SIR ROCCO FORTE, CHAIRMAN AND CEO of ROCCO FORTE HOTELS
The name Forte is renowned worldwide as a byword for excellence in hospitality. Can Faik talks to Sir Rocco Forte about his current projects and plans for the future…
Sir Rocco Forte is Chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels and founded the luxury hotel company in 1996.
At present the company operates hotels in key European destinations such as London, Edinburgh, Brussels, Florence, Rome, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. He has also revealed plans to further extend beyond Europe and build the company’s presence in the Middle East and further European destinations.
What was your first job in the hotel industry? And what was it like to work in a hotel?
I grew up in and around hotels. From the age of 14 or 15, I had holiday jobs working in different parts of the business including customer service, kitchen work and housekeeping. I experienced as many different departments as possible. As a grounding in hospitality, there really is no substitute for working with guests and finding new ways to engage them.
For my first role, I took over the running of a 40-bedroom hotel in the south of France. And while I didn’t sleep much that year, I learnt a great deal about the drive and imagination it takes to run a successful hospitality business and I’m proud to say that was the only year the hotel made a profit.
My father was an excellent mentor and extremely supportive when I set up Rocco Forte Hotels. I worked alongside him for many years at Trust House Forte, and became Chairman of the Group expanding its overseas operations and global reach.
That was a huge role that added another dimension to my qualities as a hotelier. At the time of the sale to Granada, the Group had more than 800 hotels, 1000 restaurants and 100,000 people worldwide. Leading a business that size through a period of fundamental change tested all the drive and determination that I had absorbed from my father’s example and prepared me for the biggest challenge of my career: creating Rocco Forte Hotels.
With 55 years of luxury hospitality experience. What fascinates you about the luxury hotel industry?
I’m fortunate to have been born into a family that has had hospitality and entrepreneurship at its heart for generations, and this experience has shaped Rocco Forte Hotels.
Rocco Forte Hotels is family run. Is this a quality that transpires to guests?
I’ve had the immense pleasure of working closely with my sister, Olga, from day one. But now the Forte family influence isn’t just confined to the two of us, and with so many family members actively involved it’s felt throughout the business. We are in each of the hotels regularly, so the staff hear from us directly and our philosophy and way of doing things are ever-present.
Now both my daughters and my son work with us, with Lydia focusing on our food and beverage offering and Irene on our brand, service standards and our distinctive spa proposition. I love the millennial perspectives and new innovations they bring us, including Forte Organics, an organic product brand made in Italy exclusively for our spas.
What is the most important aspect of the Rocco Forte Hotel philosophy you instill in your staff and that your guests can expect to experience at your properties?
Personalised experiences are the future of hospitality. Guests don’t want to stay in an amorphous chain hotel and have exactly the same experience wherever they are in the world. They want to gain a sense of place, try local flavours when they dine and absorb the personality of the city where they’re staying. Authenticity and individuality are more important than ever.
When we started the company in 1996, the prevailing concept was to create branded products, which meant you experienced pretty much the same hotel everywhere you went. We wanted to do things differently. We set out to treat guests like individuals in every area of the hotel, to tailor our service for them and, through design, to give them a feeling of the city they’re in.
What are the complexities of meeting the demands of shareholders, fulfilling the growth of your management team and delivering the brand’s values to the guests?
As a grounding in hospitality, there really is no substitute for working with guests and finding new ways to engage them. There’s nothing worse than an unnatural or programmed interaction, with greeted guests being asked exactly the same questions by different staff members within minutes of each other. Improving customer interaction has been a priority for Rocco Forte Hotels from the beginning and we’re developing programmes that will enable us to get better and better at this.
What are Rocco Forte Hotels unique selling points?
