by Camilla Tominey, The Telegraph, June 17, 2019
Sir Rocco Forte enjoys nothing more than snooping in other people’s hotels. As arguably one of the world’s most famous hoteliers, you might expect him to put his feet up on home soil at The Balmoral while in Edinburgh or at the Hotel de Russie in Rome. Yet, while he takes great pride in his 11 luxury venues around the world, he prefers to suss out the opposition when he is travelling. “I do like to have a snoop,” he admits. “You’ve got to see what your rivals are offering and make sure you can better it.”
Not that he expects to be pampered and preened. Dismissing seven-star hotels as a “gimmick”, the immaculately turned-out multi-millionaire does not have much truck with butler services either. “Most butler services in hotels are a complete bloody nuisance,” he insists.
Business is booming for Sir Rocco, who was knighted for services to the UK tourism industry in 1994. He puts his recent success down to a surge in American tourism to Italy, where he owns three hotels. Although born in Bournemouth, he can trace his roots back to Frosinone and is married to an Italian, Lady Aliai. “We get a lot of wealthy Americans staying in our hotels. As the economy has picked up in the US, so have bookings.”
Having initially set up his own chain of hotels in 1996, known by his initials RF, he rebranded as The Rocco Forte Collection after the return of the Forte brand name in 2009, launching Verdura, the company’s first resort on the island of Sicily. It came after Forte Plc, the hotel empire his father, Lord Charles Forte, started in 1934, was broken up following a hostile takeover bid by Gerry Robinson’s Granada. During his time as chief executive and chairman of the group, Sir Rocco had responsibility for more than 800 hotels, 1,000 restaurants and almost 100,000 employees in 50 countries.
Acquiring the Meridien Hotel Group from Air France saw him transform the family business from a UK operation to a multimillion-pound business and global entity, including notable properties such as Hotel George V in Paris, Sandy Lane in Barbados, Hotel Ritz in Madrid and Hôtel Plaza Athénée in New York.
Now, the Hotel De Russie on Rome’s historic Via del Babuino is the jewel in the crown of his much more niche “collection” of luxury hotels, which also includes sites in Belgium, Germany and Russia, as well as Brown’s in London – which he bought for £51.5 million in 2003 – the venue for today’s interview.
The 74-year-old – said to be worth around £250 million – reveals that he is in a quandary as to who will one day take over the empire – either of his daughters Lydia, 31, and Irene, 30, or his son Charles, 27, all of whom work in the business.
Admitting to being “an old-fashioned male chauvinist”, he says: “It’s more important for the boy to be in charge of the business than the girls. My eldest daughter is married to a very wealthy guy who runs his own business. He’s Greek, he’s not going to like her spending all that time on the business. But she’s very bright. Both my daughters went to Oxford. But they’re all young and haven’t really got the experience you need. I’m going to give it to the right person. Maybe they can create something together.”
His self-confessed sexism is rather at odds with the hugely successful careers of the women in his life. His sister Olga, the Design Director (and Deputy Chairman) of the RF group, is lauded around the world for her immaculate interiors finesse. She also owns two hotels in her own right – the beautiful boutique Hotel Endsleigh in Devon and Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall, the latter along with her daughter Charlotte Polizzi. Olga’s other daughter Alexandra Polizzi, who manages Hotel Endsleigh, presents the popular Hotel Inspector show on Channel 5 and has fronted a number of BBC shows.
Retirement is far from the former competitive sportsman’s thoughts. “What would you do?” he asks. “The older you get, you’ve done everything else – the most fun thing is being in charge of something and driving something. It’s part of your whole being. If tomorrow I went off, I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t be a triathlete any more (he represented Britain in four World Triathlon Championships). I’m not a natural philosopher. I’d just be bored stiff.
“Everybody asks what my succession plan is. At some stage, I will have to get out of the way – my children can’t run it while I’m still there – it’s impossible. I saw that with my father. Although I was chief executive, I couldn’t really change anything.”
Now “cleverer” in the way that he works and “better at delegating”, Sir Rocco spends weekends relaxing at his country house in Ripley, Surrey. He also enjoys shooting and golf, but “feels guilty” when he is not at work. “My only regret? That I didn’t work hard enough!”, he jokes. “In a business like mine, which is about people and about detail, you can leave it to someone else, but it doesn’t have your imprint in the same way.”
With five more hotels in the pipeline, the ardent Leaver is keen to point out, with a wink, that the business continues to expand “despite Brexit”. Hardened by the experience of losing 40 per cent of sales “overnight” during the global financial crisis, he says: “My sister Olga was saying: ‘This is the end’. I said: ‘No, calm down’. “I think we have everything going for us [post-Brexit] if we are governed in the right way.”
Likening the hysteria around a no-deal Brexit to the millennium bug, he added: “I’d rather have no deal because I think it gives us the freedom we want. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has rules that the EU has to follow. It can’t penalise us. Europe is seen as this wonderful panacea for everything – it isn’t, it’s a bloody difficult place to do business in. It’s much easier to do business in the UK. If we come out under WTO rules, we should reduce corporation tax by 10 per cent and undercut Ireland.”
One wonders what his former mentee Deborah Meaden – an ardent Remainer – would make of such claims. The Dragons’ Den star once credited Sir Rocco with giving her good business advice.
“I wasn’t aware I had ever given her advice, but I had said that in a business you’ve got a lot of things coming at you and you’ve got to focus on what the important things are and deal with them,” he reveals.
So who gives Sir Rocco advice, his wife of 33 years, perhaps? “Ha!” he exclaims, throwing his arms into the air. “If I listened to my wife I would be bankrupt. Behind every great man is an astonished mother-in-law.”
To browse the Rocco Forte Hotel collection, see: roccofortehotels.com