As the man behind the eponymous Rocco Forte Collection of luxury hotels, this award-winning British hotelier is following in his father’s footsteps to deliver unparalleled hospitality to the world’s most discerning travelers. On the eve of his Middle Eastern debut, the world-famous Sir Rocco Forte opens up to Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata about a lavish life full of extraordinary highs and heart-stopping lows, yet ultimately, a life less ordinary.
With a family name and his father’s legacy to live up to, Sir Rocco Forte always knew he had to work hard. Yet when the family business, Trust House Forte, was taken over during a hostile take over, it soon became clear Sir Rocco would have to start again from scratch.
Luckily Forte is not a man who is easily daunted. In fact his demeanor is that of a man who usually gets what he wants. And sure enough, with hard work and an eye for opportunities, the charismatic entrepreneur bounced back his own brand in 1996, The Rocco Forte Collection. With 13 luxury hotels and four more in the pipeline, his new brand has already become known across the globe for both its originality and opulence.
Named Hotelier of the Year in 2009 by Hotels magazine, Forte is now a leader in hospitality. Having learned about the business from a young age, the importance of good service is ingrained in him and is reflected in every detail of his establishments. Today Forte is able to concentrate his efforts on a few extremely well executed hotels, where he is always personally involved; imparting his expertise and high standards into all his sumptuous properties.
After building a name for himself and a brand that is synonymous with quality and luxury, Forte was knighted by the Queen for his services to British tourism in 1994. And to this day he has not let up in his quest to be the best. As a part-time tri-athlete, competition is in his blood and, like a true sportsman, he knows that dedication is the key. Championships aren’t won overnight and though he may have won many races and established several luxury hotels across Europe, Forte is set on expanding and evolving. Thankfully the Middle East is the next region about to receive his Midas touch, with new hotels under development in Cairo, Marrakech, Abu Dhabi and Jeddah.
For an inside look into the mind and charm of the fascinating Forte, read on for our exclusive in depth interview below…
Tell me about your background and your early ambitions in the business.
I started at an early age because my father’s catering and hotel business FORTE, eventually became Trust House Forte after a merger. And it eventually became a huge organization, which employed 100,000 people. When I was growing up the merger had not yet happened and my father was running his own company; which had mostly restaurants, catering and things like that. We had the first motorway service catering and the first in-flight catering in the UK. We had a few hotels as well and from that we went on to restaurants and outdoor catering and contract catering. We then merged with the Trust House company, which had many hotels so we therefore became much more of a hotel company.
When did you join the company?
I was 15 at the time and I used to work in the business during my holidays. I was keen to work and get a little bit of pocket money from it; not very much but a bit! So I worked in every aspect of hotels and restaurants. My first job was at our Café Royale brand, a restaurant and banquet operator. I worked there for about three weeks and I was offered a job by one of our wine suppliers, who saw me running around and working hard; he offered me a lot more money than I was making! I tried to use that to persuade my father to give me more money but it didn’t work (he laughs). And so I carried on and during university holidays I still worked in various aspects of the business. Then after I finished Oxford I studied accountancy as a sort of business training rather than do an MBA. So I qualified as an accountant then went into the family business full time.
What made you do accountancy?
Accountancy made for the most boring years I’ve ever spent, but it was very useful. It made me very numerate and able to understand figures and balance sheets. Learning accountancy also puts you in a position where accountants can’t tell you what to do, which is quite useful. These days it’s got to a ridiculous point, where the accounts don’t bear any resemblance to what the business is about anymore. At the end of the day, the cash flows are the most important part of the business.
So then I gradually worked my way up in Trust House Forte (by then the merger had happened). When I first joined, I was in the internal management consultancy department, which gave me a pretty broad view of everything going on. And there was a hostile takeover being made for Trust House Forte in the early stages and I helped my father defend against it.
I had just joined the company in 1972, when my father merged with Trust House. Yet between Trust House and Forte, we had two completely conflicting philosophies of business, and in the end that didn’t work. There was a row and the Trust House faction engineered this bid, which my father thought he would lose. He thought they’d raise their bid and they’d get the company and he would end up with a lot of cash. But they didn’t, they withdrew and my father got control and went on to expand the business. It wasn’t until later on in the 90’s, that I eventually got control of the business when my father retired.
What was it like to work with a prominent father who had built this big business on his own?
I admired my father, he was very charismatic, charming and clever. So it was fine, it was only in the last few years that we had a few conflicts because I had my own views on how the business should go and he didn’t like change. He was quite old by then and that time of conflict was actually one of the most unpleasant times of my life. Our visions were not hugely different, but our company was in a number of different sectors within the hotel and catering world. We had in-flight catering, roadside catering, contract catering, restaurants, outdoor catering, and hotels (from budget to five star); a whole mixture. A lot of these businesses were good in their own right but they required capital to keep expanding. So at the end of the day, the hotel business in particular, which was the biggest, was starved of capital; making it difficult to compete with big international chains. That’s why we needed to change. I wanted to divest from the smaller bits and pieces we had and concentrate on the bigger ones. Yet my father would say, ‘no it’s fine, everything is making money we don’t need to change anything’. In some ways I understand his position, but the dynamics out there were different. The business had to change or eventually go under.
