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What I've learnt: hotelier Sir Rocco Forte

Sir Rocco Forte, 69, founder of the Rocco Forte Collection of luxury hotels, talks paternal inspiration and re-examining your brand
Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte
Leonie Morse

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I felt we needed to examine what we are doing 17 years on from when the business started

Sir Rocco Forte, 69, has spent his life in the hotel and catering industry. His father, Charles Forte, founded the company that would one day become the huge Trusthouse Forte conglomerate, and Sir Rocco became its CEO in 1982. He left Trusthouse in 1996 following a hostile takeover by Granada and subsequently founded the Rocco Forte Collection of luxury hotels. Its portfolio currently numbers 11 properties around the world, including Brown's Hotel in London's Mayfair.

I learnt a lot about business from my father. I worked very closely with him for many years. He was someone who was very decisive: if you went to him with a problem, you usually came away with a solution. He was also a great motivator of people. And he was extremely moral in his approach to business and put a lot of emphasis on how you dealt with your staff, your suppliers and your customers. I think I've inherited all that.   

From the age of 14 or 15 I had holiday jobs where I'd be working in different parts of the business. My first job was in the Café Royal cellars, shifting crates. Later I worked on the hamburger counter in a place called the Friar Tuck in Coventry Street. You get a sense of how hard some of the jobs are that people do. Being a chambermaid, for example, is a tough job, because it's actually quite physical. I worked in the wash-up for two weeks and now I understand what a terrible job that is. So I always make a point when I go into kitchens of talking to the people who wash up because they're often considered the lowest of the low by other members of the staff. And yet they do a very important job at the end of the day.

After university I did chartered accountancy. I was articled for three years then qualified as an accountant, which was probably the most boring period of my life. It was quite salutary, because you come out of Oxford thinking you're a god and can conquer the world and then suddenly you're doing someone's tax return for them. It brings you rather sharply down to earth. 

I started working for my father and had a stint running a 40-bedroom hotel in the south of France. It was the first time I'd had that kind of responsibility. The only year it made a profit was the one I was there. I think I brought a bit of flair, imagination  and drive to the job. And I didn't sleep very much. I'd get there at eight o'clock in the morning and leave about midnight or one o'clock at night and then go and have some fun, so I was averaging about four hours sleep a night.

When I started on my own in 1996, my idea was to create a luxury hotel group in Europe. I think you've either got to be at the bottom or at the top — I don't really like the stuff in the middle. You either sell on price at the bottom or you sell the highest level of service.

When the financial crisis came, we had quite a tough time. Initially, after the Lehman Brothers collapse, our sales dropped by 40 per cent year-on-year. That's disaster territory, because hotels are highly geared operations. And of course we had a lot of debt as well. But after a couple of months, sales settled at 20 per cent down. At the end of last year I decided to visit all our hotels on my own without the executive team. I spent two days in each just following my own agenda. And I learnt quite a lot. Because of the crisis, there had been a reduction in operating costs and in some hotels this was affecting the service. So as a result of my visits I put one and a half million pounds back into extra people in the hotels.

We've revamped all our service standards in detail. You have to look at each individual aspect of the service and how you deliver it, how you talk to the customer. At too many hotels you find the staff asking the same questions all the time, even when they're trying to make polite conversation. At one hotel I went to, six people in the course of a day asked me whether I'd had a good flight. I thought maybe they knew about something that had happened on the plane that I didn't! The point of service at the end of the day is to minimise the effort the guest has to make. It's about wanting to help and please the customer.

We've looked closely at our brand, because I felt we needed to examine what we are doing 17 years on from when the business started. I got Wally Olins in, who helped me at Trusthouse Forte. He's now in his 80s but he's still fantastic. The three points that came across very strongly were that our hotels are individual — they're run individually and not as part of a chain operation; they have a sense of place and are authentically of the city, which is how we set them up; and also there is a strong family influence, which I think is very powerful in any business. Those are the three main planks on which we're building to differentiate ourselves from other hotel companies.

The hotel business hasn't changed in a basic sense since we first opened but it has changed dramatically in the way it's sold. One thing that's happened that I don't like very much is the rise of yield management, which effectively means you charge a different price for every day of the week. It's very difficult not to do it, because your competitors are doing it, and I haven't found a way of not doing it, although I keep looking. It's ridiculous. The suite and the service that goes with it are no different from one day to the next. But, because the market's stronger one day compared to another, you charge more. It doesn't make sense to me. But that's where we are. 

I'm the frontman of the company and I run it, but obviously I've got to be thinking about the future, even if I've still got a good few years in me yet! Two of my daughters are working for me at the moment and I'm thinking the easiest way to make the transition is for my children to develop into the business. Then you get the same values continuing.

More life and business lessons from chef Raymond Blanc, Wired magazine's Chris Anderson and lyricist Sir Tim Rice

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