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March 26, 2012

Hotel management: the Italian job

Castello di Casole in Tuscany is finally due to open this summer following a six-year restoration. General manager Bart Spoorenberg describes the operational challenges of transforming a one-time Etruscan castle into a boutique hotel and why hotel management is in his blood.

By Julian Turner

With Castello di Casole opening on 1 July, reservations have just gone live and we’re getting a lot of requests coming in, ranging from car launches to weddings. I have to be careful about that last one as weddings can easily take over a whole hotel.

My background has been very diverse. I studied hotel management in Holland, before moving to the US, where I was part of the opening team of the St Regis in New York. Later, I was asked to come to Italy when Sheraton purchased the CIGA hotels.

Apart from a stint in Brussels, I have been in Italy for the last 12 years. First, I managed the Cala di Volpe in Sardinia, and next the Hotel Romazzino. Finally, Timbers Resorts found me, and I decided to jump ship. That was in 2008 and I’ve been with Castello di Casole ever since.

The project was originally conceived in 2005 and took some time to get off the ground. There were some delays in the conversion process, owing to design, historical building oversight committees, and problems with the local town.

Now we’re back up to full speed. My job is to manage the operations side of the resort. We’re currently in the process of hiring most of our staff. One of the promises we’ve made to the local town is that we’ll hire locally. A lot of our staff are without experience, and have never even seen a five-star hotel, so they’ll all have to be trained from the ground up.

In part, this was a deliberate decision; I’ve always said you hire for attitude and train for skills. There’s just this connection, like this person gets it, and you see it. While passion is one of these overused words in our industry, these people really have it.

I remember the first model room that they put together, which was three months after I joined. I think the only thing that remains from that room is the flooring – everything else was changed. Not the couches, not the curtains, not the light fixtures, nothing has remained the same.

It was an interesting process because they thought they had it nailed. While they’re looking at the wow factor, I’m looking at operations and maintenance, but I think we found a happy medium.

I don’t think informality excludes five- star luxury – actually, the opposite is the case. People in these country hotels are looking to relax. If they want to walk around in shorts in summer, they should be able to do so, and go to a pizzeria wearing shorts and flip-flops.

"A lot of the staff at Castello di Casole have never even seen a five-star hotel."

It’s all about making them comfortable. Luxury here involves going back to basics – it’s about enjoying good food, good wine, not worrying about anything, feeling at home. I don’t think that has to do with whether or not staff wear a tie.

The project is all about simplicity. The villas are built to share with friends and family. We have guests coming in from all over the world, bringing in grandpa and grandma and doing big dinners. Our owners don’t want a private chef, they want a local housewife to come in and cook local food that people eat at home.

The bathroom lines have been developed with local products – rosemary and sage, referencing the spa. I don’t necessarily think more is better. We’re not looking to give people amenities morning, noon and night, but what we do, we want to do right.

I expect my key markets to be the UK, US, Benelux and Germany. We’re working on the home market but we feel that’s going to be beneficial mostly during the off-season.

Considering the recession, I feel very fortunate to be opening this year, rather than, as scheduled, in 2009 or 2010. In another few weeks, we’ll be taking possession of the hotel, and that’s exciting. My role will become more operational, which is something I’ve missed – it’s in my blood.

Interview by Abi Millar

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