Interview with Luxury Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte

Interview with Luxury Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte
When you established The Rocco Forte Collection in 1996, what was your vision?

With The Rocco Forte Collection, the strategy from the beginning was to create a luxury hotel group which covered all the major cities in Europe, because there was no one else doing that. Our hotels have a very strong design element which is overseen by my sister Olga Polizzi, Director of Design for The Rocco Forte Collection. We try to relate the hotel to the local market and environment it's in. 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.

Has that vision changed? If so, how and why?

We have spent the last ten years building The Rocco Forte Collection brand in Europe and our vision and brand values have remained the same throughout. About two years ago, as part of the evolution of the brand, we made the decision to start thinking outside of Europe and signed management contracts for properties in Abu Dhabi (opening mid 2010), Jeddah (opening autumn 2010), a golf & spa resort in Marrakech (opening 2011) and Cairo (opening 2012). The fact that we are moving towards management contracts, and have in fact fought off competition from other leading five star brands, shows how far we have come in the last ten years, and that we are now in a position to leverage The Rocco Forte Collection brand.

Tell us about your newest hotel, which is actually your first resort (pictured above), and how this project came about?

From the outset I wanted to create a truly luxurious resort which offered exceptional golf, spa and dining experiences amid panoramic views and spectacular design. The rugged south west coast of Sicily provided the ideal setting for the Verdura Golf & Spa Resort.

The decision to move into resorts was a natural progression for us and a key element in the growth strategy of the business. We will be looking to attract the same leisure and corporate customers that currently stay in our other properties as well as expanding into the family market.

For golfers Verdura offers a first-rate experience with 45 holes of the highest design set into the Sicilian countryside with superb views of the Mediterranean. As a resort it presents every possibility with a spectacular 4,000 square metre Spa, specializing in luxurious Thalassotherapy and Aromatherapy treatments."

Families will also be very well looked after with Verdura's Kids Club and Teenagers Club, enjoying many of the land and sea activities on offer including the 60-metre two tiered swimming pool, tennis, sailing and windsurfing.

Verdura brings together the talent and experience of some of the world's best hotel, golf course and spa designers, who have used the vivid Sicilian setting as the inspiration for their new work here.

What are your criteria for selecting new destinations?

It's all about finding a great property in the right location and of course at the right price. I like acquiring buildings that have a sense of history, are well located and have a real connection to the city.

There are still key cities in Europe that I would like to be in including Paris, Madrid, Milan, Barcelona and Moscow. I would also like to have a property in New York as it is the most Eastern looking US city and is an important destination for us.

Most of your hotels are historic buildings. Why did you build new hotels in Manchester and Munich?

Our hotels are a mixture of older historic buildings and new builds. It really is all about the location of the property and its connection to the city. The Lowry Hotel (above left) with its dramatic glass-fronted façade is a real landmark in Manchester and was the first five star hotel in the city.

There are different sets of issues with developing hotels in both new build and historical buildings. For example when we were building The Augustine (above right) in Prague, we had to work with the local fine art authorities because a lot of the buildings have historical significance. At our new resort in Sicily, 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.

Tell us about your new resort.

This summer, I spent quite a lot of time at our new golf & spa resort, Verdura in south west Sicily which opened in August. I am extremely proud of the resort and think we have created something very special there.

Which historic site is a must-see in Sicily?

There’s a Roman villa with the most amazing mosaics halfway between Catania and Verdura Resort called Piazza Armerina. Only in the last 10 years has it been fully excavated and on show. It’s quite beautiful.

What is your favorite off-the-radar spot?

Verdura Resort is within reach of some of the typical tourist attractions, like Agrigento, where a large portion of Sicily’s Greek temples are located. But about 30 minutes in the opposite direction is a ruin called Selinunte, which is almost more impressive. It’s in the middle of the countryside—a very fine example of Greek architecture.

Where do you go for a perfect summer meal?

I go to the hills just above Verdura—there is a cleft in the hillside where this little town sits. There is a great restaurant there called Mates, which is family run. You get the most amazing views from up there.

How are the wines on Sicily?

The wines from the vineyards at the foot of the volcano Etna have a slightly volcanic taste to them. Over the last 10 to 15 years, Sicilian wines have developed significantly and become delightful.

Is there a hotel you frequent the most?

Out of all the hotels in The Collection, I probably spend the most time at Brown's Hotel (below) as it's located in the heart of my hometown, London and is a quick walk from my office in Jermyn Street. The fact that it was an old Forte hotel makes it extra special to me. I think my sister has done a great job in creating a quintessentially English hotel with a contemporary feel. The Donovan Bar and The Albemarle restaurant (below right) in Brown's have become two of the places 'to be seen' on the London circuit.

Photo of Sir Rocco Forte (top left) by Hugo Burnand.