An EventsBase exclusive with the King of Hospitality….If you want the lowdown on hospitality just check into ‘The School of Life’
Sir Rocco Forte has had a good summer. Revenue figures for his hotels are up, and the seeds of an expansion first planted four years ago are starting to bear fruit: he has recently taken over the upmarket Masseria Torre Maizza hotel in Puglia, there’s a Shanghai hotel in the offing and another, as yet unnamed, hotel planned for Italy; altogether there are “three, four, five” hotels in the pipeline, adding to the current number of 11, Sir Rocco reveals as we meet in the sumptuous Kipling Suite of his London seat of power: the famous Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair.
At 73, he’s clearly relishing a late deal-making flourish in a long career that has been characterised by many ups and downs along the way, which is not an unusual experience if you happen to work in the hospitality industry. For anyone of a certain age, the ‘Forte’ name is one synonomous with the sector. From the humble origins of a ‘milk bar’ established on London’s Regent Street during the 1930s, Sir Rocco’s father Charles built an absolutely enormous global business; at its zenith the hotel and catering empire boasted 800 hotels, a vast network of motorway service stations, the roadside café chains Little Chef and Happy Eater and the largest event catering business in the world, and much more (including as one time rights holders for Kentucky Fried Chicken); there wasn’t a lay-by in the country, practically, which didn’t feature one of the ubiquitous Forte sub-divisions or brands offering the full gamut of budget to mid-and- high range hotels, restaurants and diners.
And then, famously, it all came crashing down. The multinational business, by now in the hands of Sir Rocco as CEO (his father had stepped aside to become Chairman more than 10 years previously), fell prey to one of the most bitter and hostile takeovers of the nineties. Granada – the former television company which is itself now defunct, ironically – took on the might of the Forte family and shareholders, and won: a £3.8bn sale was pushed through, much to the scepticism of the City, and the company was eventually broken up and sold in a classic asset strip; however, its constituent parts never realised the value of the business as a whole, ultimately vindicating the judgement of many doubters, including Sir Rocco himself.
I ask whether he has any regrets. “It was a long time ago,” he reflects. “People say to me, ‘Well, you know, aren’t you better off it happened that way, not running a business that your father basically created?’ ‘You’re running your own business that you created’. I suppose there is a certain satisfaction in that, but if you’re running a huge international business you have a lot of scope, a lot of ability to make it into something even greater than what it is.” He adds: “I don’t know, I probably would have been just as motivated by that as by what I’m doing right now. But it’s a different scale, a different type of approach, and a different type of work. I’m much more involved now in the detail – the detail of hotel-keeping – than I could ever have been in the old Trusthouse Forte business, which I rather enjoy.”
ON THAT SCORE, Sir Rocco seems to relish being quite hands-on; from afar, he is charm personified as he exchanges pleasantries with guests taxiing in and out of the busy doorway at Brown’s, which is a Mayfair institution for the well-heeled. And on a personal level he is relaxed, engaging and witty, noticeably holding you in his gaze until you’ve acknowledged his smile; he’s clearly not a man who struggles for chat: his superlative manners are old school and evidently the product of a wellrounded education and upbringing. I think the warmth of approach goes right to the core of the what he calls the “service culture” of his hotel group; in a business that he started “from scratch” (the proverbial Phoenix from the Flames) it is one of the things of which he is most proud, he says. Which is handy, given that the main reason I have travelled 450 miles to interview him in the first place is to understand what good customer service looks like, especially in an industry which so often gets it horribly wrong.
I am intrigued, then, when he says that his relationship with the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton has yielded an unusual approach to the training of his staff across the company – a lifetstyle programme called ‘The School of Life’, created by De Botton, is delivered in course format in each hotel in an attempt bring a level of ‘emotional intelligence’ to the workforce. For lovers of new approaches, this is Customer Service 2.0 and Sir Rocco’s daughter Irene has been responsible for the implementation of the idea, in a business context. The project is deliberately designed to give staff the softer skills that they might otherwise lack in developing inter-personal relationships, which are seldom, if ever, ‘taught’ in a professional setting.
De Botton, whose profilic work is often characterised as ‘everyday philosophy’, has written extensively about personal fulfilment, happiness and, in particular, work. It is a completely radical concept – and having read several of De Botton’s books, The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety and The Consolations of Philosophy – it sounds exciting and left-field. “It helps people to deal with the viccissitudes of life in terms of relationships, in terms of dealing with the outside world and so on,” says Sir Rocco. “It’s to teach our staff to adapt to the needs of the individual and the mood of the customer. It’s been very well received, and quite helpful.”
