REBUILDING AN EMPIRE
Selina Denman speaks to Sir Rocco Forte about reviving his family business and the importance of ‘small, unexpected gestures’ in the world of hospitality
Sir Rocco Forte tells us about reviving his family business and the importance of ‘small, unexpected gestures’ in the world of hospitality
On a terrace inching out on to the road in front of Florence’s famed Piazza della Repubblica, diners eat their lunch off tables imprinted with Pucci scarves. The square, which started life as a Roman forum, has long been a meeting place, whether for the famous artists and literary elite of the early 20th century, or Florence’s street performers and endless streams of tourists. Today, those in the know flock to Irene, the restaurant at the foot of the Hotel Savoy.
Operated in its current incarnation by Rocco Forte Hotels, the Hotel Savoy has stood guard on the west flank of the piazza since 1893. Earlier this year, it emerged from an expansive, six-month renovation project that saw its total number of rooms reduced from 102 to 80, with the addition of a series of impressive suites. As part of the revamp, Olga Polizzi, design director of Rocco Forte Hotels, teamed up with another Florentine icon, the house of Emilio Pucci.
It started with a silk scarf. Emilio Pucci created two exclusive designs for the hotel – in jaunty shades of bright pink and turquoise – that re-envisage the historical Piazza della Repubblica in Pucci’s typical playful style. Florence’s best-known architectural marvel, the Duomo of Brunelleschi, which is just a short walk from the hotel and can be glimpsed from some of its suites, also makes an appearance.
The scarves, which, for those wanting a particularly personalised souvenir, can be bought from the hotel’s gi shop, have also been imprinted on to Irene’s glass tabletops, offering a decidedly fashion-forward spin to the hotel’s outdoor eating area. In the hotel reception, Pucci accents come through on black and fuchsia coloured cushions, velvet armchairs emblazoned with bold floral motifs, and the “Lamborghini” print, which has been li ed from the Emilio Pucci archives and imposed on to a hand-tu ed rug.
“Olga was looking for something that was very Florence,” Dame Laudomia Pucci, image director of the brand, tells me when meet in the grand Palazzo Pucci. “For us, it’s important that when we do a project, we relate it to something that is ours, and what is basically at the heart of Pucci is a scarf. We started out by saying: ‘It’s Piazza della Repubblica; it’s Hotel Savoy; the Duomo is just behind – that’s a postcard and we want to put that postcard on a scarf.’”
A central tenet of the Rocco Forte ethos is collating landmark properties that are inextricably linked to the destinations they sit in – hotels that have a story and that are fundamentally unique, whether it’s Brown’s Hotel in London, Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg or Hotel de Russie in Rome.
“People love feeling part of the city they are visiting,” says Sir Rocco Forte, who founded the business with his sister, Olga Polizzi, in 1996. “Other than location, I look for history and personality. Both permeate the walls, giving atmosphere and offering wonderful narratives,” he adds.
Forte set the tone with The Balmoral in Edinburgh, a palatial property that was the first to launch under the Rocco Forte Hotels banner. “The Balmoral was and remains an icon in Edinburgh. It is stylish and quirky at the same time, and it is dearly loved by the Scots. I was lucky enough to have had a chance to acquire it, and it really gave me the encouragement to carry on focusing on hotels with strong personality,” he says.
While not quite a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches tale, the Rocco Forte story is certainly one that has been defined by dramatic ebbs and flows. Forte’s father, Lord Charles Forte, was born in Monforte, a village in Italy’s Abruzzi mountains, to a family of farmers. In 1911, he emigrated to Scotland, where his father took over an ice cream parlour/cafe called the Savoy. Lord Charles went on to open a milk bar on London’s Regent Street.
From there, he built a multimillion-pound hotel and restaurant business that included the Little Chef and Happy Eater brands, the Welcome Break chain of service stations, and hotels such as the Waldorf in London, and the George V and Plaza Athénée in Paris. He become one of Britain’s best-known hoteliers of the
post-war era, receiving a knighthood in 1970 and then a life peerage in 1982.
In 1996, the business Lord Forte had built, which by then was under his son’s leadership, was taken over by the television and leisure giant Granada, in a hostile takeover bid that has been dubbed one of the biggest and most bitter of the 1990s. Others might have been tempted to retire at that point, but Sir Rocco Forte responded with the announcement that he would be launching a luxury hotel chain of his own. He decided to focus exclusively on the five-star segment.
“My family has been in hospitality for generations, and I had all the experience to concentrate on the true essence of high-end service and comfort,” he explains. “Luxury seems to have gone one full circle and now returned to its roots of tailor-made, caring service and bespoke experiences. People are spending more and more on a truly comfortable and enriching experience, rather than on flashy items.”
The best hotel experiences, Forte adds, are “dictated by atmosphere and small unexpected gestures that surprise me and touch the heart”. His ultimate aim is to “make people feel at ease and perfectly cared for in an elegant but relaxed atmosphere”.
While he has long maintained that his focus is not on pipelines, but on creating a carefully curated selection of properties, the company is undergoing a period of expansion, with five new Rocco Forte hotels set to open within the next two years, bringing the total number up from 11 to 16. This includes Hotel de la Ville in Rome, and Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia, which are slated to open in May 2019; Rocco Forte House, also in Rome, due in September 2019; and Grand Hotel Villa Igiea in Palermo, Sicily, which will only be operational in 2020.
“Being half Italian, I have a particular so spot for Italy,” Forte says. “I love the quality of life, the food and the climate, and am in awe of the history and culture.” When he needs to switch off, he heads straight to Sicily, he adds. “I love playing golf and am always happy when I get the chance to get to Verdura, our property in Sicily. It has the best golf in the Mediterranean and it truly regenerates me. I am extremely lucky.” The brand will also make its debut in China next year, with the Westbund Hotel in Shanghai. Rocco Forte Hotels currently operates one property in the Middle East, the Assila Hotel in Jeddah, while the Rocco Forte Abu Dhabi opened in 2011, but was rebranded in 2013.
“The Middle East is a wonderful region with immense potential and we are always open to the right proposals,” he says when I ask if he has any plans to expand the brand’s presence in this part of the world.
In his autobiography, the late Sir Charles Forte wrote the following: “Things are never right in a business, particularly in the hotel and catering trade. You always try to improve everything that is being done and you never quite succeed.”
I ask Forte whether he feels the same way about the hospitality industry, and whether this is frustrating or something that drives him? “I think that quote is common to all perfectionists” he responds. “It is also vital for eternal improvement. And it sums up my father; he was the hardest worker and the most admirable professional ever.”
Other than location, I look for history, personality... and wonderful narratives
The lobby of the Hotel Savoy in Florence is punctuated with Pucci accents, while a scarf by the Florentine fashion brand, far right, is imprinted on to tables in the property’s restaurant