Walking into the Hotel Brunelleschi in Florence, one can immediately sense General Manager Claudio Catani’s personal definition of luxury: “An experience with the possibility to have surprises every moment.” From the Byzantine tower (the oldest building in Florence) to the Roman baths in the hotel’s private museum, something unexpected is around every corner.
Perhaps the best surprise for first time guests is Catani himself. He’s an outgoing, funny and gracious Italian who makes it a point to meet every guest during his or her stay. This is one of the reasons he was voted Luxury Travel Advisor’s Top General Manager of a Luxury Hotel Worldwide in our Awards of Excellence program. Here’s another: When he took over as general manager, the Brunelleschi was ranked number 400 out of 500 hotels in Florence by TripAdvisor. Today it’s number 19.
Running a luxury property in Florence or Firenze, in Italian, requires the dexterity of a master juggler, along with marketing savvy, good taste and a quick response to ever-changing situations. According to Catani, “Firenze is a niche market, a very little town with only 300,000 inhabitants in the center. In this little village, we have the big players of the world. Our strategy is to offer the personal touch, with extremely tailor-made experiences.”
Explaining his emphasis on highly trained staff, detailed service and consistent high quality, Catani recalls the days when he was introduced to luxury by his father, the head concierge of a five-star hotel in Florence. He also absorbed the luxury market in his birthplace, the spa town of Montecatini Terme, where he began at the bottom as an apprentice porter at the Grand Hotel Bellavista Palace & Golf. Within a dozen years he had moved up to director general of Hotel Plaza e De Russie in Viareggio, after gaining experience in almost every aspect of the business along the way. Eventually, he became the director general of the four-star Hotel Green Park Resort in Pisa, where he managed the pre-opening and directed the marketing.
We asked Catani about his most memorable hospitality crisis and he answered, “Thank God, I haven’t had many. Everything is pretty boring here in terms of crises.” Then, looking back to his early years in the business, he recalled an incident that almost lost him his job when he worked the front desk at a seaside resort at age 16. “An important lawyer came into the hotel with a lady and stopped by the desk to tell me that he would be in the bar if anyone asked for him. I realized from the way they were acting that the woman was his fidanzata [girlfriend]. They went on into the bar. A few minutes later, another signora came into the hotel and asked for the lawyer. I sent her to the bar, just like he told me to. You can imagine what happened — the first lady was the mistress and the second lady was the wife. I was distraught and thought I was going to be fired. The GM really gave me hell. After that, I told myself, ‘Hey, boy, be awake. Open your eyes.’ I learned a lot that day about discretion.”
Armed with experience and imagination, Catani was recruited in 2006 to open the first luxury hotel in Genoa, the Bentley. According to him, “This was a great experience. Genoa needed a luxury property in a great palazzo to welcome guests from international companies, such as Shell.” Catani, as director general, managed not only to put the project together, but to open the hotel two weeks ahead of schedule, in time for an important event, the Salone Nautico di Genova.
He then spent a short period running the Excelsior in Catania, Sicily, the region he calls “the California of Italy,” before being tapped in 2008 to become general manager of the Brunelleschi, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. He arrived at what he termed a “very tired” four-star property, with the portfolio of directing the refurbishing and repositioning of the hotel to begin in 2009. “My job was to elevate the services of the Brunelleschi to the highest international standards. The hotel had been operating for two years without any real management, so I had to get to work fast.”
“My job was to elevate the services of the Brunelleschi to the highest international standards.”—Claudio Catani
The ongoing responsibility that comes with restoring and maintaining an important historic property was, and continues to be, a big part of his job. Some luxury properties in Florence are within purpose-built classical buildings from the late 19th or early 20th century, while others are within restored palaces. The Brunelleschi, on the other hand, includes the Pagliazza Tower (built between 541-544 AD), the oldest building standing in Florence, as well as original Roman baths. Another part of the hotel is a de-consecrated 15th-century church. Catani knows only too well that repairs and maintenance are never simple in luxury properties with this kind of heritage.
Master of Multi-tasking
It took 20 years for permission to be granted by the city for the hotel to restore the tower, as the Florentine and Italian rules and regulations regarding construction and restoration are onerous. “Nothing can be permanently attached to the walls,” he says, “so we have to be creative.” Examples are the bathrooms in the Tower Suite, which resemble big upholstered packages that open to reveal the most contemporary Italian fixtures and design. Catani took us on a private tour of the Brunelleschi’s museum, which included the Roman baths, along with ancient ceramics and other artifacts unearthed during restoration.
“I like to tell guests that the hotel was mentioned in two of Dan Brown’s novels, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Inferno.’ They love it.”
In reality, Catani has three jobs at the Brunelleschi: He is running a high-occupancy hotel in a highly competitive market, he is managing a museum, and he is directing an ongoing historic preservation project.
