Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Rocco Forte knows something about scale. A quarter-century ago, he was chairman of the Forte Group, then the largest hotel company in the world.

But last week he used the current holder of the "world's largest" title to contrast (and understate) the size of his present-day, eponymous brand.

"Marriott-Starwood has eight luxury brands -- almost as many as I have hotels," he said. (There are actually 11 properties open and flying the Rocco Forte Hotels flag.)

Forte is at a stage in life where his experience leads him to set what appears to be a modest goal: To triple his current number of hotels, and then ... stop.

"We're a niche player but a bit too small to be effective in today's market," he said. "In the next five years, I'd like to see a big pipeline, with 30 hotels open or on the way. That's our ambition. We don't want to get too big, or we'll lose our ethos."

Forte is one of my favorite hoteliers to interview. He's candid, self-aware, funny. He's down to earth but with a taste and preference for the finer things in life.

"We invented 'sense of place,'" he asserted as we spoke last week in the dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown. "Everyone talks about it, but they don't necessarily do it."

The example he gave of "sense of place" ---- or lack of thereof -- was revealing for its level of detail.

"I was in London at a small, private dinner in a five-star hotel," he recounted. The server set the main course in front of him and uttered, to his horror, a most un-British command before leaving. "'Enjoy!' she said." As he told me this, Forte shuddered involuntarily. "Trained by an American company. 'Enjoy!' Terrifying."

His focus on the ethos that shapes the environment and experience at a Rocco Forte Hotel often leads him to dismiss common wisdom about what else is important.

Loyalty programs?

"We don't have a loyalty program, or plan to develop one," he said. "You make a product that people want to use, and it's special and different. That's why they come back."

Loyalty programs are bait to lure corporate travelers -- "who pay the lowest rate and who have a corporate contract, so they're going to use your hotel anyway" -- and then reward them with complimentary stays at the most expensive hotels during prime time. "Not a clever system," he concluded.

"If you're going to be a niche player, play a niche card," he said. "Being a group that can deliver disparate hotel experiences differentiates you from major groups. That's something you want to play with."

Rocco Forte Hotels is private, with his family holding the controlling interest, and the corporate ethos is very much a reflection of Forte himself. What he describes as the essence of Rocco Forte Hotels sounds uncomplicated but, like a sense of place, is perhaps easier to talk about than execute.

"I want to go into a hotel and be recognized and remembered and to feel welcome and feel special," he said. "That's the most important thing to me."

To accomplish this requires a staff that is warm and friendly, which also "makes up for the shortfalls on those rare occasions [when things go wrong]," he said.

To get to 30 hotels, Forte is investing heavily in a development team that includes his son, Charles. Manhattan, particularly within a half-mile of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, is an attractive area for a hotel, but has proven elusive.

The first U.S. property could end up being in Miami, Washington, Boston or Los Angeles, Charles said.

Three of his hotels are currently in Italy, a market Forte views as underserved by luxury properties.

"I would love to see a group of hotels across that country," he said. "No matter where you went, you could stay with us."

Branding is also on his mind.

"We want the Rocco Forte name [to be prominent]. We currently have a lot of individual hotels that are well known -- Brown's [London], Savoy [Florence] -- but Rocco Forte Hotels isn't."

Despite the lack of hotels in the U.S., he's proud that 30% of his guests are Americans. He attributes that to U.S. travel advisers.

"I have great fondness for the travel trade in the States," he said. "They are extremely professional. They know the destinations. They know my hotels better than I do and give great customer service. I'm quite happy to pay commissions."

In fact, one reason his grown children were accompanying him to New York and then Los Angeles is because he wants agents to get to know them, and vice versa.

I had the chance to speak with each of the children, and they appeared to have inherited his upscale/down-to-earth personality.

His youngest daughter, Irene, developed a hotel training app, and her brother and sister are also tech savvy.

Nonetheless, they retain some of their father's traditional outlook and disdain for modernisms. I asked his daughter Lydia if she could envision Forte hotels participating in the "transformational travel" trend.

She hadn't heard of it, so I explained.

"You mean, every time you stay in a hotel it changes your life?" She rolled her eyes. "How exhausting!"

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