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  1. Leaders in Luxury
April 21, 2009updated Jan 29, 2014

Sir Rocco Forte

By Chris Boyle

Sir Rocco Forte

Founder and Chairman
Rocco Forte Hotels

Luxury is in the eye of the beholder. Sir Rocco Forte doesn’t necessarily see it in rooms laden in gilt and glitz, and his eponymous hotel collection reflects that sensibility. Instead, the 11-hotel portfolio eschews the ostentatious take on the term, in favor of discreet, personal service and quietly opulent design that takes cues from its surroundings.

Already one of the leading players in Europe, Rocco Forte Hotels is experiencing outsized growth. With two new properties slated to debut this spring, Verdura Golf & Spa Resort in Sicily and The Augustine in Prague, the momentum is building at an enviable pace. Elite Traveler met with globetrotting founder and chairman Sir Rocco Forte over tea at New York’s Hôtel Plaza Athénée to get to learn more about his special brand of luxury.

ET: Can you tell us about your start in the hotel business?

Sir Rocco Forte: It’s a long story. I was brought up as my father built his business [hotel and catering brand Trusthouse Forte]. As a teenager, I started with school holidays and university holidays working part-time in the business. I did all sorts of jobs from washing up to greeting to reception, the whole gambit of jobs in the industry. My father also used to take me on business trips with him. I had a fascination with the business from an early age. I was at Oxford University and after I studied chartered accountancy, I became an accountant…for my sins. It was a sort of formal business training, and it did make me numerate. It was the most boring three years of my life, but now my accountants can’t tell me what to do, which is a big advantage. Then, I went into my father’s business. I can’t say that I worked my way up. I did to a point, but I had a few steps up because my father was quite keen that I should take over when he started to retire—not that he ever wanted to. Eventually I became the chairman and chief executive of Trusthouse Forte. It was taken over in a hostile bid in 1995-96, and that’s when I decided to start a new business. As someone who had worked all his life, I couldn’t see myself not working. I didn’t particularly want to go get a job, so I decided to start a new business [Rocco Forte Hotels].

ET: Are there specific aspects of the business that appealed to you?

Sir Rocco Forte: I rather enjoyed some of my early jobs interacting with customers. As you go up the executive line you don’t interact with customers but that’s just an aspect of the business. On the luxury side, there’s so much detail in looking after the customer well. The service a customer gets is made up of lots of little things coming together. Any one of them can go wrong and then the customer experience is spoiled. You have your lowest paid staff in front of the customer, so there’s a whole thing about training and motivation of people on the front line to deal with the customer in the right way. There’s a fascination [for me] with that. There was a spirit in the old company that my father had engendered over the years. The other day, we had a Trusthouse Forte reunion at Brown’s. About 100 people came to it—mostly executives—but the spirit was still there 12 years later. In my new company, I’ve tried to have that same spirit in all my hotels, whether they’re in Russia, Germany or the U.K. My father was always someone who led very much from the front, and I’ve tried to do that. The hotel staff knows me. I think that it’s important that people know that they’re working for an individual and can identify with that.

ET: The term “luxury” is so pervasive these days. How do you define a luxury hotel?

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Sir Rocco Forte: Luxury, at the end of the day, is about service. Obviously a luxury hotel has to have a level of opulence, though opulence can be understated. Our hotels are not the typical sort of glossy places with gold plated taps, marble everywhere and overstuffed chairs. There’s a strong design element but also a simplicity. The essence of a luxury hotel is the service a customer receives—he has to feel welcome, he has to feel wanted, he has to be made to feel important. You want to be recognized when you go to a hotel. That’s one of the reasons I come here [to the Plaza Athenée]. A lot of the staff recognize me. They know what I want so I don’t have to restate what newspaper or what juice I want in my room. A hotel should anticipate those needs. That’s what luxury is about, actually giving a customer service without him having to make a huge amount of effort to receive it. It has to be tailored to each individual customer’s needs. It’s not a supermarket; it’s like going to a bespoke tailor.

ET: Have you seen a shift in demand with emerging markets like China? Have you customized your services with those customers in mind?

Sir Rocco Forte: No. The Chinese market isn’t very developed. You don’t see a lot of them traveling in Europe. It’s not a big factor. The Russian market is about 5% of our business. They want the same as anybody else. Russians are prepared to pay top price. They’re not looking for discounts but want very good service in return.

ET: Why do you think someone would choose a Rocco Forte hotel over a competitor like Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental?

