Editor’s Note: This interview is part of Skift’s CEO interview series. This particular series is with hospitality CEOs talking about the Future of the Guest Experience and the evolving expectations and demands of hotel guests. Check out all the interviews as they come out here. Also, enjoy the previous series on the Future of Travel Booking, with online travel CEOs.
Rocco Forte Hotels operates ten hotels in Europe that help define the luxury hotel experience in their markets with properties emblematic of their cities’ modern history.
The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh and Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt, for example, are two restored heritage buildings dating back to the early 20th century that cap the high-end scale of hotel accommodations in each destination.
At the same time, Sir Rocco Forte and his sister Olga Polizzi, who founded the company together in 1996, have an unerring eye for up-to-date interior design that is both modern and approachable, which differentiates their product from many other legacy hotels on the continent.
Talking with Sir Rocco, you quickly become aware that this is a man who steadfastly believes in traditional notions of luxury hospitality. While everyone else is talking about the evolution of luxury travel, Millennial travel behaviors, and the integration of technology at every touch point, Sir Rocco is not entirely impressed.
That classic philosophy of hospitality works in today’s tourism marketplace if your hotels are one-of-a-kind within their local cultural context, they provide a level of deft service requiring a staff count above market norms, and their design is attuned to modern tastes. Since Rocco Hotels’ properties fit within that criteria, the brand offers a luxury hotel experience without feeling like an anachronism from another era.
In the lobby of The Balmoral, for example, it’s not unusual to see three generations of men wearing kilts while the ladies of the family tilt over in laughter. At Villa Kennedy, the JFK Bar is one of the hippest local bars in Frankfurt. That energetic, fresh and unstuffy vibe is a primary reason why the hotel group has capitalized on the multi-generational family travel trend so well.
This year, Rocco Forte Hotels announced a new partnership with the Italian State-backed sovereign fund Fondo Strategico Italiano Spa (FSI), 20% controlled by the Bank of Italy. The collaboration will develop new luxury hotels throughout Italy, with a development pipeline scheduled to double the size of Rocco Forte in the next five years. The company is also planning to expand in North and South America, and potentially elsewhere.
Following is our interview with Sir Rocco, who shared with us his priorities, and concerns, for the luxury hotel guest experience of today.
Skift: What are the biggest challenges you’re facing to improve the overall guest experience looking into the future?
Sir Rocco Forte: The biggest change is probably that the world has become more competitive, and there are a lot of people out there doing a reasonably good job. Therefore, to stand out, you’ve got to be exceptional in what you do. I think that in many hotels you go to, you find an unnatural or programmed interaction with the guest, where the guests are always asked the same questions by different members of the staff within a few minutes of each other.
I think one of my challenges is how can I improve the interaction between my staff and the customer to make the customer experience a more pleasant one. The interaction between people is a skill, where when you’re sitting next to someone you can actually strike up a conversation. For lots of members of hotel staff, that is a difficult thing to do, and therefore, we’re trying to develop programs which enable our staff to do it better.
There’s a psychology to it, and you can’t treat every individual guest like the previous one. A lot depends on their state of mind, a lot depends on if someone has had a difficult journey, whether they’re happy and relaxed, and so on. Your interaction with a guest has got to change accordingly, and so that’s something that we’re trying to develop more.
Skift: How is your staff hiring and training procedures evolving to accomplish that?
Forte: We’re working with a number of people outside hospitality to help us develop our own training program, people who don’t necessarily work with hotel companies. They’re also dealing with people’s everyday lives, whether that relates to money, or marriage and relationships, or related to work, and helping people to manage those. A lot of that can be applied to the interaction between the customer and the staff.
People who work in the industry have to enjoy what they’re doing, and if they don’t, then they’re never going to be very successful, and they’re never going to deal with the guest in the correct way. So obviously in recruiting staff, particularly, you are looking for people who are personable, who are outgoing and enjoy interacting with guests, versus introverts and people who find it awkward and difficult to communicate.
To some degree, everyone says that. The issue with hotels very often, is if it’s a busy hotel, there’s a lot of pressure all of the time on the management team. And when someone leaves, there’s a tendency to take the first person who comes along. That’s something we try to avoid as much as possible.
Skift: Your hotels help define their cities in an era when everyone is talking about local and authentic travel. How do your physical properties define the guest experience?
Forte: One way is that each hotel has its own personality. It’s not an amorphous chain hotel, which is saying wherever you go it’s genuinely authentic to the city it’s in. Now everyone is talking about a sense of place, but we were the first people to really start doing it when we started out, and even today, a lot of people who talk about it don’t actually deliver it.
In dealing with that, and creating it, the staff has to feel that themselves. So in our induction programs that we have, we teach them about the whole history of the hotel, what makes it different, what makes it special, and we teach them about the city that the hotel finds itself in. We actually take them out into the city to show them what the places of interest are, and so on. So when they’re communicating with customers, they can talk knowledgeably about the destination. The idea is to create that sense of belonging to something that has been around for a long time, and perhaps something more than their usual place of activity.
Skift: Does the fact that Rocco Forte Hotels is a family business impact the guest experience significantly?
