I asked our concierge for an earliest “complimentary” tour of Murano. The receptionist picked up the phone, made a couple of phone calls, and we were on our way…
If you've seen or purchased Venetian glass, there's a good chance that it came from the island of Murano. For over 700 years, Murano has been innovating designs and processes of glass-blowing; today, it's a work of art. Murano sits just northeast of Venice's "biggest island". The public can sit on one of ACTV's water taxis (the main method of transit around Venice) and get off at either of the two Murano stops - Colonna or Museo. Colonna is where to get off if you're looking for glassblowing demonstrations, where Museo serves as the stop to the glass museum. But if you're staying in Venice, you might be offered a private, non-stop ride to Murano for a presentation, compliments of your hotel. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?
The Ride to Murano
On one sunny morning, I asked our concierge for the earliest "complimentary" tour of Murano. The receptionist picked up the phone, made a couple of phone calls, and after several minutes of trying to learn Italian, he informed us that we'd be on our way in twenty minutes. After relaxing in the lobby waiting for our private tour, an older gentleman in his 70s arrived at the hotel, and informed us that our water taxi is ready. We followed him through the squares near San Zaccaria and a bustling crowd. Now, remember that this guy was about 70... the walk to go about 1,000 feet felt like an hour. 5 minutes, and 500 feet later, we arrived at our dock to our own private water-taxi, with a driver sitting inside ready to take us on this adventure! We hopped in the boat and set sail. However, the older gentleman didn't join us... so I have no idea what his function was in the whole itinerary.
With the island in sight, the operator drifted the boat and we docked on a private deck. We were greeted by a man who was waiting for us at the dock... as if he knew our every location all along. So now picture this sequence of events: asking for a complimentary boat ride, being escorted by a man who doesn't come along the boat ride, hopping into a stranger's water taxi, and disembarking at a private dock with no one else in sight and being escorted by another unknown man... doesn't this sound like the Karate Island episode from Spongebob? Or being kidnapped by Italian mobsters? Anyway, I digress.
He led us into the back entrance of a room, where demonstrations were already in progress. Throughout their presentation, they constantly were bragging that because we selected the "private tour", we got a close up of the process of artists at work as opposed to going the public route. I'll give them credit, I was able to capture some detailed photos of their work in progress.
We only had about 15 minutes in this room before we got pushed along to the next part of the "tour". The museum. Inside a small room lay hundreds of large displays of Murano glass. From vases to wall art, there were at least a million dollars of net-worth of pieces. "Cool museum", I thought. That was until they mentioned "see something you like? Just you're luck! Everything in here is on sale!".
It was then when I realized... it's not a museum, it's literally the "gift shop" part of the tour where they literally try to sell you anything to make a buck off of tourists. The reason that the hotels were incentivizing these "private tours" for free was that these factories were investing water taxi rides that probably cost little to them, and hoping for a return on tourists blowing thousands of dollars on blown glass. I was just trying to navigate the "museum" (or shop, whatever it should be called) without making a wrong step. Just one sneeze could cause a piece to shatter and thrash my vacation budget (actually Murano glass seemed pretty durable, but I wasn't about to test that theory then).
Every table had a simple, large-buttoned calculator, used by the salesmen as a bartering tool. There was a piece of glass that I just loved, and I had set a budget of about $500... they wanted $2,000 at the first ask. I said forget it, and then they tried to negotiate it all the way down to $900. Pro Tip: just like anything in sales, always try to negotiate down. These salesmen want to make the highest margin, so don't be afraid to challenge their first offer by countering with a really low-ball offer.
Once they were finally sold at my non-commitment to buy anything, they quickly arranged for a ride back to Venice so they could move us out and accommodate the next set of customers. So really, this private tour felt like it had two personalities - sweet and patient to get you to buy something, and once you commit to leaving empty-handed, sour and impatient to get you out the door.
We left the island satisfied that we got to see it, especially viewing glassblowing live, but also with more knowledge about where the most famous pieces of Venetian glass originate.
Similar Attitudes at Stores
One of my biggest achievements in life was never getting kicked out of a store. Yes, I was a well-behaved, rule-following teenager during my high school days, and never caused trouble to get escorted out of any public place. During my teen years, there was barely anything to do outside of school besides going to the mall (back when those were relevant). Venice is jam packed with designer stores, restaurants, and boutique shops. Many of those stores advertise "MURANO GLASS" all over the window, or in the business name.
So now that we've visited the island where the glass is produced, I figured it'd be a great idea to do a price comparison between the range that the local shops offer versus the astronomically high asking prices at Murano Island. In one of the stores, I found a sailboat just like the one I saw at the glass factory - same colors, same size, everything! I asked for a price, and they quoted me $750 initially. Now we're talking! Could I get it for that $300 budget that I set myself up for earlier? As I was inspecting it, I noticed there was minor degradation toward the front - a very faint chip and scratch. I pointed this out to the shopkeep, and she said "oh no, that's impossible. It's Murano Glass - it's perfect".
I responded with a dumbfounded look. While trying to convince her that there was something wrong with it (and we're not even discussing prices at this point), she responds " OK, thank you, see you later, bye bye"). I'm sorry, what? I proceed to walk out of the store trying to talk out loud what the heck just happed. Ten seconds later, the shop keep comes to the front of the store and slams the door, to make her presence and attitude known. Sorry - wouldn't want to do business with you anyway.
Sad to report that my 24-year old streak of never getting kicked out of any store came to an end.
Visiting Murano was a pleasure, despite the pressure to buy something or getting kicked out for pointing out a flaw. The one thing to keep in mind is that if you receive a complimentary boat ride offer from the hotel, it's to benefit the glass factory, and not the consumer. Is it a tourist attraction, or a high-pressure sales tactic? That's for you to decide.
Keep an eye on local shops' prices first, and use that as a potential negotiator if you want to buy authentic glass from inside Murano Island. You may find very similar pieces, and if you're not a stickler for every detail, you can get an extremely similar piece on the "mainland". It's time-consuming to get to Murano, so be sure to do your research in Venice first, then pursuing Murano.