In 2013, he became complex area manager for both the Brunelleschi and its sister property, the 106-room Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte on Viareggio’s seafront, one of the most evocative Italian coastal locations. Built in the 1920s, the hotel was restored between 2002 and 2004, re-opening in 2004. He points out, “I live in Viareggio with my family. It’s an easy drive into Florence because I go in early when there’s no traffic. On the weekends, I stay in our village with my wife and two children.”
Both the Principe and the Brunelleschi have welcomed their share of celebrities and nobility. Telling a story about the Principe, Catani explained the international reputation the town of Viareggio and the Tuscan coast enjoy. The hotel is a sought-after destination for its two-star Michelin restaurant, as well as its position on the seafront. One memorable experience involved a Middle Eastern prince, who shall remain nameless. “He was traveling to Italy on his private Boeing 777, which was full of people. He called and asked that we provide personal catering from the restaurant for all the passengers on the plane. The problem was it was very short notice. The chef and his staff had to source the provisions, cook all the meals, and at the same time keep serving the guests with reservations in the restaurant. We managed to do it all, but we were pretty stressed.”
Catani’s formal education included institutions on two continents, involving study in every phase of the hotel business, from management to F&B, marketing to training and recruitment. So, he knew how to quickly assess a situation when he started at the Brunelleschi. Today he believes that staff training and retention were, and continue to be, vital to the hotel’s success. Of the just under 100 employees, many have been with the hotel more than 20 years, some since it opened. “I hold one to two meetings per month with the entire staff,” he says, “to teach all members of the team how to make decisions and to give them the tools to make guests happy. They need to have a 360-degree understanding so that they realize how their actions can affect the entire hotel.”
Catani maintains that the hotel’s success is due to the fact that they are independent and able to respond individually to the marketplace and jump on opportunities quickly. He explains, “Continuing to be a four-star property, rather than a five-star, gives us the opportunity to fill the rooms in the low season with business travelers, like pharmaceutical professionals and government employees. In Italy, most companies and government departments don’t allow their employees to put five-star hotels on their expense accounts. We can also book small meetings here.”
His mentor is the professor at Cornell who guided him through several years of online study to earn a masters in revenue management. “Online education requires a different way of thinking and learning,” he said. “I studied a lot at night to get the classes and finish.”
The Brunelleschi is a favorite of American guests, as well as U.S.-based luxury travel advisors. In fact, Catani pointed out that the U.S. is the main market for tourism in Florence. Sixty percent of the Brunelleschi’s guests are American, he said, with 90 percent of those traveling for leisure. California, Texas, Florida and the East Coast are home to most of them.
We spoke to previous Brunelleschi guests from New York who had this to say: “We stayed at the hotel two years ago [in 2014] and thought the room was beautiful and spacious. Housekeeping was excellent and it really made for a relaxing few days in Florence. All in all...we had a wonderful stay there.”
Catani builds relationships by traveling to the U.S. every two months to visit travel advisors and colleagues in the industry, to keep up to date on trends, and to take the pulse of the marketplace. This has had an important effect on his career, he says. “I love the travel advisor community and my U.S. friends and partners. Every time I go I learn a lot and I find a lot of value in making the trips.”
Maureen Conlin of Los Gatos Travel in Los Gatos, CA, says, “We love Catani. He opens his arms and lets everybody in. The guests feel like they’re coming home. He’s more than a GM, he’s a statesman for Italy. He’s so dedicated. He understands that we’re all in this together, we’re members of the same team. I arrived in Italy the day he found out he won the [Luxury Travel Advisor General Manager of the Year] award. He was just delighted.”
Catani’s personal favorite destinations offer insight into the way he approaches hospitality. His favorite room in the Brunelleschi is everybody’s favorite — Duplex Double No. 502 — and he calls it “the room to die for.” There is a round bed and there are windows providing a fabulous 360-degree view of the rooftops, domes and towers of Florence.
His top choice in Italy (outside of Florence and Viareggio) is the Huber Hotel in Vals, a quiet valley in the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. “I’ve taken my children there many times and we’ll spend Christmas 2016 there, after [Signature’s Annual Sales Conference in] Las Vegas.” What is it about the Huber that he enjoys? “The personal service. The owner and his wife, Signor and Signora Stolz, run this very small hotel and their son is the chef. I love going there.”
Catani’s favorite place in the world? “Tahiti.”
With his trademark dry wit he says, “I think it’s my favorite, but I haven’t actually been there yet. In the meantime, it’s the United States, which has become my second home.”
He admits that the longest drive he’s made on his own within the U.S. was between San Diego and Los Angeles. On his bucket list is a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but with his hectic schedule, that trip may have to wait awhile.