The Panerai Experience Watch Programme in Rome

Panerai takes the customer experience to lofty new heights with special trips reserved only for its most important of clients. Gordon Lam takes off for Italy and the surprise of his life

The Radiomir Annual Calendar Goldtech

Going on a trip with Panerai has always been on my bucket list. While I’ve been invited to join some of their more adventurous excursions before, I always opted out due to my age and physical condition. But when I got the call from Panerai Hong Kong about a super-exclusive Experience Watch Programme in Rome, I was assured it would also be super civilised (despite first having to sign an NDA that absolved Panerai of any responsibility should unexpected situations arise).

After being told I would be the only representative from the whole of Asia and that #legend was the only press from the region lucky enough to be picked for this special experience, I immediately signed my life away. And okay, maybe I was hoping that Panerai HQ would be kind enough to give me a free watch in return. LOL.

The famed Colosseum

Finally, on March 4, I departed Hong Kong with only a vague idea of what lay ahead over the next six days. Upon arrival at Rome Fiumicino Airport, I was picked up and taken to one of the most prestigious hotels in the city, Hotel de la Ville. After a quick visit to a few tailors that I always like to see when I’m in Rome, I searched the hotel for anyone who looked to be from Panerai HQ. Finally, while downing an Aperol Spritz at the hotel bar, I homed in on a group of ladies all wearing Panerai watches. After a warm welcome from some of the HQ team members, I spent the first night on my own as most of the other invited guests had yet to arrive. The curiosity and excitement of not knowing who would be joining me kept me up all night!

The first official activity was a casual lunch the next day at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, Cielo, which has one of the most magnificent views of the Rome skyline. I made a beeline for my friends from the bar and camouflaged myself as one of their Italian team members. Then it was time to prepare for our first adventure, the “Eternal City Scooter Escape.”

Getting ready for the “Eternal City Scooter Escape”

I had absolutely no inkling about this surprise and was really looking forward to experiencing the city by scooter. Since I’ve been lucky enough to be invited by several Italian super sports car brands like Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati to test drive their cars in Italy, I was dying to get my hands on a classic Italian scooter from Vespa. However, when we finally met up with all 24 Panerai clients who flew in from Hungary, Korea, the US, Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, the UK and Spain – along with some of the world’s most influential watch writers, watch KOLs, digital lifestyle content creators and myself as creative director extraordinaire/KOL/ superstar – I learned that we would not be riding the scooter by ourselves but sitting behind the scooter’s owner for a different kind of city tour.

When we arrived at the scooter site, we were given the choice of which Vespa and driver we would like to enjoy this experience with. Once I set my eyes on a classic white model, I was introduced to the owner – who happened to be the oldest rider in the entire group, being somewhere in his late 80s. That’s when I realised why Panerai was so eager for me to sign my life away prior to the trip. Not to mention that I should start praying.

Inside the Colosseum

It was Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué’s genius idea in 2019 to create the Experience Watch Programme, which until now has never been revealed to the general public. “Here we had 24 clients. Because the edition was the Radiomir Annual Calendar with 24 pieces associated with this experience in 2024. So that’s why there is this number of 24,” CMO Alessandro Ficarelli tells me on the second day of our trip. “The clients bought this limited- edition Radiomir Annual Calendar Platinumtech, but also the opportunity to have this unique experience in Rome. It’s discovering the city in a different way compared to maybe what they used to see in the past. When you create such engagement, such excitement, such love for the brand, at the end you build memories. Which means that we’ve been successful in what we have organised for our clients. Because the idea is to create an event plus something emotional and a great connection with the people.”

As we prepared to set off for our scooter tour of Rome, I had my camera and video equipment ready to capture all the footage. Imagine being seated behind the scooter driver, using only your knees to hang on for dear life, with one hand holding a phone and the other grasping a selfie stick with a 360-degree camera attached to it. It was around 30-45 minutes before we arrived at Fontanone del Gianicolo, which is a well-known tourist spot for capturing views of Rome. When I tried to get off the scooter, I discovered I was paralysed from the waist down from using all my leg muscles to hold onto the driver. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone from Panerai that I couldn’t feel anything or touch my knees together, not to mention the other spot between my legs that had gone totally numb.

