High atop the Trinità dei Monti in Rome, in a 19th-century palace on the Via Sistina, a great deal of activity is underway. Dozens of workers – restorers, upholsterers and tile layers, decorative painters and a handful of project managers with immaculate driving moccasins and great hair – have the run of its eight storeys. They’re clocking in during the early hours of the morning and working through to dusk, five days a week, putting the final touches on the Hotel de la Ville, which might sequester one of the most dazzling views of Rome accessible to the public from its upper reaches, and which is shortly to offer a hotel to match.
Last month I spent a day on site with its architect and designer, Tommaso Ziffer, getting a first look. As we passed from elegant arcaded rooms through a sun-saturated central courtyard and up the monumental marble staircase (a slick glass elevator ascending through its grand spiral was in the process of being installed), he chronicled his various sources of inspiration, ranging from John Soane’s plaster collections and the Grand Tour peregrinations of 18th-century Englishmen to the courtyard of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. When the hotel opens this month, there will be a half-dozen places within it to eat and drink, among them a ground-level bistro and bar clad in rich peacock-blue velvets and brocades; a private lunch pavilion with ornate, hand-detailed columns and a domed ceiling; and a rooftop terrace bar facing southwest, offering wraparound views of the city and Cinemascope-calibre sunsets. Among the rooms and suites is a one-bedroom, top-floor penthouse with a vast terrace; it can be combined with several rooms below to form a two-storey, six-bedroom apartment – all parquet oak floors, hand-tooled leather cabinetry and Scalamandré papers, complete with library, office and kitchen – which, I was told, will be Rome’s largest such suite (€25,000 per night).
As the rich finishes, eye-popping colour combinations and narrative superlatives unfolded one after the other, I began to wonder how that narrow echelon of top Roman hoteliers is feeling about this imminent arrival. Are the directors at the Eden, just visible across the Villa Medici’s grounds, at all nervous? Or the owner of the Hassler, essentially right next door?
And what does that glamorous stalwart down on the Piazza del Popolo, the Hotel de Russie, make of it? Because the De la Ville is the latest member of Rocco Forte Hotels – of which group the De Russie is also part. It has 104 rooms to the De Russie’s 120, a similarly dead-central location, and quite a few more fabulous spots in which to sip and/or sup than does its sibling; it is possible that the De la Ville’s extraordinary rooftop will supplant the De Russie’s lush Stravinskij garden bar as the capital’s nexus of advanced-level people-watching.
Is it brave – even possibly a bit foolhardy – for a luxury hotel company to open a second property of not inconsiderable size in a city that is far from deficient in top-flight offerings? Rocco Forte thinks not. His eponymous hotel collection has operated in Italy since the opening in 2000 of the Hotel Savoy, on Florence’s Piazza della Repubblica; there are also the De Russie and Verdura, the Flavio Albanese-designed 570-acre golf and beach resort that opened on the south coast of Sicily in 2009. “It’s not straightforward doing business in Italy,” Forte conceded over lunch in London. And with 27 years of operating Rocco Forte Hotels – and a lifetime’s worth of education-via-osmosis from his late father, Forte Group founder Charles Forte – “my family,” as he puts it succinctly, “has got to know our way around.”
It is expertise they are putting to work at a pivotal moment both in terms of outward expansion and internal growth. Besides the De la Ville in Rome, the Fortes have just launched Masseria Torre Maizza, the five-star luxury resort in Puglia, as a Rocco Forte resort, having expanded it to a total of 40 suites and completely redefined its style –under the aegis of Forte’s sister, deputy chairman and design director Olga Polizzi – after a spend of some €6m and a year’s site work. And in spring 2020, after a meticulous renovation (this one a two-year, €27m undertaking that will be overseen by Paolo Moschino, director at Nicholas Haslam Interiors), they will reopen the Villa Igiea – Palermo’s grandest hotel, a beautiful landmark Liberty building overlooking the harbour that is intrinsically woven into the aristocratic, cultural and political history of fin de siècle Sicily.
Nor is current expansion limited to Europe. After preliminary international forays in St Petersburg with the Astoria Hotel and the Hotel Amigo in Brussels, followed by Saudi Arabia (where they operated the Assilah in Jeddah for some years), the company’s first hotel in Asia is slated for this summer. With 220 rooms, situated over the top 15 floors of the skyscraping Tower in West Bund, Shanghai’s new arts and culture district, The Westbund Hotel will be a Polizzi-curated showcase of top Chinese artisanship in collaboration with the designer Inge Moore (she is lately doing much to-ing and fro-ing between London and Shanghai to source and commission crafts, porcelain and art).
As interesting as the new hotels are the internal developments at the 12-strong collection, which spans locations across Europe from Edinburgh to Munich via Albemarle Street in London’s Mayfair. All three of Forte’s children now have full-time management roles within the company: Lydia, 32, who joined in 2014, oversees the food and beverage offerings; Irene, 29, has developed its multifaceted approach to wellness; Charles, 27, assumed a role as development director last year.
