Exceptional properties demand exceptional hoteliers to run them. High on the list of those superlative hotels is Villa d’Este in Cernobbio, set on the edge of Lake Como in Italy. Built in 1568, the fabled Villa is sumptuous, surrounded on three sides by 20-plus acres of manicured and historic gardens, overlooking the storied alpine lake. Beneath the serene surface is a team of employees whose primary aim in life is to make guests happy, whether that is defined as hospitality, maintenance, cuisine, landscaping, or taking visitors for a ride on Lake Como on the villa’s watercraft. (Any George Clooney sightings are a bonus.)
Leading them is Danilo Zucchetti, the managing director of the Villa d’Este Group for the past six years, who was voted the 2018 General Manager of the Year by the readers of Luxury Travel Advisor in our annual Awards of Excellence program.
The hotel’s floating pool on the lake.
With a motto of “evolve, but don’t change,” Zucchetti not only oversees Villa d’Este from his office at the hotel, but also the five-star Villa La Massa near Florence and two four-star properties in Como — Hotel Palace and Hotel Barchetta Excelsior.
How does “evolve, but don’t change” translate into the operation of Villa d’Este as it nears its 150th anniversary as a hotel? Zucchetti defines it as “protecting your identity and style, along with retaining the timelessness” that draws discerning repeat guests from around the world to what was once a Cardinal’s palace and an adored lakeside villa visited by royal princesses and queens of Hollywood.
At Villa d’Este, it’s not only the Old World décor, the antiques, the art, the carpets; the magic is also in the details, such as the heavy brass room keys that recall the days when ladies arrived with their personal maids and a dozen steamer trunks. We know there are computers working away somewhere in the background, but we have entered a kind of time machine, where comfort and pleasure have been in the atmosphere for nearly a century and a half. Maintaining this ambiance is like walking a tightrope, balancing between the best of the old and the demands of the new. Our award-winning general manager has a favorite quote that sums up his philosophy: “Tradition is the progress of the past and progress is the tradition of the future.”
Naturally, we had to ask Zucchetti his definition of luxury. He said, “Luxury is a state of mind, a place to be. It is the escape from the everyday. [It is] to have what you want when you want it; to find your own space.”
As we stood talking at the foot of the grand staircase, Zucchetti, a man with keen eyes, noticed a tiny chip in the woodwork near the floor, probably caused by an errant vacuum cleaner or piece of luggage. Within seconds he alerted the maintenance staff for immediate repairs, noting that luxury is also seeking perfection.
Villa d’Este, a 152-room luxury hotel on the shores of Lake Como, is surrounded on three sides by manicured and historic gardens.
Like many outstanding Italian hospitality executives, Zucchetti grew up in the business, being born into a family of hoteliers in Vicenza. He gained early experience at the family’s 20-room property located in the hills. The hotel was especially popular in summer, when guests came to enjoy the weather and the game of bocce on the lawn. Although his early dream was to become a marine biologist, he went on to study in Switzerland, first at the prestigious Hosta Hotel & Tourism School and then at the Hotel Institute in Montreux, where he was the only Italian in his class, which had students from 35 countries.
In 1993, Zucchetti entered the luxury market when he joined Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. By the time he left Four Seasons, he had worked in Milan and Berlin, where he opened new hotels, and in Tokyo. By the age of 40, he was the general manager of the top-drawer Hotel Bauer and Il Palazzo in Venice, where he stayed for six years. There, he repositioned the hotel, presenting it to the travel industry as a place that “orchestrates dreams.” Zucchetti joined Villa d’Este as general manager in 2005 and became managing director of the Villa d’Este group in 2012; that same year he was named Hotelier of the Year by Virtuoso. Niagara University named him International Hotelier of the Year in 2013.
