With landmarks such as London’s Brown’s Hotel and Florence’s Hotel Savoy on its regal roster, the Rocco Forte name has grown synonymous with sophistication and European elegance since its establishment in 1996. And with new Italian properties in Puglia (Masseria Torre Maizza, opened on May 1) and Rome (Hotel de la Ville, debuting on May 23) already turning heads, the esteemed distinction likely will grow stronger.
During Forbes Travel Guide’s recent lunch with Charles Forte, Rocco Forte Hotels’ development analyst and son of the namesake founder, he proudly dished on the company’s European stance and also talked about the brand’s next frontier — Asia. Shanghai’s The Westbund Hotel opens in an eagerly anticipated multi-use project in late 2019.
Read on as Forte expounds on entering Asia, potentially expanding into the U.S. and the backstory of how his family’s name became synonymous with high-end hospitality in the first place.
How did your family get its start in hotels?
My grandfather [Charles Forte] came from a hamlet called Monforte, south of Rome. There was no running water or electricity. It’s a very humble place. His father moved to a little village called Alloa in Scotland, where he grew up. There were a lot of Fortes that came from this [Italian] region and ended up moving to the U.K. The Fortes are relatively entrepreneurial, I guess, so they moved all over the U.K.
My grandfather had a cousin who opened up local milk bars in Brighton, down in the south of England. Milk bars were all the rage back in the day. You had ice cream, milkshakes and so on. So, [my grandfather] moved down to Brighton and starts working in this milk bar. You call it a creamery. It was basically the beginning of the ice cream culture.
Then, he made the move to London. When he was a young man, with the money he had got from family members, he took on this little shop on Regent Street and made it the Forte Milk Bar. It was so successful that he expanded and expanded. It became, like, four times the size. That was sort of the first venture into restaurants, hospitality and catering.
Off of that, he was able to do the Café Royal hotel. He created the largest hospitality business in Europe at the time. In the U.S., we had Posthouse Hotels and Travelodges. In the U.K., we had [the catering contract for] British Airways and [owned] Burger King franchises. It was a big conglomerate of different things. He owned Le Meridien and The Savoy Group. In Paris, [we had] George V, Sandy Lane in Barbados and Grosvenor House in London. It was a big company.
So, what happened to all of that?
It was a public company. It was a hostile takeover by a company called Granada in 1996. We lost control of the company. After a bit, my dad started up this new business, Rocco Forte Hotels. He thought about shutting up shop, but for him, the thought of legacy and carrying on the family name [was important]. I think that has trickled down to me and my sisters as well. It’s very important. My grandfather always used to say that physical reward was superficial in contrast to creating something that has your name on it.
It was like losing a child [for my father]. It was a big ego thing as well. It hurt his pride a lot. He spent about a year trying to find the first hotel. He almost gave up because he couldn’t find anything. But then this opportunity came up for The Balmoral, which is the most historic hotel in Scotland.
Did you always know that you’d be in the family business?
I think the only pressure that came was external. Not from my father. I grew up working in hotels so, effectively, yes.
There are a lot of high-end experiences to be had in Rome and Milan. What separates a Rocco Forte hotel stay from the crowd?
I think the primary thing is that we’re a family business in all senses. It’s me, my two sisters, my father and my aunt who work in the business. My aunt [Olga Polizzi] is the head of design. My father is the founder and CEO. I do hotel development. One sister [Lydia Forte] is the head of food and beverage and my other sister [Irene Forte] is the head of wellness and spas. We’re in close communication with the hotels. There should be a real family feel in each of the properties.
And the fact that we’re small — we’re just 12 hotels — means we’re really focused on each property. It’s not a hobby for us. This is our baby. This is what we live for. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ve got a bit of money left over. Let’s do a hotel!”
With each hotel that we do, the idea is to create a product that becomes ingrained in the fabric of that specific place. I think that’s the big difference. When you think about the big brands, like IHG buying Six Senses, there’s this glamorization of brands. It’s very difficult to actually truly be unique and offer a truly authentic experience. We’re a relatively niche player. A lot of luxury travelers are now turning their backs on the bigger guys.
If Rocco Forte Hotels ever came to the United States, where would you start?
Miami or New York. Operationally, it would make sense [in either city]. We have a sales team already in New York. But Miami would be nice. We looked at a lot of stuff on South Beach. But it’s difficult to convert the lifestyle product. We have room sizes starting at 400 square feet. But we’ll see.
Why was now a good time for the Asia expansion?
Speaking frankly, Shanghai was never in our development strategy. Our strategy was to complete the Italian set to reflect our Italian heritage. Then, we’d have a presence in all the European gateway cities that we’re not currently in — Paris, Madrid, Moscow, Zurich, Amsterdam and so on. But it was an opportunity that was presented to us. It’s a straight management contract. It’s half owned by the local governing body. It’s an amazing project that they’re spending a fortune on.
Furthermore, only 5 percent of our business comes from the Asian market. So, seeing this huge growth in Asia’s demand for luxury hotels in Europe — and the Asian market doesn’t know our brand particularly well — it made sense for us, we thought, to have a product there to try to drum up interest. That’s the logic behind it.