But at that time it wasn’t just a luxury brand, right?
Yes, that was another thing I had to sort out, because the hotels were being run on a regional basis, regardless of the types of hotels in each region. We had an Area Director looking after each region, from luxury to three stars hotels, and that didn’t work. So I divided our hotels into different brands, five star, four star, three star etc. That started to work and then we had the recession of the early 90’s and the hotel industry was very slow to recover. Nevertheless, 1995 and 1996 were record years, and at that time we got another takeover bid; which was very good timing. They ended up paying us a lot of money because we forced the price up. Yet it was a hostile takeover and the tragedy was that when they took over, they sold off all the different company brands for less than what they paid for them. So it was a totally useless exercise.
How difficult was it for you and your father to see the company that you had built being dismantled?
It was more difficult for my father, because he had already retired at that point. I had only been in the business for three years. Of course for him it was very sad to see it go, but he rather enjoyed the money; we all did (he laughs). And suddenly he had no debt!
As it was an unexpected takeover, how did that affect you?
It was hard, because the takeover wasn’t by an obvious buyer, it was a company called Granada that had just decided to go into hotels. They had done a series of takeovers and had gained momentum and a following in the City. People believed their Chairman could do anything, so their share price was supported by their major shareholders. And that’s why the bid was successful, because although there is always a lot of emotion and PR around bids, at the end of the day it boils down to the price. If it’s high enough and the company can’t justify that price for the foreseeable future, then the shareholders tend to sell. And immediately when Granada took over they wanted to cut costs. They said, “You don’t need a manager for every hotel, you can have one manger to look after three or four hotels.” They did the same with the other brands, so it all fell apart.
It must have been hard to lose this company that you were planning to build your career on?
It was difficult, all of my American friends told me you sold the business very well, but that wasn’t the point. The business had been part of my father’s life and my life and I always had a vision for it. So effectively it was like taking part of my life away from me. Initially during the take over, because no one thought Granada had any real capability to run hotels, it looked like the City would more or less force them to sell the four and five star hotels. So immediately I got busy raising money to make an offer to buy them. Unfortunately it took me longer than I would have liked. I did raise a billion in the City, yet by the time I made an offer they had changed their minds and decided they could run the hotels themselves. When that process failed, I lost my adrenaline to fight and got depressed. Then eventually I decided to start my new company, The Rocco Forte Collection.
At the beginning, there were a number of deals that fell through or got postponed and I thought I was never going to get going. And then the opportunity of the Barmoral hotel in Scotland came along. It was a hotel we had run under Forte for the Bank of Scotland, who had obtained it in receivership. We turned it round for them so they could sell it. So when the opportunity to buy it came up, I did and that’s how the company started to get momentum.
As soon as I had the ball rolling with the Balmoral, I had an income and I could start breathing. My father always said to me, “As soon as you buy a business, you can start signing checks.” I never quite understood what he meant by that, until I bought the Balmoral. And then we started to get busy.
When we started creating our brand, I didn’t have a clear vision about the décor side of my hotels. I just thought we would improve their look, spend money on them and run them better. Then my sister came on board and she had a clear understanding of what was happening in hotel design, as she had worked in our old company on that side. And she persuaded me to make my new hotels very design oriented. And now we have a very distinctive brand because of that. The whole design hotel concept had already started at that time, but the trouble was most ‘design hotels’ were run by people who didn’t understand hotel management and the hotels ended up very uncomfortable for the guests. But we knew how to make the hotels comfortable and ultra stylish at the same time.
Did you always envision The Rocco Forte Collection as a luxury brand ?
Yes, because in Europe there was no single hotel company in the luxury sector that had good representation across Europe, so there was an opportunity there. Even today we are one of the biggest luxury companies in Europe and we still have to get into Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, Milan and Moscow. These are all cities we should be represented in.
Is it true you wanted Europe to be your focus?
Yes, but I also don’t want to spread myself too thin at the start. I wanted to be close enough to the hotels so I could visit them regularly. We started as a small team and are still relatively small. So I didn’t want to be on six-hour and 10-hour flights all the time to oversee things. But now we’re at the point where we can expand further so when the opportunities came for the Middle East, I was able to take them. And I would like to be in New York as well.
Do you enjoy your work more now?