Once I managed to get some blood circulating again, I slowly made my way to join the others and take photos for our social media postings. After we all got all the shots we needed, we set off as a group again to our next surprise stop – the famous Trevi Fountain. But instead of admiring the fountain from the front, we were led into a nearby building where the host drew open a wall of curtains. And OMG, not until we stepped out onto the balcony did we realise we were in fact standing inside Trevi Fountain and looking out at the sea of tourists staring straight back at us. It was literally like the Pope standing at his window at the Vatican to greet the crowd. It had to be one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.

Taking in the view of St. Peter’s Basilica

For our next stop we headed off to the Palazzo Brancaccio, which dates back to 1880 and was the last Roman palace built in the Baroque style. It’s also one of the finest jewels in the Eternal City of Rome. We enjoyed an afternoon break and roamed around by ourselves to shoot our own digital content with some of Panerai’s latest Annual Calendar watches. As an added treat, Panerai organised a group of caricature artists to do some quick sketches of us as souvenirs.

Then, without any previous notice, we were escorted to the Colosseum. Panerai had arranged to close off the entire venue for a private tour for their super VIP guests. Can you even imagine how special it felt to be able to take over the Colosseum and have the freedom to roam around taking photos without having any other tourists around? #Bravo

Sidival Fila and the San Bonaventura Convent where he serves as chief guardian and creates art using historical materials

After heading back to the hotel for a well-deserved break and rest, we got ready for a welcome dinner at Alfredo alla Scrofa. The iconic Roman restaurant, which was founded in 1914, had again been booked out for Panerai so that we could all enjoy their most famous dish, Fettuccine Alfredo, at the place it was created.

The second day we had an easy morning before gathering at 10:45am for our next adventure. Our first stop was San Bonaventura Covent, where we met the resident artist Sidival Fila. Father Fila is a real-life monk, artist, philosopher, historian and the chief guardian of the Church of San Bonaventura. His art is literally heaven-sent. His incredible artistic creativity can be seen in his collection of works that use historical materials such as wood, antique threads and fabrics that date back to the 15th-17th centuries. He uses his hands to slowly and delicately fuse his pieces with immense skill and patience, producing art that is truly remarkable when viewed up-close.

While everyone else wandered off to explore his three-storey studio, which offers glorious views of Rome and the Colosseum, I stayed close to Father Fila and tried to discover more about what inspires him. I had no idea that he was from Brazil but after I overheard him speaking to someone in Portuguese, I immediately greeted him in the few words I had learned from my ex-wife who is also from Brazil. He was shocked that I tried to talk to him in my limited Portuguese and the rest was history. Not only did we become immediate BFFs but he also gave me one of his coffee table books and signed it for me to keep as a souvenir. I felt extremely blessed but he had no idea I’m actually Buddhist, so let’s keep that secret to ourselves.

The view from the rooftop of the ambassador of the Order of Malta’s private residence

Next we headed off to lunch at Casa Litta-Palazzo Orsini, which is the private residence of the ambassador of the Order of Malta. We were all told that we would not be able to take any photos during our visit despite this historical building being one of the most well-restored palaces in all of Rome. Casa Litta-Palazzo Orsini is not open to the public so none of us would be likely to step foot into it again. Not only were we lucky enough to visit this glorious palace, but we were also lucky enough to have lunch with the Ambassador Zanardi Landi and his lovely wife. Needless to say, this was another priceless experience courtesy of Panerai.

