From around the age of 14, Sir Rocco Forte would spend his school, and later his university, holidays working within his father’s Trusthouse Forte hotel business. He remembers the time he spent washing up in the hotel’s kitchens – an experience that allowed him first-hand insights into what takes place at the grassroots level to build a hotel empire. Working there at a young age also allowed him to witness his father’s commitment to building a hospitality business. All that came to bear when he established his own hospitality company alongside his sister Olga Polizzi.

“I decided to start a new business focusing on luxury hotels after Trusthouse Forte was sold. With a new company and limited capital, it was important to focus. Luxury hotels are the most interesting because they are the most complicated to run, and through service it is possible to compete with the big players as a niche operation. I felt there was an opening in the marketplace for hotels which had a strong personality and design element and were more customer-friendly than most luxury hotels which were rather pompous at the time. The other important aspect was a strong sense of place, which now 26 years later everyone is talking about but does not necessarily deliver,” Sir Rocco, the 79-year-old chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels, recently revealed to Business Traveller.

The first two Rocco Forte hotels to open, back in 1998, were The Balmoral in Edinburgh, and Hotel Savoy in Florence. Sir Rocco says that the fact that he was able to buy back The Balmoral which had previously been a part of the Trusthouse Forte portfolio gave him the confidence that he was on the right track to building a luxury hospitality brand of his own.

Brown’s Hotel in London (Image: Supplied by Rocco Forte Hotels)
Brown’s Hotel in London (Image: Supplied by Rocco Forte Hotels)

He has spent the better part of nearly three decades building a curated, hand-picked collection of grand properties around the world. “We currently have 14 hotels, resorts, residences and villas across Europe and are looking to expand further afield. In the UK, we have the landmark The Balmoral in Edinburgh and Brown’s Hotel, in London’s Mayfair. In Italy, Hotel de Russie and Hotel de la Ville, in addition to Rocco Forte House, are all in Rome. In Florence is the gem of Hotel Savoy on Piazza della Repubblica and in Puglia, on the heel of Italy, is the spectacular Masseria Torre Maizza.

“Having opened in 2021, the palatial Villa Igiea became our second property in Sicily. Verdura Resort, is on the south coast of the island, with the recently launched Forte Private Villas. In Germany, The Charles Hotel, named after my father, is near Munich’s Botanical Garden and Berlin’s Hotel de Rome sits by the Opera House in Mitte, whilst in Brussels, Hotel Amigo, is moments from the Grand Place,” he says.

With an underlying emphasis on driving a sense of place across each property, Rocco Forte Hotels has brought unique additions to each hotel. At the Brown’s Hotel in London, for example, it opened the Sir Paul Smith suite last year. Designed by Olga Polizzi along with Sir Paul Smith, it features elements including the British designer’s Signature Stripe, a curated selection of art and books, and a Mario Bellini leather desk chair too. Similarly, the brand’s Hotel Amigo in Brussels unveiled a Peter Lindbergh suite last year that featured some of the photographer’s famous pieces. Meanwhile, its Hotel Savoy in France, last year, temporarily hosted replicas of artist Antonio Signorini’s sculptures that guests could not only admire, but also purchase.

Rocco Forte Hotels has remained a family-driven business over the last few decades with the next generation of the Fortes bringing with them unique growth avenues. Irene Forte became the first of Sir Rocco’s children to enter the business in 2013 and eventually steered the company’s focus on a burgeoning sector within hospitality – wellness. Since 2018, not only has she acted as the group’s wellness director and consultant, but she also launched an organic skincare line with ingredients sourced from the gardens of the group’s Verdura Resort.

Among the first two properties to open under the Rocco Forte Hotels banner was The Balmoral in 1998 (Image: Supplied by Rocco Forte Hotels)
Among the first two properties to open under the Rocco Forte Hotels banner was The Balmoral in 1998 (Image: Supplied by Rocco Forte Hotels)

Lydia Forte, Irene’s sister, came into the business in 2014. As group director of food and beverage, Lydia is tasked with growing the culinary division of the business. “The restaurants and bars in each of our hotels represent an enormous part of each property,” says Sir Rocco Forte. “They are important because they have the ability to attract local customers which is what creates the atmosphere and enables them to become destinations in their own right. The Donovan Bar and Charlie’s restaurant at Brown’s in London, the Stravinsky Bar and Le Jardin Restaurant at Hotel de Russie in Rome, and the rooftop terrace at Hotel de La Ville also in Rome are all icons within their cities and bring guests back time and time again.

