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Thursday 9th September, JW Marriott Grosvenor House
Sir Rocco Forte, chairman and ceo of The Rocco Forte Collection, explains how he selects new hotels to become part of his stylish and growing chain
When Sir Rocco Forte walks into a building, it takes him no more than a couple of minutes to know whether it can be successfully converted into a hotel.
Sir Rocco, son of Lord (Charles) Forte, a towering figure in the post-war British hotel and hospitality industry, has inspected hundreds of buildings while building up his own chain of five-star properties.
The first criterion is whether the hotel is in a location where Sir Rocco wants a hotel, usually major European cities but now expanding into countries further afield.
"I take a completely pragmatic approach. Buildings come up and we look at them. Take Brown's (in London's smart Mayfair district which joined The Rocco Forte Collection in 2003). We knew we could do something with this building. It was fairly straightforward.
"Often they are buildings which need converting. Not all buildings lend themselves to being hotels. It is different things with different buildings. But it is the feel, the atmosphere that the building creates that guides you."
"As I have looked at hundreds of buildings, I have got a bit of an instinct. But I will also get my sister (Olga Polizzi who oversees the design of the hotels)to look over it. If we both like it, we go ahead."
The Forte property in Rome is a classic example. The building was being used as offices when Sir Rocco first saw it. "We wanted a hotel in Rome as that would really put us on the map. I walked down the Via del Babuino (a fashionable street near the famous Spanish Steps).
"You then walked through this huge door which had been used for carriage and you were in this wonderful green expanse in the centre of Rome. It really knocked me over. It was offices but it had been a hotel before that.
"It was a sunny day which made me feel better. Others had looked at the building, some for longer than others. But I thought it was so magical. I couldn't resist it."
The 122-bedroom Hotel de Russie, designed by Tommaso Ziffer, opened as the fifth hotel in the Collection in April 2000. The others were the Balmoral, the first to open in 1998, followed by properties in Florence, St. Petersburg and Brussels.
Another building whose potential struck him almost immediately he saw it was the old Dresdner Bank headquarters in Bebelplatz, in Berlin, the square where Hitler's Nazis notoriously burned thousands of books in 1933.
The building was one of the few remaining after the city was largely flattened in the desperate fighting between the Russians and the Germans. When Sir Rocco saw it, there were still bullet holes in the building.
"It was a very imposing building but not so grand as to be overpowering. But I could see the potential, I could see where the rooms could be divided," he said.
The 146-bedroom Hotel de Rome, also designed by Mr Ziffer,opened in 2006.
The count now stands at 11 but two more are due to open in May. The first is a new departure, the chain's first resort hotel. The Verdura Golf and Spa Resort is on the southern coast of Sicily and will feature not just a 200-bedroom hotel but a golf club and two courses, a 4,000sqm spa, a conference centre for 250 delegates, restaurants and 50 luxury villa.
But if this is a new venture, the other property is very much a Rocco Forte development. This is the 101-bedroom Augustine, a converted monastery near Prague Castle. Seven monks will still live in one of the complex's seven buildings but the rest have been restored to feature cloistered terraces, wooden ceilings and frescoes.
"We both looked at this building," Sir Rocco said referring to the visit of himself and his sister, "and we both thought it was fantastic."
There have been missed opportunities. One building Sir Rocco rejected in Prague is now a successful hotel run by a rival chain. There has also been one mistake, the St David's Hotel and Spa which he built but found the market for five-star hotels in Cardiff was not enough to support it.
"I thought with independence a five-star market would develop but we could not get the business. We could not get the rates you needed for a five-star service.
"So I sold it. I hate selling anything. I understand how my father felt now. You feel something towards the people and the community and you feel like you are absconding," he said.
Even with 13 hotels, Sir Rocco, now 64, does not feel his Collection has reached a critical mass. Three more are in the pipe line in Abu Dhabi, Marrakech and Jeddah, all due to open in 2010 and he would still like properties in Paris, Milan, Amsterdam, Moscow and, perhaps most of all, New York.
But there was a hint that his strategy might change. In future, Sir Rocco thought he might be more involved not as an owner but as a hotel management company.
"More people are coming to us and saying ‘Would you help us run our hotel?' and we can do this and I think that is the future," he said.