Sir Rocco Revisited

5th April 2006 (Last Updated April 5th, 2006 18:30)

Sir Rocco Forte needs few introductions. A career in which he rose to chief executive of Forte Plc, and then re-invented himself as the founder of Rocco Forte Hotels, has made him an icon of hotel management. Kerstin Zumstein caught up with him at Brown's in London.

Sir Rocco Revisited

Sir Rocco Forte has been busy in the 18 months since HMI last had the pleasure of his company. He has just won the Leader in Luxury Award (the first European ever to receive the American accolade), has recently revived London’s famous Brown’s Hotel, and is opening three new properties in Germany in the next 12 months. With the tenth anniversary of Rocco Forte Hotels coming up next year, Sir Rocco is as enthusiastic about his work as ever.

I begin by asking about Brown’s. Sir Rocco is based in London, so the industry has long been awaiting his first purchase to present his brand in the English capital. The choice of Brown’s reflects the philosophy behind his hotel collection: it is central, stylish and reflects the nationality of its location. ‘Brown’s is the quintessential London hotel’, he says, ‘especially the tea room with its wood panelling – it is so very English.’

Olga Polizzi, his sister and the designer behind each of the Rocco Forte hotels, has created an interior strongly reflecting the hotel’s national character. Materials such as tweed and wool abound, photos of the Queen and Churchill adorn shelves, and hat stands are used as décor. Busts of Lord Byron symbolise the hotel’s link to English literature as well as the fact that the original owner was Lord Byron’s butler, Mr Brown.

But despite preserving this sense of tradition, the rooms feel modern, lofty and bright. The natural daylight on the stylish interior creates a welcoming ambience. ‘Our main aim was to create more space,’ Sir Rocco explains. ‘It’s an old building so the corridors are narrow, but that is very London and part of the hotel’s character. And the rooms are very big by London standards.’ There are nine different sizes (and, consequently, price categories) of room, ranging from classic queen to royal suite. Each room has its individual charm. The refurbishment and renovation took one-and-a-half years and cost £19m. ‘My sister has done a great job,’ remarks Sir Rocco.

FUTURE OPENINGS

“The choice of Brown’s reflects Sir Rocco’s philosophy behind his hotel collection: it is central, stylish and reflects the nationality of its location.”

Regarding his future plans for the group, Sir Rocco says: ‘I have “target cities” and am looking at things in those cities all the time. Reasons for properties to go through or not may be financial, political etc, but the long-term strategy is to be present in each major city in Europe with a luxury hotel that speaks for itself.’

This year he opens the Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt (March) and the Hotel de Rome in Berlin (September). A third German hotel in Munich will follow in Spring 2007. Why three German properties in one go? ‘Well, the chronology of which country we enter next depends on what’s available. But with Germany, you have to be present in various cities, as it’s not centralised like England or France’. The architects’ firm that won the competition to design the Villa Kennedy, Dr Porphyrios & Associates, took the features of the original Villa Speyer of 1904 and applied them to the newly constructed building. ‘The hotel also has a wonderful courtyard, which will be a stunning retreat in summer’, Sir Rocco points out.

‘Germans don’t like spending money, so I don’t know if it’s the cause or effect, but the standards have fallen at many luxury properties all over the country. Our hotels are quite small in comparison to other luxury (brand) hotels that have 300 to 500 rooms. So they are not so difficult to fill and the service can be personalised.’

Sir Rocco generally takes an interest in the political landscape of each country he deals with. ‘In Germany, there is this huge depression at the moment because their economy has been down for quite some time. But I remember what it was like here in the 70s. So every time I speak to anyone in Germany I seem to be cheering them up by saying: ‘Things aren’t quite as bad as you think.’

“Sir Rocco takes an interest in the political landscape of each country he deals with.”

Something different also on the list of new openings is a golf resort in Sicily: ‘I’ve always wanted to do a “proper” luxury golf resort – not one with a coin slot ball machine, or where you have to wait for others to clear the run. I am creating a golfer’s haven, with different courses for two and four balls, to accommodate different game speeds and so on.’

The company’s strategy remains to have a city hotel in all of Europe’s hot spots, but the resort is unlikely to be a one off. The feeling one gets is that, if it is lucrative, everything is possible with Sir Rocco Forte. The same is true for locations. He clearly states that the brand will continue to be Europe-based. But then again:

‘If ever I were to expand into the USA, then it would be exclusively to New York. After all, it feels like an extension of Europe.’ According to current plans, by the end of 2007, Rocco Forte Hotels will have 15 hotels. The company’s current turnover stands at £120m, which it is hoped will be doubled within the next three years.

COMPANY ATMOSPHERE

So, does he have a favourite among his hotels? ‘Well, I’m not allowed to,’ Sir Rocco smiles, ‘but I’m always pleasantly surprised when I go to them. Sitting in the office you only ever see the problems, but then when you arrive the atmosphere is terrific.

For example, when I was in Frankfurt last week, they organised a surprise dinner for me in the kitchen. All the heads of departments attended and the atmosphere was great. We ended up dancing around the table, the Sicilian chef was singing and at the end of the evening they continued cleaning up to the music.

“‘One of the most exciting things about the business is being able to create an environment and feeling in all these places that constitute what I believe in.'”

‘I was at another hotel two weeks ago,’ he continues, ‘and again was so impressed by the attitude of the staff there that I thought to myself: I haven’t been directly involved with selecting these people and yet they represent what the company is about, the way I wanted the brand to be. For me, that is one of the most exciting things about the business, bringing things to life that previously didn’t exist. Creating an environment and a feeling in all these places that constitute what I believe in.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Despite having opened a restaurant with Marco Pierre White in London’s Mayfair, Sir Rocco has no plans for any further separate restaurant projects. ‘But they are a very important part of any hotel,’ he insists. ‘Gerhard Schroeder is a good customer and likes our hotels because they are different. When he heard I was opening three in Germany he wanted to meet up. I asked him what kind of restaurant we should open in Berlin and he said: Italian!’ Accordingly, the Hotel de Rome in Berlin will feature an Italian restaurant.

Sir Rocco’s advice to aspiring hoteliers is to learn the trade thoroughly. ‘Many want to move forward quickly, but it makes managing so much easier if you understand the different departments,’ he says. ‘I, for example, wish I had spent more time in the kitchen – then I could better communicate what I want to the chefs. It’s difficult because an hotelier is always focused on filling the rooms; whereas a chef has to deal with banquets, room service, etc. Communication is not always easy.’

Communication with guests is another key priority. By autumn this year, all the Forte hotels will have changed their front office systems to a centralised network. ‘That way we know which guest is using other Forte hotels and can better communicate with your guest. I want people to say, “Where shall we go? Well, where has Rocco Forte got a hotel?”‘

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Which problems does Sir Rocco see the industry facing? ‘Bureaucracy is a problem,’ he answers. ‘Especially labour laws. I mean, if you can’t fire someone whose work is dissatisfying, how are you supposed to successfully run a business?’

‘The problem is Brussels is trying to steer Europe in a certain direction and I doubt it will work. I mean, I’m a European in the sense that I truly feel European; being born in England with Italian blood in my veins naturally makes me see the broader picture of European culture. But I’m not European in the sense, or nonsense, of Brussels.’

It is fair to say that, in Sir Rocco Forte, Europe has found its hotelier. He understands and feels the continent – which may be why Rocco Forte Hotels has achieved that feat so rare for a hotel group: in each of its hotels, guests can always sense which country they are in.