INTERVIEW: OLGA POLIZZI
By her very nature, let alone her heritage and experience within the industry, Olga Polizzi is a hospitality icon and connoisseur of design. Here she speaks to Sophie Harper about her life in hotels, from design mistakes and pillow menus to new ventures and a lifetime working with her family.
As both a well-known designer and hotelier, Olga Polizzi is something of an anomaly – and a very well respected, straight-talking one at that. The eldest of the late Lord Forte’s five daughters and younger sister to Sir Rocco Forte, Olga has worked closely with different family members to help shape the family empire since 1983 when she first joined Forte plc as a Main Board Director and Director of Building and Design. “I joined the design department, which was a huge department at the time. There were architects, project managers, designers: there must have been around 80 people,” she tells me. After a hostile take-over bid, the family company was broken down in 1995 and so together with her brother, Olga helped create Rocco Forte Hotels, for which she is Deputy Chairman and Director of Design.
The department Olga runs now at Rocco Forte Hotels is small but well structured, “We have a very organised architect, a designer, a design assistant, a couple of project managers, and then a few people to look after the secretarial side of things – so it’s very small,” she says. Depending on the size of the project, the team will often select an external design studio to work with. “We give out a lot of work. If we have a whole hotel to do, we’ll employ an outside design company. But if we’re doing just one aspect: the rooms at The Balmoral in Edinburgh for example, we’ll be doing about 35 rooms a year and we do all that ourselves.” From initial drawings and material choices everything, including the design on the smaller projects, is done in-house. “I did the new one in Puglia on my own because it was only 40 rooms, but now in the midst we’re doing a hotel in Milan, we have one in Athens, one in Mykonos, we’re totally redoing Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt and so we get outside designers to help with those – when it’s a really big project,” she says. “Last year we did Hotel de la Ville in Rome, and every bathroom had to be drawn out. They’re rarely the same because they’re not new builds, so none is like any other. We might have to draw up 80 bathrooms – all the elevations, all the layouts, everything, and we can’t do all that in-house.”
I want to know what the process of elimination is when selecting a design studio to work on a Rocco Forte project so I ask Olga how she chooses, “It’s jolly hard,” she says, “I often tend to use the same studios or designers because I know how they work. I love using good outside designers because it always brings something new to the table, something different.” Olga tells me how the team will discuss different studios in relation to a project. “I have my five pennies’ worth and the team maybe discuss it with me or suggest something different. I’ve used Tommaso Ziffer In Italy for both hotels in Rome and I know he’s very talented. I’m using Moschino and Nicky Haslam for Villa Igiea in Palermo at the moment – I buy Nicky Haslam furniture, so I’ve got to know them because of that and I’ve seen some of their work and I like what they do, it’s rather softer and more romantic and that’s what we were looking for. I’m using Inge Moore in Shanghai on a really complicated job, and I’ve used a designer who works on her own, Annie Waite for years and years.”
Olga tells me that the prototype rooms are essential in the design process, and that despite being in the industry for such a long time, there’s always room for improvement. “We’ll always do a prototype room, or two if possible, when we’re doing a new hotel so we get the rooms built outside the hotel, or in the hotel, while we’re doing the work. There will always be something that’s not quite right, a switch in the wrong place or not enough lighting, there’s always something.” She contemplates before adding; “I’ve probably done more bedrooms than anyone else anywhere, I think. I’ve done thousands of bedrooms and yet I always get something wrong! I always think, oh well with the next one I know exactly what was wrong last time, but somehow something else is wrong.”
“When I first started out, I made mistakes with a lot of light coloured materials. I love using pale colours and creams and whites but you quickly learn after returning to the hotel two months later that you just can’t use those sorts of schemes in hotels. We’ve learnt the same with products, so we always choose something really well made, we’re always looking for strong products – it’s incredibly important in hotels.” She tells me about some of her favourite suppliers. “I like Bernard Thorp because they can do any colour and change their patterns to match your theme. I use a lot of Colefax & Fowler because they have wonderful fabrics – their velvets are second to none and are very, very strong. I buy a lot of furniture from Moschino. William Yeoward I buy furniture from and they can make things smaller or larger or fit things in, and then of course Julian Chichester, who again are great at changing things for us. With lighting I use Porta Romana when I can afford them, I use Hannah Woodhouse who makes things especially for us – she’s very brilliant. We’ve used a lot of JAB, they’ve got a rather lovely faux silk that can be used in hotels and I’m using miles and miles of it in Frankfurt!”
Having been surrounded by luxurious settings her entire life, I wonder if this has given Olga different ideals to other people, thinking it could have gone either way to aiding or hindering her own design principles, but actually she holds no airs and graces in describing her design aesthetic and is refreshingly down to earth in her honesty. “Nowadays I think the real definition of luxury is space because everything is just so expensive to buy. People are so much more spoilt now than they used to be, we have larger bathrooms, double basins, a shower as well as a bath – not a shower over the bath as it used to be. Huge televisions, which I hate putting in the rooms (but I’m forced to),” she says, laughing. “And also, we always want something more than we have at home, something unexpected, something really attractive. So it’s getting harder and harder, and also there’s a lot of competition. There are a lot of non-hoteliers going into the business now – the fashion brands like Armani and Bvlgari and usually they have money no object. So people really expect much more and so we’re continually upgrading, which is exhausting!”
