Charles Forte has worked in hotels since the tender age of 14, he is now Development Manager at Rocco Forte Hotels, where, amongst many other responsibilities, he identifies new hotel opportunities to develop the expansion of the company’s portfolio. Charles is the son of Sir Rocco Forte, Founder and Chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels, in this Q&A Charles shares with us what it’s like to work in a tight-knit family-run business, his predictions for future travel trends and the expansion plans for the internationally renowned hotel group.
Did you always plan to have a career in the family business?
I worked in hotels from an early age, in fact my first hotel work experience was at Brown’s Hotel when I was 14 years old. At one point, I considered being a Chef – I have much admiration for their dedication and the incredible hours they put into their work.
I was always intrigued by the family business and always looked up to my granddad and dad so in my heart I knew I wanted to be involved at some point. There was never any pressure for me to work in the family business but I felt compelled to join.
I went to university in the States, however I was getting a little homesick, and my sisters were already working in the business, so I came back and started working in the hotel’s valuation department which was a good foundation for what I am doing now.
When I was 18 I spent a long time working at the Hotel Principe di Savoia Milan, which is a Dorchester Collection hotel, where I worked as a Prep Chef. Before joining the family business in 2017, I spent time working for other companies, including Kings Park Capital which is a hospitality and private equity firm and Rothschild, where I worked in their commercial real estate loans and risk assessment department.
After the financial crash, it was a hard time for the business, so a strategic focus was to start expanding the property portfolio so I joined the development team. It was an interesting time to join and a great challenge developing the family business further.
How has the development strategy adapted since you joined and how have you responded to the pressures brought by the Covid pandemic?
The strategy is still very much to grow the business. We are just having to be a bit more creative in the way we approach projects. Typically, with luxury developments, whether it is a lease or management contract the operator is usually expected to contribute financially; whether it is investment money, performance guarantee or a contribution to the fixtures, fittings and equipment, however many operators are now not in a position to do this, or at least not to the same degree. There is more understanding from investors for operators not to have to invest as heavily. We own a few properties; Brown’s Hotel in London, The Balmoral in Edinburgh, as well as Verdura Resort in Sicily but the strategy is very much to be asset light going forward. There is no shortage of opportunities which is hugely exciting!
All your properties had to shut down during the Covid lockdown – how did this impact the business?
Omicron impacted our Christmas trading. Obviously during Covid occupancies were lower yet there was a real desire for people to travel and spend money – so rates went up and there was very little resistance to this – people were coming and booking junior suites instead of standard rooms and upgrading their room categories. People wanted to spend and have a really good experience. What I think we will see this year is higher occupancy with the same level of spend so we are confident this is going to be a strong trading year for us.
How are you identifying new hotel opportunities and placements?
It is a two-pronged strategy. We have Italy where we have the most hotels and our brand is the most well recognised. The idea is to create an Italian circuit where someone could travel the breadth of the country and only stay in Rocco Forte properties. We are missing one or two city locations at the moment – namely Venice and Naples – and we also want a presence in more of the established luxury resort destinations such as Capri, the Amalfi Coast, and the Tuscan countryside. In Italy, we have the structure and brand power to also look at smaller tertiary destinations like Matera and Lecce. Then additionally, we are looking for other opportunities across Europe and beyond too.
Our work is carried out at a very granular level, so when unexpected situations arise we can plan and respond in an agile way; for example, because of Covid, many people want to stay in smaller hotels so this is where demand and focus currently sits.
Working within the family business must be very different to working for a large corporate enterprise? Tell us more.
I would find it very difficult to work in another environment now, everyone in the business has a clear role and my dad is very easy to work with.
There is more drive and passion when it’s your own business and your name is above the door- you have a vested interest in the business you are working for – it goes far beyond any professional ambitions.
My entire immediate family work in the business; myself, my two sisters, my father and my aunt.
Olga (Polizzi), my aunt, works on all the interiors of the properties, usually, when we open a new hotel she will partner with a local designer, so properties are influenced by the local area, and she will oversee all the design elements. For Villa Igiea we worked with Paolo Moschino who is also working with us on The Carlton Milan which is due to open in 2023. For Hotel de la Ville we collaborated with Tommaso Ziffer, whilst Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia she did herself.
Lydia, my eldest sister is Group Director of Food and Beverage, she oversees all operations for the restaurants and bars, as well as develops their concepts. Irene is our Wellness Consultant and directs all the spas – she also has her own skincare brand called Irene Forte Skincare, which is sold in the hotels. She has also just unveiled several windows at Liberty London and is killing it! We are in the process of launching Irene Forte Spas across 4 of our hotels (Hotel de la Ville, Villa Igiea, Verdura Resort and Masseria Torre Maizza), and the idea is to build out this brand within our company.
Please share your insights into luxury travel and hospital trends.
The definition of luxury has pivoted slightly in the hospitality industry and from what we are seeing, and from my own perspective, staying in a small hotel and being looked after better is preferential. In a sense, small hotels have benefited from Covid, I am not sure if it is long term, but it is certainly what is happening now.
That said, luxury is not a hugely innovative space and I don’t think the fundamentals of the industry have changed that dramatically. Things that were true 100 years ago are still true now – when people spend a lot of money they expect attention to detail, attentive service – luxury is about being recognised and going somewhere you feel you are wanted and welcome.
This trend of small hotels and bigger rooms is here to stay, we are focusing more on leisure now and for us that’s the way the brand needs to be perceived, we want to be more leisure orientated resorts, and design led city hotels.
The Carlton in Milan opening in 2023 – please tell us more.
The Carlton is in prime position in the centre of Milan, just off Via della Spiga the main shopping street. It will have 70 rooms, with interiors inspired by Milanese, 1950s to ‘80s design.
Common areas will present patterned floors with 1950s marble throughout; the bar will have a double height, glass boxed light well; the winter garden will be covered with lots of greenery, and the bar and restaurant will have a geometric patterned mural. The rooms will be traditional with geometric carpets, whilst also maintaining a contemporary lightness.
And what about Venice?
Venice is our number one priority in Italy because it would mean we have properties in the four major cities; Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice. We have looked at a few properties in Venice, but nothing yet has been confirmed – it’s about waiting until the right place comes up. Our business philosophy is about being very particular and location is very important, we are a family owned business so we can take things at the right pace. We don’t need to grow by a certain number of hotels each year or raise flags in multiple locations just for the sake of it.
Our USP is that we only do things we like and we try not to compromise. We have our name on our work so it must be absolutely right.
What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury to me is the idea of going somewhere and being recognised and feeling at home, and a sense of warmth. In terms of design it’s all about being understated – luxury isn’t flashy or gimmicky, I like things that are timeless. Attentive service, delicious food, and beautiful properties – luxury is all these things!
What’s your life motto?
I don’t think I have one, however, I’ve just turned 30 so I try not to look too much to the future and just enjoy the present.