Posted in People on 6 June, 2023

Founding a hospitality group in your twenties takes big dreams and the tenacity to chase them. With determination and dedication, Alessandro Catenacci has built and maintained a high-end portfolio of hotels, bars, and restaurants. Now in its 35th year, Alessandro looks back on Nobis’ journey with SPACE.

I understand you grew up in a family of restaurateurs. Did you always know hospitality was a path you wanted to follow?
My father was a chef, moonlighting as a variety artist, touring the Italian countryside in the summertime. We then moved to Stockholm from Rome in the late fifties and my father Enzo worked in various restaurants. In 1980, we opened the ground-breaking Italian restaurant, Caina, in Stockholm’s Södermalm district where four generations of Catenaccis worked in the kitchen and the dining room. Considering my family history, following the previous generations and continuing the hospitality path came very naturally to me. I had some detours trying on other projects but always returned to hospitality.

What was your first job in hospitality, and was it for the family business or otherwise?
The opening of Caina together with my father was my first job in hospitality, so I started out with a family business first thing. My father was running the kitchen, and I did everything else. And by everything, I mean everything. We did not have any money to hire architects or construction workers, so I did the carpentry, the tiling, and the painting, but also the concept, the interior design, and the marketing. It was really a DIY opening. I was young but had a good network in Stockholm already, which of course helped with the marketing. It was the first Italian restaurant in Stockholm that was not just a pizzeria, which was quite ground-breaking at the time.

Nobis Hotel Copenhagen, Denmark

Following the launch of your first restaurant, Caina, with your father, what gave you the confidence aged 29 to buy the Nobis empire from legendary chef, Tore Wretman?
I was only 21 years old when we opened Caina, which gave me time to gain confidence during the eight years that followed. After running Caina, I opened a hotspot restaurant Capri, followed by nightclub bar and restaurant, Birger Bar – both projects became huge successes. Birger Bar was a three-floor venue that had hype at the same time as it was economically successful. By the mid-eighties, I operated a couple of restaurants and bars in Stockholm, and in 1987, I bought the great restaurant empire of Tore Wretman, including the Opera House restaurant complex including Operakällaren and Stallmästaregården – both legendary establishments in Sweden’s restaurant history.

Those prior experiences gave me the confidence as well as the network and resources needed to proceed with the buy from Tore Wretman. I was, however, not prepared for the reactions that would follow when I, a 29-year-old Italian immigrant, had the audacity to buy a restaurant empire including a Stockholm landmark as prominent as the Opera House. It created quite some headlines at the time.

Have you always had a clarity of vision with regard to your career, or has it been more organic?
None of this is part of any long-term strategy. I’m all about taking opportunity from what comes naturally and prefer to think in the shorter term. As a very intuitive person, I only engage in endeavours that feel exactly right from the very beginning. Before going into a new project, I must immediately feel in my gut that everything about it is right. That does not come from long-term planning.

Having successfully established yourself as a restauranteur, was it a natural progression to move into hotels?
Again, it came naturally as opportunities presented themselves to me. As the restaurants were doing well it gave us the resources to engage in new projects. The first hotel that we opened in 2000, Stallmästaregården, was a build-on to the already existing Stallmästaregården Inn. I enjoyed being a hotelier and shortly thereafter we had the opportunity to buy Hotel J, and event venue Tornvillan, both still part of Nobis Hospitality Group.

Nobis Hotel Copenhagen, Denmark

Tell us a little about your first hotel launch and was it a steep learning curve?
Stallmästaregården was our first hotel launch, an addition to the already existing Inn. I however consider the opening of Hotel Skeppsholmen, a gem located on the very first Stockholm archipelago island, as the beginning of the Nobis design hotel journey. For the opening of Hotel Skeppsholmen, everything from the design concept to the brand’s personality was based on the rich history of the 300-year-old building. A very Nordic design concept was created with interior architects at Stockholm-based Claesson Koivisto Rune. We also created bespoke furniture in collaboration with Italian Tacchini as a way to combine our Scandinavian heritage with my Italian roots. This was our first extensive hotel launch, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. Thus, many learnings were made. One, in particular, was not to handle the logistics on our own. Things like storing the deliveries of every single piece of furniture before we could place them where they belonged was a logistical nightmare. Today we work with partners to handle these kinds of logistics for us.