Forte: Yes, certainly. My sister and I started this business, and now my daughter is working in it, so there’s a strong sense of the Forte family running through the business. We’re in the hotels on a regular basis. All of the staff knows us, and we know many of the individual members of the staff. Therefore, they hear directly from us and what our philosophy is, and where we’re trying to take the company.
Skift: Who is the Rocco Forte guest?
Forte: Well, there’s really no stereotype. It is the top end of the market traveler, but it depends on the location. Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt is very much a business destination, so most of the people traveling to the hotel are corporate. If you talk to travel agents, however, they will say I wouldn’t send someone who I would send to a Four Seasons to one of your hotels, and vice versa. I don’t think you can really generalize. There’s such a variety, ranging from pop stars to university professors to concert pianists. There’s a huge variety, and a huge variety of age too, actually.
If you try to be specific to one group, then you’re cutting out a lot of your potential market. We do have a very strong children’s policy in our hotels, which is driven from the center of the company, although it’s adapted for each hotel to suit the occasion. Our hotels are known for that.
Skift: Do you have any internal conversations about adapting to Millennial travel trends?
Forte: One trend which has developed significantly is multi-generational family travel, as I mentioned. More families of three generations will travel for a specific celebration and stay in a hotel together, so the experience is a little different than what the average guest is looking for.
But luxury hotels is about delivering bespoke service. You’re not going into a supermarket, you’re not buying clothes off the peg. You’re having it tailor-made for you. That’s what a luxury hotel is about, and you should be able to adapt for every different client that comes through the door, including different ages and nationalities also, where there are different subtleties to be observed.
Skift: How is technology evolving at Rocco Forte Hotels in terms of the guest experience?
Forte: I think it’s always evolving but in terms of the guest experience, if anything, I think it may have actually worsened the guest experience in some ways. In a sense, it actually interferes with the relationship between the staff and guest. In the old days in the restaurant, you had a cashier who did everything by hand. Today, half of the time the waiter is on a computerized till. Same with reception. It always takes two, three or four minutes to check in while they’re fiddling around with their computer.
So from that point of view, it’s not necessarily improved the guest experience. Once upon a time, people used to pay by check, and you used to trust them that the check was good when they paid at the end of their stay. Today, you have to swipe a card as soon as the customer comes into the hotel. So technology in some ways goes against the delivery of luxury service.
Skift. What about technology in the back end? Or upgrading in-room amenities to stay on par with other luxury hotel product?
Forte: Obviously technology has helped to address things like staffing levels because of the cost of employment. It’s much higher today than it was some time ago. And everyone wants to have the technology they have in their homes, so you have to keep up with that all the time.
But I think the biggest effect that technology has is on the way that people book hotels. With online travel agents, they’ve cornered the market so they can demand higher commissions, and that’s one of the biggest issues in the industry today. We also spend a lot of time on social media, but in the short term, whether it’s actually bringing in much business is another matter.
Things like TripAdvisor, that also becomes slightly artificial because you can manage your TripAdvisor, and if you’re encouraging your guests to leave positive reviews, then you’re actually encroaching on the privacy of your guests.
Skift: Does the fact that your hotels are such individual experiences help drive more direct bookings?
Forte: A large percentage of our guests book directly with the hotels, or if it’s a travel agent booking on their behalf, they will book directly with the hotels. Particularly agents from the United States, which has a fantastic travel agent network. They’re the top end in the market, and they have a huge knowledge of the destinations that they’re sending their customers to, which they can recommend themselves. They’ve met the general managers and the sales and marketing executives, and therefore can almost guarantee to their customers that they will have special treatment when they visit a particular hotel.
So travel agents play a very important role in long haul travel, and I really like them, and I love to pay commission to them because they deserve it. They are providing a special service. That is different from the online travel agent who is advertising in muscle to get people through their site, and they’re giving the impression that it’s cheaper when you book through them, which isn’t the case.
Skift: Can you tell us something about your expansion plans with FSI?
Forte: We’re now in a position to look forward on a very proactive basis. I’d like to see my company be the first port-of-call for anybody wanting to go to Italy at the luxury level, where we will provide coverage across the whole country. We have hotels in Rome, Florence and Sicily, but I want to be in a lot of the other major cities. Once we’ve got that, we’ll look at some of the smaller cities and look at what type of product we can manage, because a lot of these cultural cities don’t have good accommodations.
At the same time I want to start looking further afield. I’d really like to get into New York, I think that’s very important for us. We haven’t got a hotel in North America, and 28% of our customers across the group come from the United States, and therefore it would be good for us to have an example of what we do on the other side of the Atlantic. We would also look at moving down to Miami, and then look at Sao Paulo and Mexico City. Within Europe, I’m not in Paris, and I think it makes sense to have a hotel in Moscow as well.
We’re going to be taking this very seriously and you will be hearing from us over the next 12 months. We have a very strong balance sheet and we’re going to be around for a very long time. I’m not talking about a large pipeline, but maybe we get to the point of having 20 or 30 hotels. That’s a nice range where the ethos of the company wouldn’t have to change, and our family could continue to have a direct impact on the individual hotels and the individual guest experience.
Greg Oates covers tourism and hospitality development. Email him at email@example.com.