Hotels boss Sir Rocco Forte is smiling again after losing millions during lockdowns: My rich guests are back, but I worry war may stop Americans
Directions to hotelier Sir Rocco Forte’s country residence come with a ‘Good Luck’ and a wry smile from a worker on his estate. The chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels and son of Anglo-Italian hotel magnate Charles Forte is known for his direct manner and forthright views.
Back from a week travelling to his hotels in Rome, Brussels, Milan and London, he is still raw over the Government’s ‘overblown’ response to a pandemic that wiped out almost 80 per cent of his family hotel empire’s £216million turnover.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it before in a democratic country. All the opening and closing was so stop-start; business was doing OK, then bang, we’d be shut again, all because of those pervasive rules,’ says the 76-year-old, clad in monogrammed shirt and loafers.
Sitting pretty: Sir Rocco Forte is still raw over the Government’s ‘overblown’ response to a pandemic that wiped out almost 80 per cent of his family hotel empire’s £216million turnover
‘Perhaps now they’re starting to take a more pragmatic view and see the wider [economic] picture rather than just the health issue – let’s hope it stays that way because we’re starting to see some momentum again.’
It’s a balmy Saturday afternoon in Surrey but cool in the large converted barn that serves as his weekend retreat. Labradors pad across the mosaic floor of an interior which apes the homely opulence of his hotels with its grand piano, giant Ottoman and pre-Raphaelite art.
Today he is ‘without staff’ – so is making the coffees and dealing with John Lewis deliveries himself. But that’s not the reason he can’t relax. The war in Ukraine means another wave of disruption to a sector dependent on international travel at a time when the post-Covid recovery remains precarious.
Domestic trade at his St Petersburg hotel is holding up and is set to be boosted this summer by the delegation attending the International Economic Forum in the Russian city, albeit a reduced one.
However, he’s concerned that rich Russians feeling the chill will swap their visits to Brown’s – his Mayfair hotel – for Dubai. He also frets that ‘nervous’ US travellers, who account for a third of business, will stay at home.
‘I remember during the Gulf war the Americans didn’t travel to Europe because they thought it was too close to the war zone. I think they may have grown up a bit since then and have a better idea of their geography. But they are a key market and if they don’t come it affects the top hotels considerably.’
Luxury has always been Sir Rocco’s passion. He favours the higher end of his late father’s vast hotel and catering empire which spanned Little Chef and three-star Forte Posthouse hotels to London’s Savoy.
When the Forte Group, left ‘vulnerable’ after the early-1990s recession, was sold to entertainment giant Granada in a hostile takeover bid, he bought back the five-star Balmoral in Edinburgh to focus on the luxury market with his sister Olga Polizzi.
A £50million loan from the Bank of Scotland propelled expansion to the current group of 15 properties around Europe. Eight are in Italy, with a spa offering overseen by his younger daughter, Irene. ‘Rich’ is the brisk assessment of his typical customer. Although that now includes young tech millionaires alongside old money, they all expect impeccable personal service.
This, he believes, is incompatible with large corporate operators, citing Marriott’s 2016 merger with Starwood Hotels as a case in point.
‘Marriott is a fine company but running luxury is a very different mindset to middle market. It must be difficult to differentiate between all the different brands they have in the group. Some good people have left Starwood because of the takeover, and I’ve picked up a few of them,’ he adds, distracted by a red kite outside.
‘I’ve got a great team around me now, but as the founder I have to lead the agenda because very often people beat around the bush. I’m lucky, touch wood, that I’m fit and active and still have the enthusiasm to keep everyone’s spirits up.’
When he was missing an operations director during the pandemic, Forte, a trained chartered accountant, took on the role himself. It threw him right into the complexities that come with working in different countries, heightened due to Covid.
Germany, he says, was the most efficient in terms of financial support. Italy was slow off the mark which meant subsidising the lowest earnings of the workforce, while Sicilian seasonal workers were not eligible for a penny. UK measures such as the reduced rate of VAT helped once business came back but were ‘irrelevant’ when there were no sales. The furlough scheme, he concedes, was quick and efficient. It’s rare praise for a Government which on the whole seems to disappoint him. Forte has been a big Tory donor, handing over £100,000 to back the Conservatives at the last Election, but is now critical.
He recently attacked ‘payslip propaganda’, as he described a demand from the Government to explain to employees that the increase in National Insurance was to fund the NHS and social care, in a blistering article in this newspaper. He’d like to see a smaller state and a more Thatcherite style, starting with a Prime Minister’s consort. Comments he made at a private dinner at Brown’s that Boris Johnson needed to keep his wife Carrie ‘under control’ were slammed as sexist. ‘It’s nothing to do with her being a woman. It’s the fact she has no official role and shouldn’t be trying to influence policy with her cronies. Her role is to simply support the Prime Minister.’
Being locked down in Surrey was a rare chance to reflect. Growth in his hotels business has always been measured but he’s ready to stray a little from his usual European city sites with an eye on areas such as Bath and the Cotswolds.
More pressing though, is the issue of attracting local workers into the industry with structured apprenticeship schemes. But with slow progress on that front, doesn’t it come down to paying a higher wage? ‘No, it’s down to finding people who like giving service. Perhaps that’s no longer characteristic of this country,’ he says.
His own indoctrination began, he says, at the age of 14 on the hamburger station at Friar Tuck restaurant in Coventry High Street. Memories of it prompt a smile.
‘There was a policy that if anyone complained, you made the customer another one free. I remember one man who complained so I made him another one; he complained again telling me that he knew the owner Mr [Charles] Forte – he had no idea who I was, but I was able to tell him, ‘I think I know him a bit better than you do.’