What do you believe Nobis offers that is unique?
I believe our success lies in having an authentic soul in everything we do, with attention to even the smallest detail. All our hotels and restaurants have their own individual personality, with environments that feel genuine and warm over time. I am not interested in trends. I love contemporary design and architecture, fashion, and art, but I also like the classic and the timeless. I’ve always done things the way I want them myself and I’ve been lucky that others also seem to appreciate it that way. 

Nobis Hotel Copenhagen, Denmark

There’s a distinct aesthetic that appears to run through your hotels and restaurants – how closely do you work with your interior designers and architects?
Having the opportunity to work closely with such prominent architects and interior designers is a true pleasure. Nobis Hotel Palma will be the fifth hotel we open together with our long-term architect partner Wingårdhs. We know each other so well by now that I can relax back a bit more in the project than I used to. The brief has not changed since the first project we did together: to create a design that will last for 25 years or more, in a setting that is welcoming and relaxed, yet contemporary and elegant. Although the brief is the same, all projects are highly unique in their personal expressions, based on the context of the history of the building and the location.

Many of Nobis Hotels are in period properties. Are you naturally drawn to historical buildings, and would you ever consider a new build?
Being entrusted with developing and operating some historically very prominent sites is an honour. I have been immediately charmed by all the venues in our group and that’s the way it must be for me. The history of the building is an important part of the soul and persona of each venue. But it could well be another interesting feature that gives the property its charm, like a very special location, or if it’s a super cool industrial building. I would not consider a new build unless it has something extraordinary that gives me this immediate gut feeling of ‘YES’.

Despite Nobis being firmly planted in the luxury sector, I have also read that you are uncomfortable with the term. Why is this and what is your own definition of luxury?
Our hotels and restaurants are stylish, extremely comfortable, and provide the highest possible quality in every aspect – but without the unnecessary gimmicks and the snobbish attitude that can sometimes be associated with luxury. Our definition of service is humble, warm, and friendly, treating guests and people with respect, and with loving attention to every little detail. All staff and collaborators are encouraged to show their personalities in their interaction with guests.

Nobis Stockholm, Sweden

What do you believe makes a great Hotelier?
As a restaurateur, I learned to look at the next evening only. You need to have a humble attitude and always know that the hardest thing is not to open new places and create hype around them. The real challenge is to perform at a very high base level day after day, year after year. I’m a strong believer in the simple philosophy that the whole is a mass of small details that must always be cared for with the greatest attention. You are never better than your latest check-in, your latest event, or your latest served dinner. You have to keep showing up with the same dedication and never rely on what was accomplished yesterday or last week.

How do you see your role as CEO and what is currently your main area of focus?
My days and focus areas vary on a day-to-day basis. One day can be all about economics and budgets, you know the boring stuff. The next day I’m feeling creative and working on a new launch or project. Then on the third day, I might feel it’s time to visit our venues. I spend a lot of time quality checking and just being present at our hotels and restaurants. As a hotelier, it’s important to have the ability to sense as soon as a venue is running behind or the staff are feeling uninspired. That’s when you need to step in with energy and motivation, helping them to feel inspired again.

The part that is most rewarding for me is definitely the creative work around a new launch. And the most challenging part is to create something that I am genuinely proud of – venues that meet my high standard of quality, design, service and so on – while also making them profitable. It is always a fine line between the creative and the commercial.

Did the pandemic change Nobis Hotels’ plans for future growth?
The pandemic was a very humbling time for the industry as a whole, and naturally, we’ve had some strenuous times at Nobis since. We had to drop off one hotel project in Copenhagen which was of course unfortunate, but I’m still pleased with how well we managed to make it through. And I’m pleased that we could continue the construction and opening of Nobis Hotel Palma. It’s an exciting project at our most historical venue so far – the history of the building stretches all the way back to the 12th century. Other than this we are already looking at other projects, time will tell what will be the next one.