Yes because I’m more of a hotelier than I was before. In the old company, I was running a business rather than actually managing hotels. Today we are a small business, so it’s a combination of everything. I am involved from the beginning, the selection of a hotel site etc., all the to way to the end. And I’m much more hands on. I recently went to Beirut to look at an opportunity and interacted with the owners of the potential properties and they liked that. It’s very different for them, as they are dealing principal to principal rather than with a big organisation. Management contracts seem like a panacea for hoteliers; they get a fee to run a hotel without making an investment. But in reality if the hotel runs badly, the owner will always think it’s your fault, even if it isn’t. So you have to find hotels that will work, with good locations. And you have to find owners that have the same philosophy you do, because it’s a partnership at the end of the day.
So have you got into partnerships with your hotels?
I invested in Europe but for the Middle East hotels I’m involved in, I’m just managing them. Yet that is still a partnership because we have to work with the owner. And if you have the right understanding from the beginning it makes things easy afterwards. Generally in management contracts, if the hotel does well, the owner starts to think he doesn’t need you. And if it does badly, it’s your fault. So you never win (he laughs)!
Do any of the brands that were under Trust House Forte still exist or were they all sold off?
Some of them still exist in their own right. Before the takeover, I had bought Meridien from Air France for example and some of the hotels we had in the Middle East are still there. Forty Grand was our four star brand at the time, so when we bought Meridien, we converted them all to Meridiens (which are now part of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts). The Travel Lodge brand, which we also developed in the UK has also continued on its own. Through the old Forte Company, we also had some hotels in the Middle East; mostly Meridiens. In Dubai we had the airport hotel and the first beach hotel, which is still a Meridien. We also had a hotel in Bahrain and a Forte Grand in Abu Dhabi. In Egypt we had a Forte Grand at the pyramids, which is now the Meridien Sphinx. We even had a hotel in Amman. In fact John Lawless, who now runs Jumeirah, was our director for the Middle East.
So you had an association with the Middle East for many years?
Yes we did. Funnily enough, my father tried to negotiate managing the Shepheard hotel in Cairo and for some reason he didn’t do it. It was a different time then and things were more unsettled politically.
So who’s your secret connection in Egypt? How did you get the management for the Shepheard hotel?
We managed to weedle our way in there (he laughs). Ali Abdel Aziz, who used to run the Meridien Hotels in Egypt, is now the Chariman of HOTAC which owns the Shepheard, and he helped us out. He understands hotels and what different brands have to offer. People who don’t understand the hotel business look at bids purely from the financial viewpoint. Yet he understood what we could bring to the Shepheard.
Starting a new company and seeing your properties come to life, did the reality always match your vision?
Yes there’s a lot of satisfaction because you start with an idea and then suddenly you’re employing people and welcoming guests who like what you’re doing. When we opened the Hotel de Russie in Rome, we were surprised at how well it was received. We picked the right product at the right location at the right time. We were overwhelmed by the business that came in and weren’t even ready for it! I was tearing my hair out because we couldn’t look after customers the way we should have done. Obviously that was quickly sorted. But it was a very satisfying experience; that hotel didn’t exist in modern history until we came along and now its one of the best in Rome. We’ve also transformed Browns Hotel in London from a rundown hotel into one of the top hotels in the city.
Tell me more about your plans in the Middle East…
I had an idea of going into the Middle East in due course because there are a lot of opportunities in the region. There are a lot of new developments that don’t require finance that are looking for management and expertise. So it’s an obvious area for us to go to and it’s within relatively easy reach. Our opportunities there came by chance; they were all owners who stayed at our hotels and liked what we do and decided they’d like us to create the same feel in their properties. Abu Dhabi was the first one, then Jeddah then Marrakech and then came the opportunity in Cairo. In Cairo we were originally going in with Hisham Talaat; he contacted me for his (now) Kempinski hotel but we didn’t go ahead. Then he contacted me again for the Shepheard Hotel, because the government was offering a long lease and looking for an investor to do the refurbishment, and he was going to be the investor. When his world collapsed, the process went on without us. Yet through one of my well-connected friends, we managed to get back into the bidding process and we won.
Do you have any other dream locations in the Middle East?
Beirut may be a possibility if we decide to go ahead. Once we’re open in the region, we will probably start to have more opportunities. For example, if you’re in Jeddah you should be in Riyadh and so on. In Egypt, there’s also plenty we can do. So it’s hopefully the beginning of our Middle East story. And I’m pleased to return to my old stomping ground…
Tell me a bit about your competitive athletic side?
I’ve always done sport all my life. I was best at fencing in my youth but I stupidly gave it up. Then in the eighties I started running marathons. Then about 10 years ago, upon the suggestion of a friend I did my first half distance triathlon. After that, I went on to do full-length triathlons and then I qualified for the world championships (I’ve now done four of them). And I usually come in 11th out of over 100 competitors in my age group. I also did the Iron Man competition, which took almost 12 hours to complete and a lot of training