Sir Rocco Forte: Funnily enough, in Europe there’s no hotel brand that has significant coverage of the market. Four Seasons has as many hotels as we do, Mandarin [Oriental] doesn’t have that many properties. What differentiates my brand is that it has a very strong design element that I don’t think you can say about Four Seasons or Mandarin or anybody else. We try to relate the hotel to the local market and environment it’s in. Our Prague property is about Prague. It has the feeling of Prague. When you go to the Four Seasons in Prague, it’s just another Four Seasons. Our hotels aren’t too big. There’s an intimate feel to them. You can treat a customer as an individual. Once a hotel is larger than a certain size it gets difficult to do that. It’s a combination of all those things. Four Seasons is a fantastic brand. It’s a company I really admire. Isadore Sharp has developed it and I’d like to emulate his success. He’s developed a reputation for high levels of service, and he has a great marketing organization. In marketing terms, I’m not as big and haven’t been around as long, but in most markets we’re in, we have the highest yield in the city. We don’t have a presence in the U.S., but in the trade we’re quite well known. I just had a dinner with 70 travel agents. They all know me. They know my hotels. When we open a new hotel, they’ll send their customers without seeing it because they have a sense of security about sending their customers to me.

ET: You mentioned that the design is key factor in your success. Your sister Olga Polizzi spearheads that aspect of the business. What’s her magic formula?

Sir Rocco Forte: You’d have to ask Olga. She doesn’t do it all—we work with outside designers. Typically, we look at a theme and try to interpret it in a modern way with classic design features. The design always considers the history and location where we’re working. For example, in our most recent hotels, we’ve used glass and ironwork that’s produced by local artisans. My sister has always had a clear view of what she’s wanted, but I’ve developed my view through my experience with our hotels. I look at them more from the comfort point-of-view: Is there enough vanity space? Lighting? Room to work at the desk?

ET: As you expand. What destinations do you have in mind?

Sir Rocco Forte: The original idea was to create luxury brand across European city centers, and that’s still my goal. The number of cities I’m still not represented in—Paris, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, Moscow, Amsterdam—are all cities I want to be in if I’m to be considered the top luxury brand in Europe. I’ve been working quite hard to get into those cities. Over the last two to three years everything has been so overpriced, it’s been impossible to get into those places. I’d like to have a hotel in New York, but that’s the only place in the States I want to be. And we’re moving into the Middle East with other people’s money. People come to us saying they like our hotels: “Can you run for us?” We’ve already signed up in Jeddah in Abu Dhabi on that basis.

ET: What’s an example of an “ultimate” experience that you’ve created for a guest?

Sir Rocco Forte: We offer the highest level of service in the world. A luxury hotel gives a customer what he wants, whether that’s a large suite or whatever. We had the Oceans 12 actors with us in Rome. While they were shooting there, the 6th floor became their private bar. It’s about creating the right experience for a particular need. Some of the wealthiest people in the world stay with us, and no one knows who they are and no one has to. Lots of people think of us as offering a boutique hotel experience, but we are proper, full-service hotels—look at Brown’s, for example. All our hotels have large suites, and our newest offer enormous ones.

ET: What’s the key to success in the notoriously tough hotel business?

Sir Rocco Forte: Financially? Make the right investment. If you overpay, you’ll never succeed.

ET: What’s been your most challenging experience developing hotels to-date?

Sir Rocco Forte: Hotels are difficult no matter where you are building them. The thing about being a hotelier is that you have to deal with each property on its own terms. There’s always something to contend with. In Prague, we’ve had to work with the local fine art authorities because a lot of the buildings at the new hotel [The Augustine] have historical significance. Look at our new Sicily resort [Verdura Golf & Spa Resort]. I had always wanted to create a high-class golf resort. When we looked at Sicily, we found a place that is interesting historically, has beautiful countryside, good tax incentives and the weather is usually quite good. Of course, this year while we’re building there’s been more rain than in the last 70 years! And the land had 72 different owners, so we had to negotiate with everyone. Unless you have an opening date these things go on forever.

ET: What are your favorite destinations to visit?

Sir Rocco Forte: I have lots. I used to do a lot of fishing in Iceland. It’s rugged country, and so beautiful, though not in a precious, chocolate box way. The light is incredible—everything looks so sharp. I was traveling in the hills of New Zealand, and the light there had the same quality. The whole area is so unpopulated. It’s very special.

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