While many hoteliers view expansion as the ultimate goal, Rocco Forte has gone in the opposite direction by keeping things small. Having once overseen more than 800 hotels and 1,000 restaurants under his family's company Forte PLC, Forte now has a dozen luxury hotels under the Rocco Forte Hotels umbrella across Europe and one in Abu Dhabi. Earlier this month at the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) conference in Cannes, France, Forte spoke with hotels editor Danny King about the ever-shifting global luxury hotel industry
. Q: What do you get out of conferences like ILTM?
We actually missed it one year, and it was a mistake. Travel agents are coming from all over the world. You've got Eastern European countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which was unheard of two or three years ago. One of the emerging markets in a big way is South America, mainly Brazil. That inbound business has grown by 25% during the past three years. Q:You're in the process of getting Egypt's Luxor Hotel upgraded, but there's been a lot of civil unrest there. What's been done to that property?
Nothing very much [laughs]. You have the two hotels: the Shepheard and the Luxor, which both belong to the government. Our contract on the Shepheard said the hotel would finish its refurbishment by the end of December 2010, and we're at the end of 2012. Everything's been upside-down. Things were beginning to settle until [Egypt President Mohamed] Morsi suddenly said he was a dictator, and that put the whole thing up in the air again. But they're intent on getting the hotel closed and starting the refurbishment maybe within the next couple of months. Q: Do you have plans to enter the U.S.?
I do want to get into New York and maybe Washington. It's sort of a strange market, because the new reality hasn't really settled in. American banks are in better shape than European banks, but most banks are still undercapitalized. The government says they're not lending enough but at the same time is saying they've got to increase their capital ratios. The two things don't go together. Q: Your focus has been on Europe and the Middle East, two regions where things are less than stable. What's your opinion on the regions' prospects?
Take Lebanon, for instance. If you had a property in Beirut, it was full. Then the Syrian war starts, and they're all empty. In Egypt, the revolution there put the country back a long way. I think you've seen just the beginning of the problems in that part of the world.
And then the whole eurozone thing hasn't been put to bed. Now they're talking about the eurozone countries effectively having one government and one taxation system. I don't believe that will happen. I don't think the German taxpayers are going to agree to pay for some of the problems in Southern Europe. Q: Conde Nast International President and ILTM keynote speaker Nicholas Coleridge listed personal butlers among his pet peeves in luxury hotels. What are your thoughts of his assessments?
I agree 100% with what he was saying, which was two things: that he doesn't like robotic service, with people following a checklist. And secondly, he doesn't like attentiveness to the degree that it becomes intrusive.
You've got to anticipate what the customer wants, but you mustn't overburden him. That's what we try to do. There are a lot of luxury hotels with staff that look down their noses at the customer. You have to have staff that's friendlier, more relaxed but still professional [when] interacting with the customer according to his needs. Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.