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

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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

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