Team Gold Event: An Interview with Sir Rocco Forte

Sir Rocco Forte needs no introduction. As chairman of Rocco Forte Hotel, one of the world’s most recognisable brands, his name is synonymous with hotels.  His leadership and development of the some of the most highly regarded brands in hospitality have earned him a global reputation as a true captain of industry.

Last month, Sir Rocco Forte hosted a special Team Gold’ evening at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair where he shared his experiences of his career and met with some of our alumni to offer his advice on how to succeed in the industry.

We caught up with him afterwards…

You are part of one of the most famous dynasties in hospitality. Did you know you wanted to be a part of the business or was it just expected of you? 

It was certainly the plan in my father’s head but it wasn’t a plan of mine. He was very keen. From an early age I had the example of him coming home late and bringing work with him through meeting people and discussing things. So from the age of about nine, I started to become involved in the sense that I listened to those conversations.

He used to encourage me to work during my school and university holidays and my first job was a holiday job in the Cafe Royal cellars and then it was Banqueting House. That was the only time I’ve ever been headhunted. A supplier came along and saw this young chap making himself useful and running around with some energy (that’s how I imagined it) and offered me a job. I was being paid £4 a week and he offered me £8 a week. I went to my father and said ‘I think I should have a raise’ and he said ‘if you want to go and work with that guy, go and do that…’

Of course, I didn’t. Maybe I should have and I’d have had a career in the wine trade instead.

What did you do before joining the family business?

By the time I went to university all I could really think about was coming into my father’s business. When I graduated I became a chartered accountant. These were the three most boring years of my life because I had to spend my time looking backwards rather than forwards. But spending time as a chartered accountant was the most useful thing I’ve ever done – accountants can’t tell me what to do.

What changes have you noticed in the hospitality industry over the years? 

We’re an industry where, to work in it, you have to have a passion for it. Most people working in hospitality care about what they’re doing and I don’t think that’s changed at all. You either like it or hate it. If you like it, you really get involved and therefore can progress.

But the world is a different place today. We have modern technology, which has changed a lot of the things that we do. In the old days we used to have a cashier in the restaurant working behind the scenes. Nowadays you have these dreadful computers and the staff spend half their time looking after this instead of looking after their customers.

Do hospitality guests know more about food and service than they did 40 years ago?

I think they do because there are more decent restaurants for people to go and eat in. In the sixties there were very few restaurants in London outside of hotels where you could go and have a decent meal. Then the Roux brothers and a lot of other French chefs came and this invasion of Italian restaurants happened and it changed the way people ate in this country.

Tell us about some of your career highlights.

One that comes to mind is when at Trusthouse Forte I was bidding on for Le Méridien, a hotel company owned by Air France. We wanted it because they were four star hotels with a good brand and a spread across the world, in places where we didn’t have hotels.

To be honest, there are so many but starting a new business was special. A lot of young people are very ambitious but I started my new business – what is now known as the Rocco Forte Hotels – when I was 52. Of course, I worked in the family business for years but this was different.

When you get to your late 20s you think you’d better hurry up because you’re getting ‘old’ but the reality is there’s plenty of time ahead.

What are the attributes needed to succeed in business?

Anybody who wants to get on in business has to be reasonably smart and possess a certain amount of commercial sense. Most importantly, they need a passion for what they’re doing.

We recently had our annual conference with a presentation from Fulvio Pierangelini, our executive chef for our Italian restaurants.

He spoke about food and the passion that came out was incredible. He described spaghetti al pomodoro basilico, which is a fairly straightforward Italian dish – you can get it in any Italian restaurant – but people in Rome will come to the Hotel de Russie to have his version of the dish. It’s the way he respects the food. He won’t blanch the tomatoes first, they must be peeled raw; he won’t cut them, they must be squeezed. There’s a whole process of love involved in creating what is really a simple dish. But actually it’s not that simple if you’re going to do it really well. The passion is there.

Learning your trade is just as important. A lot of people want to get on and get promoted quickly to management but it’s no use being a manager if you don’t know what you’re doing and you can’t tell the people working for you how to do their jobs. It’s always worth spending that little bit more time learning the skills to be really successful.

What do you think the Government thinks about the industry?

I don’t know what the Government thinks about anything, actually. I haven’t heard the current Government say anything about our industry. It’s always a junior role that looks after it. Lord Strathclyde, who went on to become leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords, was Minister for Tourism at the age of 24. That’s how I first met him. He’s a very able guy but there’s a limit to what anyone in that position can do when they don’t have any funds available.

It’s interesting that in continental Europe there’s much more Government involvement through funding for the industry in less economically prosperous regions. In the South of Italy, for example, you’ll get significant Government grants. I got £40m to build the Verdura in Sicily. I don’t think that can happen in the UK and I don’t understand why.

Sometimes you need a kickstart. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t got the grant but that created 500 jobs at the resort and probably more than 1,000 auxiliary jobs.

What do you think the value of awards like the Gold Service Scholarship is to the industry?

The first time I was able to come to the ceremony was last year at Claridge’s and I was so impressed by the calibre of the finalists themselves and what they had to say. It’s great. This is one of the best things of this kind I’ve seen done in the industry. It immediately enthused me to get involved and see how I could help through my organisation.

Any encouragement you can give people to improve their skills and abilities is terrific and there’s a good reward at the end even for people who don’t become scholars. It helps them to develop their careers.

What do you look for in terms of service style?

What I’ve tried to do from the beginning is to ‘de-stuff’ service. We look for our staff to have a friendly rapport with our customers. It is still respectful, but we have a much friendlier relationship with our guests than the typically stuff service standards of days gone by.

At Rocco Forte Hotels we’ve carried out a lot of work to help our staff engage with our guests. It all comes down to training. We have to treat each customer individually – you can’t put the same thing in front of them all of the time. Luxury service is about delivering good service without being intrusive.

What top tips do you have for our Gold Service Scholarship candidates?

Spend time training and make sure what you’re learning is appropriate for the next level of your career. Analyse exactly what your weaknesses are and seek to improve them. I knew my weaknesses. One of which was in economics, so I worked hard to learn this.

Loyalty is vital but it’s important to remember that it’s a two way thing. There has to be an element of trust. You have to be respectful of each individual. I don’t mind somebody moves on from our business if, in doing so, they are bettering themselves.

So yes, it’s always important to keep looking for new learning opportunities. I’m still learning something new every day. All the people you bring to the table has something to add; their knowledge and skills. Everybody has something to offer.

And of course, it’s crucial to remember that service is the most important factor. You can have the most beautiful hotel in the world but if the service you provide is bad, it’s utterly pointless.

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