One of the aims, he adds, is to ensure staff can engage naturally and empathetically with customers, according to the guiding principle of judging each situation, and each person, as they come. “Some customers might arrive in a good mood and are treated one way and another customer has had a bad flight or whatever, and is in a bad mood, and you have to be aware of that in the way that you deal with him,” he says. “Every so often you have an international trip and you arrive at a hotel, they always say to you, ‘How was your flight?’ and then the next person says, ‘How was your flight?’ After a while you start wondering whether they know something about the flight that you don’t!”
TEACHING naturalness is a fuzzy concept, but Sir Rocco believes there is a place for it in an industry which can be highly transient, and so often falls at the first hurdle because staff are either not engaged or even transparently bored; these kinds of issues have long been a bone of contention for an industry whose lack of investment in skills continues to undermine its attempts to ‘professionalise’. Sir Rocco even personally took part in one of the School of Life training sessions at his Villa Kennedy hotel in Frankfurt, where he joined in on a task to persuade someone to do something they might not want to; he chose to try and induce a female member of staff to have dinner with him, which doesn’t exactly sound like the hardest thing to do in the world, but the objective was for participants to engage with one another, on a human level. So, did he pass his own test? “She said I managed to do it without creating any offence, that I found the right words and so on. So that’s important,” he says.
“But we also teach our staff about the family history, the company history, the hotel history and something about the city in which the hotel finds itself, which they can communicate back to the customer – and also have a greater sense of belonging to the organisation as a result. If you go to any one of my hotels you will find that same culture.” If he’s clear what good service looks like – personalised, natural, engaging – he is equally manifest on what constitutes a bad experience. It’s a subject that exercises most senior people in the hospitality and events industry, but as far as Sir Rocco is concerned the things that most frequently irritate him are a ‘bad attitude, indifference and defensiveness’; he bridles, in particular, when staff “try and prove customers wrong”. He lists a few other bugbears, including where waiting or reception staff are so focused on a task that they they don’t look up to see whether a customer needs to be attended to, or when they just blithely walk past, either intentionally or unintentionally. He does not go so far as to say the customer is always right, but says, “You should act as though he is right”.
Customer complaints are also a good thing, he adds, and that a hotel should be grateful for receiving them, as it gives you an opportunity to “put things right” and, if handled correctly, you should “make a friend for life”, which all makes good sense in a business where loyalty is king. When he first set the company up, he made sure that he exemplified that approach himself by personally writing to every customer who complained to thank them for their feedback, to pledge to investigate the matter throughly, and take action where appropriate. He says: “My General Managers who hadn’t worked with me at the Trusthouse Forte organisation were quite surprised but they soon got the hang of it; now I get many fewer complaints because they are dealt with on the spot. It’s a bit of a case that the general manager doesn’t want to have me on their backs but they also understand what it means and how helpful it is to have someone telling you what’s wrong.”
I MET SIR ROCCO for the first time in June at the launch of Brasserie Prince by Alain Roux at The Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, the first property he acquired in 1996 when he struck out alone, and naturally it is one that is close to his heart. There is always speculation in the hotels industry when it comes to ownership but Sir Rocco says he is committed to the institution, which he likens to the Forth Road Bridge, given the fact once you finish repainting it, you have to start all over again. The £2.5m revamp (from the old and rather tired Hadrian’s Brasserie) was overseen by his sister Olga Polizzi, who is in charge of interior design throughout the group; no expense was spared at the launch party with cocktails, fine wine, and the highest quality charcuterie and shellfish served to celebrate the refurbishment, but also the fusion of two time-honoured hospitality dynasties: the Fortes and the Roux families.
The brasserie and bar is a relaxed take on fine dining, thanks to its fresh design appeal, but is also part of a wider programe of development at the hotel, Sir Rocco says, which has already seen investment in the redecoration of two wings of the hotel, with one scheduled for next year and the final wing the year after that. There are also several basements at the hotel, which they are exploring a new use for (it could be additional events space, but there are no firm plans yet), and a proposal at some point for a “major operation” to overhaul and extend the health club and spa. A passageway will be created to form part of a new entrance to and from Waverley train station, with a much greater emphasis on accessibility. However, “We’ve got to pick our moment to do that,” Sir Rocco says.