Who do Nobis Hotels appeal to and what sets you apart from your competitors?
Nobis Hotels appeal to guests who enjoy contemporary design and architecture, but also the classic and the timeless. Our typical guest is looking for a sense of high quality and personal care. They are not too interested in the latest trend and value soulful experiences.

I believe I have been able to implement my own service culture in our hotels. A lot of it is about recruiting the right personalities. I believe that you can train service in many ways, but the fundamental spirit must be there from the beginning. Either you love to give service to others, or you don’t. Intuitive service is a cliché, but we really want to inspire our staff to use their own judgment and be themselves when serving our guests.

How do you prepare for the uncertain economic future we are currently faced with?
An important skill for everyone running a business is the ability to sense what is to come. I am a creative dreamer, but I am also very respectful of numbers and the economy. This has helped Nobis to stay on the right side of the road through the crises we’ve faced over the years. You cannot

continue driving a car at 200 km per hour if there comes heavy rain or a sudden snowfall, you will crash. Just as with driving, you need to respect the circumstances in business and slow down when needed. As for the current situation, we have already decreased our number of upcoming projects and are well prepared for the future.

How do you think the demands and ever-evolving requirements of today’s travellers have changed since the launch of the first Nobis Hotel?
We opened our first Nobis Hotel, Nobis Hotel Stockholm, in 2010. Digitalisation was of course already a fact by then but has also evolved very much since. Everyone today has easy access to every corner of the world, and it’s easy for guests to complain loudly when they are not satisfied. This creates higher standards coming to quality and service levels. Without this development led by digitalization, a family-owned small hotel group like Nobis would never have been able to establish itself so quickly with quite little economic means. A new generation of medium-sized hotel groups was born thanks to it.

How do you see the future of travel and the hospitality industry as a whole?
This is truly a million-dollar question… Right now, I would advise hoteliers to be somewhat careful. Recessions come and go, there is always an ebb and flow to the economy. But private consumption and leisure travel – that has been on the rise for many years – has reached its limit. A regular household today has less money to spend on what is not absolutely necessary.
However, business opportunities often find their way to you in challenging times – the very same day as Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008, we signed the contract for what would later become Nobis Hotel Stockholm.

What can Nobis fans expect from the new hotel soon to launch in Palma de Mallorca?
Nobis Hotel Palma will be our third five-star contemporary luxury hotel, following the opening of Nobis Hotel Stockholm in 2010 and Nobis Hotel Copenhagen in 2017. Nobis Hotel Palma will offer 37 rooms and suites, an in-house restaurant and bar, a magnificent lounge with a 9-meter ceiling height, a sun terrace with loungers, a rooftop, and a relaxing SPA – all designed by award-winning interior architects at our long-term partner Wingårdhs. The property is housed in one of Palma’s oldest and most historical buildings, dating all the way back to the 12th century when it was originally constructed as a Muslim palace during the medieval Islamic stage of the Balearic Islands. It’s really a spectacular venue that we have been lucky enough to lay our hands on.

The design concept merges the past with the present, offering sharp contrasts between the old and the new. Original characteristics of the building, such as historical stone, arches, and brick walls, have been carefully restored and highlighted. The raw architectural base is balanced by a warm and welcoming interior, where high-quality materials such as wood, wool, and leather embody our ever-present Nobis style interpretation of contemporary luxury.

What is in the pipeline for Nobis Hotels, and geographically, where would you like to take the brand next?
Right now, we are fully focused on making a successful launch of five-star contemporary luxury hotel Nobis Hotel Palma in August. Other than this, whatever future opportunities come our way will make the calls, as long as my gut feeling and the numbers say ‘YES’.

Images: courtesy of Nobis Hotels



In the pipeline: Nobis Hotel Palma (2023)
Key facts:
Bars & restaurants: 22
Hotels in Europe: 9
Keys (incl. Nobis Hotel Palma): 973




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