Garden-variety nepotism doesn’t account for their successes to date (“They are very nice, and they are grafters,” a professional peer who knows both daughters socially told me recently). When, in 2015, Lydia embarked on her first project – overhauling the restaurant at Florence’s Savoy, rechristening it Irene (after her grandmother and sister) and working closely with in-house consulting chef Fulvio Pierangelini to craft a menu focused on vegetables, whole grains and low-fat and low-sugar contents – she created something that turned the convention of cucina povera on its head while still being very Italian; influencers and editors lavished praise, while the locals populate its terrace on sunny days in the off-season (the true accolade). Irene Forte was recently awarded a seat on the advisory board of the Global Wellness Institute, and the organic skincare line that she launched earlier this year – many of its actives and ingredients sourced from the gardens of Verdura in Sicily – will be stocked at Liberty of London and Galleries Lafayette among others. She has already designed expert-led retreats and trekking routes for Verdura; created a series of in-room à la carte fitness videos for the city hotels; and launched a Nourish menu programme, created in conjunction with Pierangelini, that extends on request into minibars. And Charles, who was an early and avid champion of setting up shop in Palermo – a city emerging chrysalis-like from decades of neglect as one of Europe’s most exciting culture destinations – is busy identifying sites in Venice and Milan for the next two openings after Palermo. While there are several non-Fortes on the board and among the senior executives, family matters. But, as Charles told me candidly, “this isn’t some hobby we dabble in – it’s our bread-and-butter. We are all in the hotels, all the time, working, observing, collaborating.”
The curious direction in which hospitality is evolving has served to cast the Forte’s business into flattering relief. As small independent brands continue to be subsumed into mega-conglomerates such as Marriott and Accor (the most recent event was the acquisition of Six Senses by Intercontinental Hotels Group), those that remain independent stand out; the genuine family-operated small premium hotel brands around the world can probably be counted on one hand. The closest competitor – the one Forte alluded to by way of comparison – is the Oetker Collection, but that German family of grocery-goods billionaires and publishers isn’t front and centre in the identity of Le Bristol in Paris, the Lanesborough in London, the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc or any of its other properties. Oetker’s are lovely hotels, but it is a family company in name far more than practice. “When we’re in one of our hotels it’s like being in our own homes. For me, it definitely is. If I’m here and there’s a guest standing around for even a minute with no one serving them, I get anxious,” says Polizzi during our lunch, which takes place at Beck at Browns, the Fortes’ Mayfair hotel (last year Heinz Beck, he of three Michelin stars, replaced Mark Hix in the restaurant here, the same time as the room’s edgy art-showcase decor was exchanged for gorgeous old-school exotic florals and teal velvet banquettes – all her design). As deputy chairman and a former managing director at Forte Group (and a hotelier in her own right – she owns Tresanton in Cornwall and Hotel Endsleigh in Devon), Polizzi has chops; she is also gratifyingly plain-spoken. “It’s not the same as at other companies – it’s just not. Because it’s not their name above the door, on everything. You feel an enormous responsibility.”
The lifespan of Rocco Forte Hotels hasn’t been without its travails, starting with those involving the retention of the family name when Granada acquired the Forte Group in 1996 (Rocco Forte called the first iteration of his own company RFH, before the rights return was negotiated in 2001). Like most other hotel operators it was hit hard by the post-crisis market, forced into a debt restructuring deal with its prime lender, the Royal Bank of Scotland (which saw the sale in 2010 of Le Richemond, its iconic Geneva property). In 2012, Verdura was the subject of debt-for-equity swap discussions with two Italian banks; that same year Rocco Forte Hotels was served notice on its 30-year lease agreement to operate The Augustine in Prague, after its reduced rent payments (a strategy that was adopted by other industry players at the time) were contested by the hotel’s owners. The company ultimately lost the management contract for The Augustine; Verdura, however, regained its footing and then some – thanks to a 2014 investment of some £60m by Fondo Strategico Italiano, Italy’s sovereign wealth fund (now called CDP Equity) that amounted to a 23 per cent stake in the company. These days in summer it’s usually at full occupancy, when it’s not playing host to Google Camp, the tech giant’s elite star-studded retreat.
Now it’s all eyes front, focus on the future. “Post the crash, trying to find capital for luxury hotels was really difficult,” Charles tells me. “These days there’s a lot more, and of that, a lot more institutional investment.” Rocco Forte Hotels owns or leases all its European hotels – the Roman hotels are both leased, one from a private family and one from a major insurers, as is the Savoy in Florence (which is owned by the Ferragamo family). “These minimum leaseholds are a way for us to compete with the big brands in the European markets,” Charles says. In addition to Venice and Milan, he is speculating in, and about, Barcelona, Zurich, Paris and Moscow. Then there is further expansion in Italy on the table: “We’re looking at all the resort destinations you’d expect – Sardinia, Positano, Capri. We’d like to eventually have 10 or 15 hotels there.”
In the meantime, Puglia and Palermo are building buzz. The latter in particular is a city with a dearth of excellent hotels and one that partners easily and well with Verdura, which is about 90 minutes’ drive south. Polizzi, a designer at heart, radiates enthusiasm as she describes their plans: “We’re putting everything right on the outside. There are spectacular terraces by [Ernesto] Basile” – the venerated Sicilian architect who designed Palermo’s Teatro Massimo – “that have been covered up for ages, which we’re restoring. There are greenhouses we’ll restore as well, and the gardens must be about eight acres. We’ve found a company in Palermo that still produces Basile’s furniture designs from his drawings; we’ll commission pieces for all the rooms.” The current room count, around 134, will be reduced to “something like 90”, Rocco says, to create larger bathrooms and more suites; a newer, discrete rooms block set by the water will become a Forte Spa.
“It was something my father and I were sort of obsessed with,” says Charles, of their landing the most storied of sites. “He was a pioneer of luxury hotels in the part of Sicily where Verdura is. And in Palermo [we] saw an opportunity to get ahead of the curve. It’s an incredible building, an incredible hotel; so in a way it’s coming full circle.” The next Forte generation has dynamism behind it, but also history; it’s clearly still a family affair.