Sir Rocco has been very vocal in the press on the subject of Brexit, and is a devout Leaver; it’s an opinion that is not necessarily shared by all in the hospitality industry, so I’m keen to learn what he thinks is the upside of crashing out of the European Union – and potentially risking disrupting an industry that is heavily reliant on an easily accessible continental labour market. The Institute of Hospitality said in July that Brexit represents some “fundamental challenges” to the sector, especially if immigration rules are tightened. But Sir Rocco says: “I don’t look it from a completely selfish point of view. I look it from the point of view of what’s good for this country; is it right for a country to be controlled by a bunch of bureaucrats from Brussels who are unelected and whose main aim is to destroy the nation state and to create a superstate in Europe which they run? If that’s the way we want to go, fine, but I didn’t want to go that way.”
He adds: “I think hoteliers have always employed people from overseas, long before the European Union; I think the issue, again I suppose it depends on what system is put in place, but there’ll be a system where you have to have a job to come here, you can’t just come and look for a job, which is important.” He insists the Prime Minister’s “half-in” Chequers Deal is a bad outcome, as it would not reinstate sovereignty to Britain, and that the EU’s trade rules would prevent the country from engaging more competitively in emerging world markets. “It doesn’t give us the freedom to trade freely with other parts of the world and doesn’t give us control to remove tariffs,” he says. “We could immediately remove all tariffs on goods coming in where we’re not producing them ourselves, and lower the cost of those goods.” He also sees the tax harmonisation across the EU as anti-competitive, which would allow Brussels to “tax us more and more.” “So that’s why I’m a Brexiteer,” he concludes.
THE ‘RF’ ROCCO Forte serif is monogrammed onto Sir Rocco’s shirt, and you get the sense that the project is far from settled. His comments over Brexit reveal a keen mind for policy, and also for business, deal-making and trade. In some ways it’s a Donald Trump view of the world; the US president, another hotelier (although Sir Rocco insists he’s more of a “property guy”), is shaking up the status quo, for better or worse, when it comes to the well-established Western liberal geopolitical consensus. Sir Rocco thinks the firebrand president has been right on trade, right on NATO and right about both China and Europe “taking advantage”. Where he diverges is when it comes to Trump’s personality: “He’s got a terrible manner, he’s not in the least bit presidential,” he says.
The aim for the Rocco Forte family – and it is a family affair, with daughters Lydia, Irene and son Charles all advancing in the business in different roles – is to have 25-30 international hotels, which would take it back to something like the number of luxury properties within the old Forte business. He doesn’t see the Rocco Forte brand working for other UK cities as they are “not international”; in his view only London and Edinburgh qualify and he’s candid about the “mistakes” he has made in the past when he tried to launch hotels in Manchester and Cardiff (in a luxury market it’s all about the rate you can command as a five-star property). Interestingly, he doesn’t regard business tourism as a particularly lucrative stream either because “corporates just pay a level of rate which they won’t go above”.
With the financial backing of the Italian Government-sponsored Fondo Strategico Italiano (which injected £60m into the business in 2014) the locus of the company has naturally shifted in that geographical direction, as the plans for additional properties in the country demonstrate. Sir Rocco is happy to do business there although he caveats that it’s “not easy” and “you have to know your way around the system”; he believes that fact may have deterred others, and therefore in his view Italy is a relatively untapped market, in five-star terms. It’s also the “most fantastic tourism destination in the world,” he adds, which accounts for 65% of the world’s culture and will continue to attract the all-important highyielding American traveller. CHINA IS A new market which Sir Rocco is “just experiencing for the first time”; despite navigating a “quite politicised” system, where government, both local and district, is involved, as well as the airport authority, the Westbund Hotel in Shanghai (219 rooms) is on course to open in summer 2019. Further afield, the search goes on for two hotels in the US (New York and Los Angeles), another in Russia (Moscow), and Sir Rocco talks more speculatively about Spain, France, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. The empire may not be what it once was – and the volatile climate in global business and politics may have unsettled many – but the ‘RF’ brand is clearly on a roll; the current winds of change might just end up carrying Sir Rocco towards his objectives very quickly indeed.
Words by Kevin O’Sullivan
Photography by Mary Turner, as represented by global photo agency Panos.