The news that Rocco Forte Hotels is expanding further into Italy this year brought to mind a recent conversation at my book group.
We were discussing our upcoming European summer travel plans, and there was a lot of talk about such trendy destinations as Estonia, Slovenia and Romania from this well-traveled group. Finally, one member chimed in somewhat sheepishly with the news that she was going to Italy "again."
"I can't help it," she said. "There isn't anywhere in Italy I don't like."
With all the emphasis placed on so-called emerging tourist destinations in Eastern Europe, it's tempting to think of Italy as old hat, but in fact, according to statistics, the country is still very much a fan favorite.
Last year the World Tourism Organization's 2018 Tourism Highlights survey ranked the destination fifth in international arrivals in 2017 with 58 million visitors, an 11% increase from the previous year.
None of this is lost on Rocco Forte Hotels, which in 2019 is opening three hotels in Puglia and Rome, bringing its Italy portfolio to six.
"When it comes to the luxury hotel sector, there is really not a lot in Italy, so there is an opportunity to create a chain across the country," said company founder and namesake Rocco Forte, adding that despite high room rates, occupancy remains strong and steady.
All of the company's Italy properties are landmark buildings that were previously hotels or converted structures, with the exception of the Verdura Resort, a newbuild golf resort in Sicily, he said.
When renovating properties, especially when dealing with historic buildings, Forte stressed the importance of making accommodations to the modern world, but doing so with a light touch.
"Technology is evolving at an incredible pace [but] providing consistent, high-quality, personalized customer service is absolutely key, and that should never be overshadowed or replaced by the emergence of new trends or technological developments."
This doesn't mean the company is indifferent to trends, however, and Forte cited those he anticipates will continue to grow.
"Trends we expect to see in the luxury hotel market are the rise of multigenerational travel, educational travel, wellness breaks and travelers seeking heritage and simplicity," he said, noting that each of these segments presents challenges in terms of amenities and service, especially at the luxury level, where guests have high expectations.
Travel advisors from the U.S. play a key role in matching clients with the right destination and property, Forte said, especially those who have met the hotel general managers and the sales and marketing executives.
The three new properties in Italy are the 40-room Masseria Torre Maizza, a 16th-century farmhouse in Puglia that will reopen as a Rocco Forte hotel in May after an extensive renovation; the 104-room Hotel de la Ville in Rome, located at the top of the Spanish Steps and also opening in May; and the five-suite Rocco Forte House, a converted 18th-century palazzo adjacent to the Spanish Steps, set to open in late 2019.
Like many of the company's other properties, the Hotel de la Ville is a member of Virtuoso.
Looking ahead, Forte is bullish about the enduring popularity of his favorite destination.
"With the openings in Puglia, Rome and Sicily, we're now in a position to look forward on a very proactive basis," he said, with a goal to "provide coverage across the whole country."
"And, of course, I have my Italian origins," he said. "Americans love Italy and come back year after year."