“We are constantly looking at opportunities for our restaurants and bars. At Hotel Amigo, the Bar Magritte opened in November to huge acclaim, and we are currently looking at a range of restaurant pop-ups at Verdura Resort for the summer. In Munich at The Charles, a world-famous Japanese restaurant will be taking over for a period.”

Sir Rocco’s youngest son, Charles, joined the group in 2017 and is the director of development. He plays a pivotal role in identifying new geographies for the group to expand. One of his passion projects is Rocco Forte Houses, the brand’s first fully-serviced private units, which it launched in 2019, on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. “We have had great success with Rocco Forte House in Rome, our apartment-style residences that provide an excellent central location offering all of the amenities of the nearby Hotel de la Ville. Following this model, we will be opening Rocco Forte House in Milan in the summer, anticipating the launch of The Carlton, Milan in 2025. My sister Olga, who runs our design team, is working closely on the design with Paolo Moschino who we have worked with before on Villa Igiea, the 19th-century palazzo in Palermo,” says Sir Rocco.

The Julep Print room at Hotel de la Ville in Rome (Image: Supplied by Rocco Forte Hotels)
The Julep Print room at Hotel de la Ville in Rome (Image: Supplied by Rocco Forte Hotels)

The business has further expanded its real estate offering, specifically with the Rocco Forte Private Villas which are available for sale at prices starting from €2.95 million all the way up to €10 million. “This year we have launched phase two of Rocco Forte Private Villas at Verdura Resort. Launching the first phase in 2021, with 20 beautiful villas on the grounds of Verdura Resort, we are currently in the process of building 20 more villas, which will be put on the market for clients to purchase. They are quite spectacular villas, spanning up to 765 sq ft with views either to the Mediterranean Sea, or to the rolling Sicilian hills behind, beautifully landscaped and well-formed for families or groups of friends. Residents of the Villas can access all the amenities of Verdura Resort including two Kyle Phillips championship golf courses, six restaurants by chef and creative director of food for Rocco Forte Hotels, Fulvio Pierangelini, numerous tennis and padel courts, water sports activities, kids’ clubs, infinity pools, and an award-winning spa.”

One of the biggest developments for Rocco Forte Hotels came in December last year when it confirmed that Saudi Arabia’s powerful sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – had agreed to buy a 49 per cent stake in Rocco Forte Hotels in a move that would see Italian company CDPE selling its stake. The Forte family added that it would retain majority control and ownership, with Sir Rocco remaining as executive chairman and Olga as deputy chairman.

“PIF will be minority shareholders and the company will remain family-run, as it has always been. Our last partnership with CDPE worked extremely well and enhanced our development in Italy over the eight years we worked together so we were looking for a partner which was more global. PIF came along with an excellent proposal, they value and respect our company and expertise and share the same values and vision for the future so we are extremely lucky to be able to partner with them. PIF has a long-term vision and will be very helpful in developing the company further,” adds Sir Rocco.

The entry of PIF into Rocco Forte Hotels has led to speculation about whether the Middle East is next for the hospitality group to extend its reach. To this, he says, that the Middle East has always been a huge source of luxury travellers and represents a significant proportion of guests at Rocco Forte Hotels which are priced at the higher end of the luxury hotel spectrum. “It is important for us to have hotels in the [Middle East] region, as it increases our exposure in the area. Currently, we are looking at projects in the UAE and hopefully will be able to announce a deal in the near future. I also look forward to visiting Saudi again in the next months to see what properties are on offer.”

Rocco Forte Hotels has had its share of challenges – he has previously been vocal about the heavy impact that Covid and the resulting lockdowns and restrictions on travel, for example, have had on the business. However, he has outlined that some of the challenges arising out of globalisation, have in fact led to Rocco Forte Hotels gaining a competitive advantage. “The luxury hospitality industry has seen such a high number of mergers over the years, increasing globalisation and in many cases creating huge luxury hotel companies that are unable to offer guests anything unique or individual. It is because of the very large companies that we stand out and are even more in demand. Our hotels have personalities and a true sense of place, they are individual. We can train each member of staff more easily and curate our guest stays depending on their needs. You walk into one of our hotels and you feel a warmth of welcome which is not necessarily common to other large hotel groups; the family are present and this makes the difference.”

With the recent backing of PIF, Rocco Forte Hotels is poised to grow even further. Sir Rocco says that these growth regions could include the GCC, the main cities and holiday destinations of Europe, and the East Coast of the US. “Our new confirmed ventures are in Milan where we have Rocco Forte House opening this year and The Carlton Milano planned for 2025. We have also signed a contract to operate a new luxury resort in Sardinia’s Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda, that will open as a Rocco Forte hotel in 2025.” The coming decade could well be the one where the Forte family truly take their hotel business global.