With a number of projects to oversee around the world for Rocco Forte Hotels, you’d be forgiven for thinking Olga had no time to spare for any other ventures, but in 1998 she became a hotel owner separately from the Rocco Forte business, with the beautiful Hotel Tresanton on the Cornish coast, and again in 2004 with Hotel Endsleigh; a grand manor house conversion set within 100 acres of impossibly stunning gardens in Devon. She runs the hotels with both her daughters, Alex and Charlie. Now, following the acquisition of their third hotel, The Star, nestled in the rolling hills of the South Downs, East Sussex, the portfolio has been fittingly labelled The Polizzi Collection.
Olga tells me about her hotels with immense pride, but still in that frank, no-nonsense sort of way. “I’m not into all this sort of thing where you have pillow menus and tea menus with lots of different choices. One has enough decisions to make at home and in life in general, and when you go to a hotel you want to be looked after: you want top service, you want to be able to order something and for it to arrive quickly, and you want someone to make the other decisions for you. Give the guest the best pillows there are and don’t make me look through a list of thousands of different teas – just give me a decent cup of tea! People always try to think up something different. Why not think up something not so easy to do or just concentrate on really good service?”
To Olga, service is something that should never be compromised, and equally cleanliness and quality as well as sumptuous surroundings. “Service is key, and obviously if a hotel isn’t clean then what’s the point? I wouldn’t stay if I got to a hotel and it wasn’t really really clean. Food is so important too; it’s nice to have local ingredients that you can go and look at. We have a wonderful farm menu at Tresanton.” Olga tells me how often they have their suppliers in as guests at the hotel, which builds a rapport with the local community. “When I first opened Tresanton you couldn’t get anything unusual or as much fresh produce there – I had to bring everything down from London. Now everything’s grown down here. It’s the same at Endsleigh, we use a lot of local people. The nice thing about both our hotels,” she adds, “is that they have space. At Tresanton we have these two big terraces, plus we’ve got the new beach garden, which is another large space and then of course at Endsleigh we have 100 acres of garden. I’ll never tire of that, you can wander around and find things and you can run or walk by the river and so they’re both a bit special in that way.”
When it comes to design, Olga is very much led by the building’s sense of place and tells me, “It’s so important that the hotels are linked to their locale. I remember going to Cambodia with my husband the first time, many years ago, and there was one well-known chain of hotels out there I thought I’d go to as I knew there would be a certain standard of cleanliness, but actually people don’t travel like that anymore – they’re looking for something different. Most people when they wake up want to feel that they’re in the city they’re in, so we always try to buy locally and use local artists, which immediately gives the feel of a place. For example, Berlin is vibrant and young – so the hotel reflects that, whereas Rome is more like a grand old lady so you can be a little grander with the interiors.”
She tells me that she takes different approaches with Rocco Forte Hotels and The Polizzi Collection, “We have a whole standards manual for Rocco Forte, but that’s roughly to outline which showers we normally use and basins and things like that, but with Tresanton I did my own thing so it’s more in line with what I‘d do with my own house. It’s typical in that it has blues and greens and shells and then we’ve got a lot of local art, so we can use things like painted furniture, tongue and groove – it calls out for certain things. Endsliegh is a wonderful old listed building, built by the dukes of Bedford in 1820,” she adds. “We got a lot of old furniture for it, I still keep buying things for it now! Every room is different, but the fabrics there are more luxurious, silks and linens, while in Tresanton it’s cottons and linens.”
Having spent her career working with her family, Olga tells me there are good bits and not so good bits about working with family. “I’ve always said I’m my father’s daughter, I’m my brother’s sister, and now I’m my daughter’s mother,” she laughs. “With Endsleigh, Alex was there to really project manage, and with Tresanton they were both there, and now with the new project in Sussex, The Star in Alfriston, I’m doing it just with Alex.”
As it’s based in my home county, news of the latest Polizzi Collection hotel piqued my interest a while ago and I ask Olga if she had always intended to do a hotel close to her own countryside retreat. “I always thought it would be easier doing a project close to home – to go and have a look and keep an eye on things, but actually nothing’s ever easy! The Star came up for sale and I thought I’d buy it. Charlie really wasn’t keen on it but Alex was and so we made an offer.” Purchased not that long before lockdown, work had only really just gotten started on The Star when a few months into building, work on the site slowed due to the pandemic. However, speaking to Olga in July she confirms work is ongoing and hopes to have the project finished and ready to open by Christmas. “Actually, Alex was just over there today,” she says, “so we do pop over quite regularly to see what’s going on. Alfriston is such a pretty village,” she says, “and I can walk across the downs to it or I can take a car and get there in ten minutes. We just thought, ‘why not?’ the area could do with something like this, a beautiful place to stay and eat. It’s been a challenge though. It’s got a ’60s block, it’s got a ’30s/’40s block, it’s got a listed frontage, so it’s quite a complicated building. We’ve done the ’60s block that we had to put a new roof on, which we didn’t expect to have to do. In fact, there have been hundreds of things that we’ve had to do that we didn’t expect! But anyhow, I think it will be quite nice, we’ve formed a courtyard from what was formerly occupied by loos and offices. There was just no outdoor space. It’s lovely, you can now see the old hotel properly – the old brickwork, the flint work, and it looks so much nicer.”
I ask if there are any more hotels on the cards for The Polizzi Collection and although Olga balks at the idea while she’s busy with The Star, she does concede that she’d rather like another property to add to the portfolio. “I would love to have another one, I did see something I was quite tempted by, but I have to make sure the others are taken care of first. Once everything else is in a good situation, maybe we’ll be tempted to do another one – or maybe the girls will have to do it without me if I’m too old and weary by then!”