We had a very clear strategy and vision for the business. We made a decision to focus on luxury properties in major continental cities and to build a reputation for attentive, non-intrusive service. From the outset, we knew the business we wanted to become. All our hotels would be run independently rather than as a chain operation. All of them would capture a unique sense of place, thanks to my sister, Olga Polizzi, who is the group’s co-founder and our Director of Design. And all would reflect a strong family influence – a powerful force in any business. And twenty years on, we have been true to this vision as these are still the qualities that differentiate us from other hotel companies.
With 11 hotels opened, will the UAE become a bigger focus for the Rocco Forte Hotels?
The Middle East is only one of the regions in which we’re looking to grow. In the next five years, we intend to double the size of the Group, adding to it in Europe and expanding into new territories including the Far East and the Americas. In Europe, Italy is a particular focus as the country still has so much potential as a luxury destination and it is written into my family history. Our first step there will be to open a second hotel in Rome in 2018: the Hotel De La Ville, which is magnificently positioned at the top of the Spanish Steps.
In the same year, we will also be unveiling our first hotel in Asia. We haven’t settled on a name yet, but the Rocco Forte Hotel in Shanghai will sit along the XuHui Riverside amongst the beautifully landscaped grounds of this newly created district. Guests will have fantastic views of the city, distinctive Rocco Forte Spa treatments and the sense of place that all our hotels share.
Our ambition has never been to be the largest luxury hotel business, or to run the largest hotels. When a hotel reaches a certain size it loses its intimacy and sense of personality. I believe it’s a far more rewarding experience to stay in a smaller hotel where they know your name and your favourite room, rather than an impersonal tower block. Equally, it is only possible to capture the spirit of different cities in a hotel collection: this individuality is always lost in hotel chains.
Tell us a little about your latest hotel opening in Jeddah and what motivated you to choose that particular location?
The Assila Hotel in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia marks a design collaboration between Olga and the internationally celebrated Martin Brudnizki Design Studio. It’s a beautiful contemporary hotel with traditional Arabic touches in the artwork, materials and lighting – and I’m sure it will be a calling card for us in the Middle East, which is such a key destination for luxury travellers.
Is there a hotel in your collection that is close to your heart and why?
Our resort in Verdura in Sicily is one of my preferred escape destinations because it perfectly blends indulgence with a little wilderness, but each one of the hotels in the collection has its own magic. I can’t choose between them: they are like children to me. And I feel blessed that I’ve been able to collect and curate such an exceptional group.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel interior design?
I leave that to my sister Olga Polizzi. She has shaped every aspect of our distinctive design philosophy and is leading new collaborations with Tommaso Zifer, Martin Brudnizki and other celebrated designers.
In your years of experience as a hotelier, you’ve no doubt seen quite a few trends come and go. What is shaping the industry at present?
New digital technologies and the data they generate has added another dimension to the art of getting to know guests and anticipating their needs. As an industry, we can map how often guests visit, which services they use, how they like to communicate, where they like to eat and many other things. And technology means it’s now possible to give guests a personal experience that’s closer to their purely individual idea of luxury. There are apps to enable guests to customise their mini-bar before their visit. Equally, technology means it’s now possible to set your own personal preference for lighting and temperature levels, open your curtains automatically and check-in online if you wish.
Clearly, personalisation is going to reach a whole new level in our sector. As a business that’s always kept pace with technological change, we will embrace all its potential. However, it is worth striking a note of caution. New trends and technological developments should never overshadow or replace the personal touch and influence that is at the heart of exceptional service. This one-to-one interaction is key. And getting this right and making a connection with people is perhaps the single most important reason guests return again and again and the business grows.
What advice would you offer to those who aspire to become a successful hotelier?
People who work in hospitality have to enjoy what they’re doing because that is communicated directly to customers. So we work hard to create an atmosphere they enjoy, to train and develop them properly and give them opportunities to progress. We have always done this, but today we’re using new technology to help us and have recently developed an app – Map my Future – that helps them plan a career path through the business.
What can we expect from Rocco Forte Hotels in 2017?
We have ambitious plans to grow the group.