The historical site hidden under a private residence

Our next destination was yet another super-private hidden gem that no one knows about. We were told to not even disclose the location or geotag as the owner of the private residence only opened it up to Panerai and their guests due to their close and personal connection. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the friendliest Roman couple, who had bought the house decades earlier and who gave us the warmest welcome and treated us to some of the finest Italian snacks and aperitivos. Then we were split into two groups for different activities. Those of us in the living room were trying to free our minds and creating calligraphy, which was exceptionally fun whether you’re artistic or not, while the other group was led downstairs to a secret location.

Practising calligraphy

When both groups finished, the people returning from the basement were filled with excitement. Some even kept whispering to us, “Just wait till you find out for yourselves.” What could possibly be that exciting? We gathered at the top of the stairs and were led down to what looked like a living room. There, the tour guide showed us some small artefacts from the Roman Empire in a tiny circular room with a giant tinted window and door. I had no idea why the previous group was so excited, but then the tour guide asked us if we were ready. She turned on the light and “boom!”, the secret was revealed. The window opened up to another basement that was actually an excavation site dating back to ancient Rome. Frankly speaking, we were awestruck.

The guide later explained that the owner of the house had wanted to build a garage but soon realised they were digging into a historical site. The owner then decided to maintain the site himself and turned it into his own private gallery. The basement consisted of different layers, some with old urns and oil lamps, and then the lowest level revealed part of a street from ancient Rome complete with giant stones we could stand on. How incredible.

“The beauty of this experience is to discover the surprises step-by-step, you know?” Ficarelli says. “It’s a mix of secrets and surprises, and this gives you the ‘wow’ effect. That’s the beauty, because when I see the eyes of the clients, the emotion and what we built with this experience, it’s something that makes us proud.”

Dawn breaking outside the Vatican Museum

After a full day of adventure, we still weren’t finished. We went back to the hotel and got changed and glammed up for a dinner hosted by CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué. Before my departure from Hong Kong, I had noticed on the itinerary that we would be having dinner at Palazzo Marina, home to the Ministry of Defence of the Italian Military Navy. Dress code: Elegant Attire. What’s more elegant and appropriate for me to dress in than a full military look that I had prepped before coming to Rome? In fact, it was from an old collection designed by Italian brand Ports 1961 quite a few seasons ago.

When we gathered at the lobby with all the Panerai guests, I noticed that I was the only one dressed in military style. Most probably thought I had served in the military before. And Panerai’s Navy SEALs happens to be one of my favourite collections from the brand. If you’re into watches, you might know that Panerai got its start designing tools and watches for the Italian Navy in 1910. Naturally, having dinner at the Palazzo Marina was going to be a highlight for me.

Palazzo Marina at night

The first thing I noticed was that there were uniformed guards everywhere. And each one I saw, I saluted. Surprisingly, they all saluted me back. Everyone in our international influencer gang was dying with laughter. I felt so at home and, to be honest, I could roam around the Ministry of Defence and no one would even stop me or question who I was as long as I looked like I was part of the military personnel.

But the highlight of the evening was yet to come. As we entered the library for our dinner, I noticed there was a gentleman dressed in a full Italian Senior Navy uniform. I immediately ran towards him, not knowing who he was and him not knowing who I was. I greeted him with my usual military salute and he did the same in return, probably thinking I was from another military unit from a different part of the world. Then he introduced himself as Vice Admiral Giuseppe Berutti Bergotto, deputy chief of staff of the Italian Navy. All of a sudden, our conversation stopped as he was expecting me to reply with my full name and rank from whichever military unit I came from. I didn’t think he’d be impressed if I said I’m Big Daddy Glam from #legend magazine, co-founder and creative director from Hong Kong, and club owner extraordinaire if he wants to have a good night out next time he’s in town. Just at the crucial moment, Jean-Marc came over to greet Vice Admiral Berutti Bergotto and I immediately took the opportunity to turn things around by asking if they’d like to have a group photo with me before they made their welcome speeches. That had to be the proudest moment of my entire trip, being able to take a photo with a real-life Italian Navy admiral together with my long-time friend Jean-Marc. No matter what other surprises were in store, that experience made the entire trip worthwhile.