Zucchetti, whose only goal is to make his clients happy, says, “I choose talent that is the right fit for the property and I work to nurture a sense of belonging. The result has to be a team working together.” At Villa d’Este, 60 to 70 percent of the 330 employees are locals, many of whom spend their entire careers at the hotel. Two hundred and fifty of them are housed on the property. Zucchetti works to find the right fit for every employee and to nurture within them a “sense of belonging, a cohesive team.”
Zucchetti says that, even with very low turnover, during the past five years there has been what he calls “generational change,” with long-time staff retiring and opening up spots for many of the hotel’s employees to be promoted from within, such as Zucchetti’s executive assistant, Vera, who began in reservations. Talking of new hires, Zucchetti smiles, saying these employees bring new skills to the venerable hotel, such as the use of social media. Despite updating their digital marketing, he emphasizes that Villa d’Este has never been looking for mass tourism and relies heavily on word of mouth.
Offering the Best of the Best
Several years ago, the hotel updated its massive kitchens, where 47 staff, including 40 chefs, work under Executive Chef Michele Zambanini to create the menus that delight both hotel guests and locals. We wandered through the interconnecting rooms dedicated to every aspect of food, from pastry to pasta. Zucchetti, tall and resplendent in a dark suit among the white jackets of the kitchen staff, greeted everyone. We ended up in the seafood chilling room, where we examined the glacier 51 toothfish to be served that night. Putting it on the menu aptly illustrates Zucchetti’s dedication to offer the best of the best, as this extraordinary (and expensive) fish is from 6,500 feet deep in the icy sub-Antarctic ocean, 2,500 miles off the coast of Australia. Just to catch them requires braving gale-force winds, blowing snow, only a few hours of light a day and 100-foot waves.
The Cardinal Suite is named after Tolomeo Gallio, who built the Villa in 1568 as his private residence. The suite has a 969-square-foot terrace.
The big project underway in the Villa d’Este Group now is the refurbishment of the five-star Villa La Massa, which sits on the Arno River, five miles from Florence. The hotel has been enlarged by five acres and there will be more rooms, a new pool and the creation of a 14th-century borgo with townhouses.
Recently, at Villa d’Este, the Italian national monument mosaic in the Renaissance garden was restored, utilizing 80,000 new stones. Maintaining the standard of historic luxury properties is a never-ending job and Zucchetti doesn’t slow down for a moment.
“In 146 years,” he says, “we have achieved our revenue goals without compromising our identity.” As the 150th anniversary of Villa d’Este approaches, repeat guests are already booking to take part in the celebration. This will be the one time when the hotel is open all year, rather than closing for the period between December and February.
This level of guest loyalty ties in with the first big lesson that a young Zucchetti learned while working at a hotel close to Rome. “A guest complained about the staff attitude, saying, ‘This is not a good hotel. It is only a nice one,’” he says. “I had to learn the difference very quickly, to look from the guest’s perspective and to meet and exceed expectations.”
This can be tricky when guests come from all over the world, bringing their own values and experiences with them. Zucchetti says that currently 40 percent of guests are American and 10 percent Australian. The Asian market is growing rapidly. The remaining clientele primarily come from Eastern Europe, Western Europe and Latin America.
His greatest triumph? “Combining the consistency and efficiency of a corporation with maintaining an iconic, unique, human property,” Zucchetti says.
His greatest challenge? “It’s all about the people,” he notes.
The Veranda Restaurant, the hotel’s main dining facility, is found at the Cardinal building. It has large windows providing views of the gardens and the lake.
The superb level of service at Villa d’Este, with Danilo Zucchetti at the helm of the group, continues to attract those special guests, who come to seek la dolce vita and dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) in one of the world’s most beautiful settings. Zucchetti relies on astute luxury travel advisors to make the vital connection between clients looking for an extraordinary experience and Villa d’Este, where timeless hospitality is the norm. In fact, as soon as our interview ended, he headed straight to reception to welcome a group of luxury travel advisors arriving for a familiarization visit. He was in his element — the perfect host.