British billionaire Rocco Forte shapes a chain of high-end luxury properties.

The 66-year-old chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels literally grew up in the hotel industry. His father, Lord Charles Forte, was the brains behind Trustehouse Forte, founding the company in 1934 and eventually growing it to an empire of 800 hotels and 1,000 restaurants around the world, which once included Toronto’s famed King Edward Hotel.

After working with his father during school holidays and “dying to get into the business,” the younger Forte joined Trusthouse in 1969, becoming its CEO in 1983 and chairman in 1992. But after expanding the overseas operation of the company, acquiring Meridien Hotel Group from Air France, and running such iconic properties as the Hotel George V in Paris, the Ritz in Madrid and the Plaza Athenée in New York, Forte PLC was sold in 1996, following a hostile takeover bid.

A year later, however, Forte cemented his legacy, by starting an eponymous chain of luxury hotels. “There was not a pure luxury chain in European cities … that was the opportunity,” recalls Forte, during a recent trip to Toronto to meet with travel agents. Together with his sister, designer Olga Polizzi, he decided to remedy that deficiency.

Though each property is distinctly unique, all share a common theme: they occupy magnificent buildings in great locations that feature key destinations such as Edinburgh, Brussels, Florence, Rome, London, Munich, Frankfurt, Manchester, Berlin, Prague, St. Petersburg and Geneva. Last year, the company launched Verdura, a mixed-use development and its first golf and spa resort in Sicily. Set over 230 hectares of stunning landscape, the 203-room resort offers discrete exclusivity.

With 13 units currently spread across Europe, including the popular Hotel Russie in Rome, the Hotel Astoria in St.Petersburg and Le Richemond in Geneva, Forte says he strives to make his hotels number 1 in RevPAR wherever they operate. “We want to have the highest rate possible,” he quips.

When asked what makes his company successful, he cites two factors. “Luxury is about service and people.” And, though the luxury segment has gone through a tumultuous time since the recession, he remains upbeat. “After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, we dropped about 40 per cent in sales in the first two months and then settled down at about a 20-per-cent decline from the previous year. There was a stigma around luxury. But we’ve seen a 12.5-per-cent increase year-over-year.” In fact, he’s quick to point out the segment has rebounded faster than most others. We’ve seen American business grow by 28 per cent and Canadian business is up by 32 per cent. I’m one of the few hotels that like paying commissions to travel agents,” he says.

Now that the segment is back on track, Forte, who was knighted in 1994 for services to the U.K. tourism industry, can focus on growing the company. His goal is to reach 30 hotels within the next several years. “That will keep me busy for the next six to seven years,” he laughs, “and then we’ll see how much energy I have left. There are a lot of cities in Europe I’m not in, including Venice, Moscow and Amsterdam,” he adds. His sights are currently set on the Middle East, with a new 270-room hotel slated to open in Abu Dhabi this coming October and another planned for Jeddah in 2013. As for future development, would he ever consider opening a Rocco Forte hotel in Canada? “Some day I’d like to have a property in New York; that would be the first step,” he explains. “From there, we’ll see.”


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