by Lydia Slater, The Telegraph, September 25, 2017
“Hospitality is in our blood,” says Olga Polizzi, the design director of Rocco Forte Hotels. And when I meet the Forte family, I’m struck by how they do appear to personify all aspects of their luxury brand. Its combination of traditional grandeur, quirky elegance, contemporary dining, serene spas and dynamic growth prospects are embodied respectively in the forms of the CEO and paterfamilias Sir Rocco, his sister Olga and his children, Lydia, 30, Irene, 28, and newest recruit Charles, 25.
The family have agreed to be interviewed in order to commemorate two decades since the foundation of the hotel group. That followed the hostile takeover, by leisure and media giant Granada, of Forte plc, the hotel and restaurant business founded in 1934 by Charles Forte – Sir Rocco and Olga’s father – with a single milk bar.
Many assumed the family would take the cash and retire to lives of pampered repose. Instead, Sir Rocco set about building up a new hotel group, starting with the Balmoral in Edinburgh, recruiting his sister, who is also deputy chair, to oversee the design, as she’d previously done for the Forte Group. “We’ve always had a great relationship,” he says, “and one of the best things about the new business has been working closely with her. It gives you a strong sense of security and continuity, which is important.”
Now, that sense of continuity has descended to a third generation. While the Forte children all maintain that none of them was coerced to join the family business, they were clearly destined to do so. As teenagers, they all had holiday jobs in the hotels. “I spent my entire youth there,” says Charles. “I was a prep chef at the Principe di Savoia in Milan for two months – pure hell! And I worked in Hotel de Rome in Berlin as a porter, in housekeeping, shucking oysters. It’s what my grandfather called lavapiatti [literally, ‘dishwasher’]; he instilled it in my father, who’s tried to do it with us: the only way you gain respect in an industry is by starting with the lowest-skilled job and working your way up.”
While Charles opted to study history and documentary film at New York University, he admits, “In hindsight it might have been more prudent to do some sort of hotel-orientated degree. I think it was always what I was going to do. There was a magnetic pull.”
It’s a similar story with his elder sisters, both Oxford graduates. Lydia took a professional cookery course before university and, after leaving, waitressed, worked as an assistant maître d’ at the Wolseley and managed the opening of a neighbourhood restaurant in Chelsea before her father recruited her to the family firm, where she’s now development manager of restaurants and bars.
Irene, unsure of her career path, joined the development programme at Brown’s Hotel straight out of university, and then was tasked by Sir Rocco to rewrite the group’s brand standards. “After that, I was hooked. I haven’t left since and it’s been five years.” Now she oversees staff training and development via online apps, and runs the spas – “It’s no longer enough to have a gym and a treatment bed; people want to learn new things when they come to stay.” She’s also developed a range of body and bath products, Forte Organics, based on the organic olive oil, herbs and flowers grown at the family’s Sicilian resort, Verdura. The sisters have also worked together to develop Rocco Forte Nourish, a range of menus aimed specifically at health-conscious millennials.
The advantage for the business of bringing in a new generation to reflect the modern perspective is clear. “The whole internet thing is something I don’t understand – social media and so on,” admits Sir Rocco, “but it’s all second nature to them, and it’s a big part of the future.” Nor are the younger Fortes concerned by the advent of Airbnb and its ilk. “I think a lot of the disruption is happening at the middle and lower level,” says Lydia. “At the top end, people still care about human contact and service, and feeling like they’re being taken care of. That’s something you can’t replicate in an Airbnb.”
But while Sir Rocco is delighted his offspring have joined the family firm – “It’s wonderful; you have something in common to talk about, and it means I see them now that they’ve left home” – he insists he’d never have tried to push them into it. “It’s pointless being in this type of business if you don’t like it and you don’t have a sense of it,” he says. “They are all passionate about it. They have the same philosophy I have.”
“The family element is key,” agrees Irene. “Our hotels aren’t stuffy – you feel like you’re coming into a home.” “We were all brought up in the same way,” adds Olga (with whom, due to a last-minute change in her schedule, I catch up a little later). “We have a feeling for the same aesthetic. And the children are hard-working and clever – obviously if they weren’t, it would be a bit of a disaster…”
Equally essentially, they have enormous respect for one another. The siblings look blank when I ask if there are ever family bust-ups in the office. “It sounds so corny and unrealistic, but honestly, there aren’t,” says Charles. “There are so many areas we can be involved with, we don’t encroach too much.” “We have complementary skills,” explains Irene. “Lydia and I have been working together now for four years – I’m more details-focused and like getting into the nitty gritty, while Lydia’s probably more big-picture.”
Today, it is Sir Rocco’s turn to be shouted down by both his daughters when he suggests that their commitment to the business might change if they marry and have children. “I absolutely hate that question! I don’t know why you even bring it up,” snaps Lydia, who in fact is already married to Dimitri Chandris, a City banker. “What if Charles decides to be a stay-at-home dad?” “A what?” says Sir Rocco, bewildered. “What if he decides to take time off to be with his family? Nothing wrong with that either,” explains Irene. “I vaguely cook, and I can iron,” Charles chips in helpfully.
“There you go, you’ve found a point of difference,” Lydia tells me with a grin. Her plan, she says emphatically, is to be a working parent, and she cites her aunt as a major inspiration. “She’s amazing, phenomenal – she has two hotels of her own [the Endsleigh in Devon and Tresanton in Cornwall], she’s heavily involved in the business, she travels non-stop, she’s an amazing mother, grandmother and wife… she’s done it all.”
As we’ve mentioned, Olga isn’t here to speak for herself, and it’s been something of an achievement even to get five Fortes in a room together. In the past fortnight, Sir Rocco has visited the Charles Hotel in Munich, the Hotel de Rome in Berlin and travelled to Sicily and Milan to look at new hotel prospects; Lydia flew to the Hotel de Russie in Rome, and then to Trieste to meet a coffee supplier, before heading to Sicily to launch a new vegan restaurant at the Verdura Resort. Irene has been up to Edinburgh to conduct staff training at the Balmoral, then went to the Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg to assess the spa. And Charles was also in Sicily, looking at a prospective new property.
“Fortunately, the energy is genetic, even if mine’s running out,” jokes Olga a few days later. Indeed, although Sir Rocco is now in his seventies, he looks a couple of decades younger and only recently gave up competing in triathlons. Any talk of succession seems both impertinent and premature; but there is no doubt that the business will be passed on to those whose forte it is.