Legendary hotelier Sir Rocco Forte is synonymous with his chain of luxe hotels. He talks to Amanda Morison about his legacy and the exciting properties that will open over the next few years.
Say the word “Forte” and you’re in Dyson, Hoover and Selfridges territory because the name and the brand are the same. Sir Rocco Forte’s father Charles founded the hospitality chain aged 26 in 1935 with the Strand Milk Bar, swiftly expanding into motorway service stations, restaurants and hotels. Sir Rocco took over as CEO in 1983, and despite losing the brand name in a hostile takeover bid in 1995, now presides over 12 of the world’s most luxe hotels, with up to 10 more to come over the next few years.
Sir Rocco worked from a young age during school holidays, in the kitchen, housekeeping, behind the snack bar: “You name the department, I worked there. I don’t care if someone is from a Swiss hotel school, if you haven’t come through the industry you can’t run a hotel”. This uncompromising – but unfailingly courteous – attitude helps define Sir Rocco. Having spent his entire life in a hotel environment – “When I’m in one of my hotels it feels like home”, when he’s a guest he knows exactly what he wants.
I meet him at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, and a member of his retinue asks if he’d like a double espresso. “It’s the afternoon!” he exclaims, “Tea please. Why would I want coffee?” he asks, in a tone of some surprise. My first sentence to Sir Rocco is greeted in similar style. I comment on how Italian Brown’s Hotel Mayfair feels.
“Italian? How? This place aims to be very British”, he says, while I stutteringly explain I meant that many
of the staff and guests are Italian-speaking, and there’s the wherewithal to make a complimentary Bellini in the lobby.
I turn the conversation into what I hope is less contentious territory than the right time of day for caffeine – family. Sir Rocco founded RF Hotels, now Rocco Forte Hotels, in 1996 with his sister Olga Polizzi. His three children Lydia, Irene and Charles work in the business. He believes family gives a unique atmosphere and “sense of belonging” that rival five stars simply don’t have. I ask if he’d have supported his children in different dreams, say becoming a comedian? A stare, a pause, and the answer: “ I didn’t force them, they wanted to come in. Being a comedian isn’t exactly remunerative, so no, I’m not very keen on that idea”.
Hospitality has never been known for as a nine-to-five environment, and Sir Rocco believes it’s no easier today. “I never resented it. I had my lie-ins, and was perfectly capable of staying up till 4am and being back at work at 9”. Asked about a work life balance, he calls it, “a bit of a nonsense. If you believe in something you think about it all the time. If you’re in charge you can’t suddenly switch off. If you don’t like it you shouldn’t be doing it”.
“You name the department, I worked there. I don’t care if someone is from a Swiss hotel school, if you haven’t come through the industry you can’t run a hotel”
It’s no surprise to discover that Sir Rocco likes being active. An Oxford Blue in fencing, and veteran of many a marathon and Iron Man – his last when he was 60 – Sir Rocco talks about a holiday to the Maldives that he only agreed to on the condition he could play golf there. His wife discovered Velaa Private Island, and Sir Rocco describes a packed schedule of an hour’s golf lesson, two hours practice, a 2km swim in the sea, bit of snorkelling, and the gym for an hour. “I managed to get through the day before dinner”, he smiles.
What has changed in those decades since Sir Rocco first started work? “There are a hell of a lot more women in senior roles. Now it’s all about wellness, with gyms and spas – even vegetarian menus are relatively new. Technology has given us things like daily pricing – good – but in some ways it complicates things. I hate super computerised hotel rooms when it takes me half an hour to work out how to switch off the lights, and waiters on a computer with their backs to customers. More happily, the dress code is more relaxed. Most of the time – I was in a hotel in Italy that insisted on a jacket and tie at dinner. I had to borrow one. The guy at the next door table had to wear a tie with his T-shirt. Looked bloody ridiculous”. Sir Rocco likes hotels that relate to their surroundings, and loves the atmosphere of Le Sirenuse in Positano and the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.
“I hate super computerised hotel rooms when it takes me half an hour to work out how to switch off the lights…”
Sir Rocco frequently refers back to family, saying how lucky he is to work with his sister Olga Polizzi, with her, “natural understanding of decoration”. He admits that back in the day he didn’t think about design very much. He always looks at prototype rooms, though often more from the point of view of guest comfort. His own style he describes as, ‘Rich colours and a bit of fussiness. I like a bit of clutter.” Aged 74, Sir Rocco is showing no sign of slowing down. He feels the group could get to 25 or 30 hotels without changing the culture, and wants to be in Miami, New York and Paris. Rocco Forte House, the group’s second Rome hotel, opened this year and a grand hotel in Palermo is slated to open May 2020.
So the family whose forte is running immaculate hotels looks set to continue as a Great British success story. With succession guaranteed, we look forward to spending time with the clan as often as possible.
Time for a festive cocktail
Brown’s Hotel, London is partnering with Paul Smith and being transformed into a festive tropical fantasia to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Jungle Book.
Rudyard Kipling stayed at Brown’s when he was writing the book, and the Jungle Julep cocktail, £19, by maestro Salvatore Calabrese, will be available in Donovan’s Bar until 5 January 2020.
It features Monkey 47 gin with hints of banana, lime, blackberry and coconut. roccofortehotels.com