ArnieWeissmannRocco Forte was in New York to promote two additions to his eponymous luxury hotel chain. The 15th property of the Rocco Forte Collection, scheduled to open this spring, will be the Augustine, housed in a meticulously restored 13th century monastery in central Prague. (Actually, only part of the property will be available to guests. Seven monks still reside there; presumably their vows of poverty require that they live in a hermetically sealed wing.)

A few weeks later, Sir Rocco will open Verdura, a golf and spa resort in Sicily that he claims will have the two finest courses along the Mediterranean.

I had wanted to meet Rocco Forte for quite some time. Like the Marriotts in the U.S., the Fortes in the U.K. started with roadside eateries 70-plus years ago and ultimately built hotel empires.

But the Fortes lost control of their group (Travelodge, Posthouse, Forte Grand and Crest) in the mid-1990s, and Sir Rocco started again from scratch.

I wanted to speak with him now in part because he has observed many economic cycles and in part because he's in the most challenged of sectors: luxury. We had breakfast last week, and he lived up to his reputation for candor. In his own words:

"It's not the best time to open a hotel. This past January, we were down 17% from last year, and it looks like it will be about the same in February, but our forecasts for March and April are showing only a 3% drop. We need to remember that we're in low season. About three or four years ago, things were frothy all year round. What we're experiencing now is a return to the way it used to be.

"When times are good, everyone's a genius, but now we're back to a situation where you have to think hard about how to get your market share. We're increasing our sales presence in the U.S. It's our most important market, and it's easier to get business out of a market where you're known than, say, China.

"Whilst obviously we look at our costs, you have to be careful: People tend to panic and slash willy-nilly. But with a luxury property, your product is your service. My approach now is to say, 'Let's look at how we can be a bit more clever about how we do things.'

"Banks are very big customers. We did a lot of business with Lehman, Merrill Lynch, quite a few of the casualties. But the survivors -- J.P. Morgan, Goldman -- still need to travel. We're a bit more flexible on rate, but not too much. We deliver a high level of service, and we can't deliver it to people who aren't willing to pay for it.

"We had a situation where we were bidding for business in Frankfurt. We didn't get it; it went to a four-star hotel in Sweden. Our prices were no different. It's too bad. People forget that good service is more efficient.

"I understand that if you're a bank that's just been taken over by the government, you've got to show a bit of restraint. Recently, a bank booked a conference in one of our hotels. They didn't cancel, but they all came in the back door. That was disgraceful. Either you say you're holding the meeting where you want, with the courage of your convictions, or you don't hold it at all.

"After every recession, things return to normal. There were excesses that led to this recession, and those excesses won't return. That's not a bad thing."

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].


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