’s what I feel like many of us have become. Perhaps it was Mike and Tim traveling to another continent with 18 people with so much in common or being on a bus for hours, but it very quickly felt ‘normal.’ All the host companies were so welcoming and hospitable. I wouldn’t have asked for anything to be different, well perhaps more bus wine!”

Growing up in the stone business, Lathrop moved from California to Massachusetts, landing a job with United Marble. He appreciated the experience he had with the SFA in Italy. “This trip was truly an adventure and exceeded my expectations in more ways than I thought possible,” he said. “I returned from Italy with a whole new perspective on stone and the amazing things that are possible to create with the stones that we work with every day. We had access to the most exclusive stone galleries and showrooms where we viewed very impressive stone sculptures, furniture pieces and displays. These stone creations were incredibly eye-opening and inspiring, whether we were admiring an intricate mirror frame carved from a block of Carrara or a ‘simple’ wall piece made from the most beautiful onyx. The creativity and craftsmanship of these Italian artists are unlike anything I could've dreamt of.

“We also visited beautiful towns and cities with so much history and character,” Lathrop went on to say. “Every place we visited was packed full of stone, much of which has been in place for hundreds or even thousands of years. We saw gorgeous buildings wrapped in stone, sculptures that were carved and built from blocks of marble and counters in cafes and restaurants that have incredible patina from years of use, all while walking on marble sidewalks and stairs in some of these beautiful cities. Our hosts exemplified the epitome of Italian hospitality. We stayed in the most beautiful cities, in the nicest hotels and enjoyed the best food in the world. Each and every sponsor treated us all as family and I saw why they have such amazing products and such a loyal customer base. But I can say that by far the best part of this trip was the relationships that were built during this adventure. Although we had a very packed schedule, there was plenty of time to connect with everyone and bond over all of the experiences we just had. Being surrounded by this amazing group of people with such a vast wealth of knowledge is priceless. The group was filled with folks from very diverse markets -- all with different perspectives and different methods of navigating the same struggles that we all have in this industry on a daily basis. If you are someone who is passionate about stone and the industry we are a part of, you should do everything you can to attend this trip.”

Through the years, women have become more prominent in the stone industry, and this year, there were three women fabricators on the tour. Fischbeck has owned G3 Glass Granite Group with her husband for 10 years, and she was excited to be on the trip to return back home and share all that she has learned.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but it really doesn’t capture the essence of this experience,” said Fischbeck. “First and foremost, a heartfelt thank you to SFA, Mike Dean, Tim Zeng, Tatiana Savoia, Daniele Scasserle and Tenax, for the countless hours of planning, mapping, emails, texts, logistics and the many other things you did behind the scenes to make our trip effortless. I also want to express my gratitude for the hospitality and thoughtfulness extended by our generous industry partners. Thank you, @Heliosautomzaionisrl, @sassostonemachinery, @denverSpAstonemachines, @infinitysurfaces, @nikoalidiamant, @tenax, @cmsstonetechnology, @gmmstonemachinery, @henraux, @antolini, @comandullinorthamerica, @donatonimacchine, and @Stoneworld. Our journey began in Rome, surrounded by ancient architecture and rich stone artisanship everywhere we looked. From there, we traveled across the country, passing charming villages with weather-worn homes, ancient castles perched atop scenic mountains, and industrial buildings and marble factories lining the roads. What appeared to be snow-capped mountains were, in reality, marble quarries. The contrast of the stone craftsmanship of centuries ago and the advancement of modern machinery today was awe-inspiring. Advanced 3D modeling, robotic assembly lines and communicative software were only a few of the things we saw and learned about.

Our Italian friends spoiled us with their attention and hospitality. From fine dining and incredible hotels to walking on the factory floors with the titans of our industry, I can’t say enough about this experience. Dinners and lunches were spent getting to know one another and connecting. Visiting their factories and showrooms, it was clear these were family businesses. The warm reception, happiness, and focus from their family and team members told their story, and the innovation and technology showed their vision. The Henraux quarry did not disappoint as we walked among the towering cliffs of marble and explored their carved cathedral spires. It was incredible.

“In trying to explain about this experience, I’d have to say it was a trip full of light,” Fischbeck continued. “I don’t know how to describe or capture the friendships made, the exchange of knowledge that everyone shared so freely, the accessibility to the owners of our manufacturers and suppliers (speechless), the showrooms, the inspiration, and of course, the Henraux quarry. There’s just too much! The bus trips were long, but so valuable and irreplaceable. We learned how different each shop is and that there’s not one model, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. It felt like everyone was rowing in the same direction. For leaving work behind for over a week, it felt light – not heavy or burdensome. We left the mental work of running businesses and deadlines and templates and machines and installations behind and had an amazing experience!

I’m sure everyone on this trip would agree, this was incredible! If you get the chance to go, make it happen! The friendships formed with both SFA members and our industry suppliers were the best part of it all. It was the icing on the cake, or in Tim’s case, the 20th scoop of gelato!”

While each member of the group might have a different memorable moment of the trip, there is a common thread that pulls everyone’s overall reaction together. It is the people – both fellow fabricators who shared in this Italian adventure and the members of all the host companies we visited. There is no doubt everyone part of the 2024 SFA Italy Tour left gaining new friends and business relationships.

“I’m lucky enough to have been a co-leader on this tour three times now,” said Dean. “One highlight for me is seeing my Italian friends I have met at different companies all over Italy. It’s like we’re still best friends, even after time apart. The lifelong contacts made are so valuable.”

As some have shared, the annual tour SFA and Tenax organize every year leaves a lasting impression on all who participate. While everyone was exhausted once we reached Milan on the eighth day, they were all sad to leave Italy and their new group of friends. There is still so much more to report, so look for a podcast and video interview with other participants of the 2024 tour soon. We will share more specific details on what we saw on each of our visits, and recall some of the many unforgettable memories. In the meantime, take a minute and view the slide show to see some highlights of the trip and why it is such an incredible lifechanging experience.