Posing with Vice Admiral Giuseppe Berutti Bergotto (centre) and Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué (right)

One of the keys to the success of this trip was definitely the ladies from Panerai HQ’s PR & Communications team. Besides making me feel like a part of their Italian family, they kept reminding me that the following morning would be an extremely early one. I didn’t even notice on my official itinerary that the last day of our trip was a visit to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel with a call time to gather at the lobby at 4:45am… Seriously?!

Most of the brands I travel with know that I never stop working – if I’m in a European time zone, I’ll still work during Hong Kong hours. Which means that I’m usually up around 3am or 4am to join all my work-related meetings or Skype with my colleagues in Hong Kong. So, while I’d been spending this time in Rome, I’d also been working early in the morning every day with hardly any rest. Even though I warned them I might not make it due to lack of sleep, the Panerai ladies kept telling me they would not take no for an answer. Even if they had to destroy the door of my hotel room and drag me by the hair, they would make sure I didn’t miss this visit.

I still can’t believe I managed to get myself up and ready by 4:30am the following day. I was even sharply dressed and looking fresh for the occasion. And I have to say that I’m so pleased I didn’t miss one of the most impressive moments of the trip, something that I will remember forever.

When we arrived at the front entrance of the Vatican Museum, the sky was still pitch black and the museum was totally closed. After we waited for five minutes, the museum personnel arrived and invited
us inside where we were greeted by more security guards and our official tour guide. Taking a lift that is not typically used by the public, we first went to the basement and met a group of staff called the “key masters”. We later found out that they are the ones responsible for opening the entire museum using all the designated keys and turning on all the lights.

The famous keys

The key masters let us hold the more that 100+ keys, all in different shapes and sizes without any marks or written descriptions as to which door they were supposed to open, on a giant circular key chain. Then we were told that each of us would get a chance to unlock the doors to an exhibition hall as well as see all of the museum’s lights being switched on. I have to admit I’ve been on a few private Vatican Museum tours before with other luxury brands. But to get to open the museum along with the key masters while getting a full-on guided tour has to be the most insane and unbelievable experience that any brand could dream up for their VIPs.

If this wasn’t impressive enough, the finale of our tour sealed the deal. Not only did Panerai allow us to open the Vatican Museum but they topped it off by arranging for us to access the door leading directly into the Sistine Chapel. We walked inside in total darkness and witnessed the staff turning on all the lighting for the chapel, revealing masterpieces by Michelangelo such as the The Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement.

Inside the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement

After the tour, we went for breakfast at the Vatican Museum’s outdoor café. But before that I invited all the guests and the Panerai team, including the most important host of our trip, Jean-Marc, to join me for an IG Reel to celebrate the success of this remarkable VIP experience. We did a catwalk finale led by Jean-Marc and followed by all the guests and Panerai team members walking towards my camera like we were in a real fashion show. I’m sorry, but Italian Fashion Week is not over until Panerai says it’s over!

No amount of words can describe all the insane experiences, not to mention the immense joy and priceless moments, that Panerai’s PR & Communications team organised for what I would describe as the most impressive trip of my entire lifetime. I’ve had the pleasure to travel the world with so many top international brands and nothing can even come close to this one. #WOW

Inside the Vatican Museum

First and foremost, congrats to Jean-Marc for creating this remarkable and genius idea for your VIP collectors. Most importantly, thank you to everyone at Panerai and all the ladies from Panerai HQ, Marta, Francesca, Marzia, Ombretta, Julia, Coletta and of course my BFF, Panerai CMO Alessandro Ficarelli, for being my new Italian family. Also, #GrazieMille to the Panerai Hong Kong team for thinking of me in the first place.

I still can’t believe I created more than 20 posts on my own Instagram from this trip but there were just so many incredible moments to share. And to be honest, I still have so much content that I didn’t even show publicly during the trip. I can’t wait for my next invitation.

Also see: Breguet unleashes luxury for pets in Hong Kong

In this Story: #watches & #jewellery