Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

Anatomy of a 5-Star Hotel

Size matters, says Sir Rocco Forte, especially when it comes to a hotel bathroom. Forte, 63, should know. Knighted by the Queen of England in 1994 for outstanding service to the U.K. tourism industry, he has spent a lifetime in hospitality: he is the former chairman and ceo of Forte Group PLC, which had more than 800 hotels when it was sold in 1996. In 1997, Sir Rocco acquired the Balmoral in Edinburgh, Scotland, as the cornerstone of what is currently an 11-strong five-star-hotel group called the Rocco Forte Collection, which emphasizes contemporary luxury — no gold taps here. Indeed, the only other job he has ever had was playing a waiter on TV when he was a teenager. Sir Rocco, who collaborates with his sister, interior-design director Olga Polizzi, works on both new constructions and refurbishment projects. 2009 will see the opening of properties in Sicily and Prague, and 2010, expansion beyond Europe into the Middle East and North Africa. His most ambitious renovation has been the reminting of the 1837 London hotel gem Brown's — where the Roosevelts once stayed and where Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book — which reopened in 2005 after a $24 million remodeling. Walking through Brown's, he discusses the many aspects that combine to make a great hotel experience.

Meet and Greet
A first-class hotel stay begins long before you lay eyes on your room, Sir Rocco says. Although many prospective guests visit the company's website, only about 10% book entirely online, the rest preferring to discuss their plans by phone. This gives a friendly staffer the chance to mention the benefits of upgrading to a suite. For convenience, confirmations are sent by e-mail, at guests' preference, despite Sir Rocco's favorite — "a beautiful letter on nice paper."

Room Numbers
To ensure that a guest feels like No. 1, the optimum number of rooms is 150, the point at which economies of scale really work. With fewer, the ratio of guests to staff at the five-star level requires very high prices; with more, personal service may suffer. (The Rocco Forte hotel in Abu Dhabi will have 270 rooms, made feasible by lower staffing costs in the Middle East.) "You don't want to get much above 200 rooms in Europe," says Sir Rocco, "unless you are the Four Seasons, a company I hugely admire."

Early-Bird Specials
Transatlantic arrivals to Europe tend to be in the early morning, requiring an administrative juggling act when check-in isn't until 2 p.m. Asking guests to reserve a room starting the night before may seem profitable for a hotel, but in fact it results in losses in potential spending on services, restaurant and bar. The better option is to find out guests' departure and arrival times and schedule housekeeping staff accordingly.

No Cookie-Cutter Design
At the five-star level, rooms should not be identical yet should be in tune with brand identity. Sir Rocco is opposed to "dècor that wows, because it palls just as fast." He favors instead an equation of contemporary comfort plus details such as well-chosen books to add warmth, attractive art and flourishes of frivolity. "But I leave decoration to my sister and the designers she chooses," he says. "I will look at the prototype room from a practical view: Is the bedroom reading light well placed and bright enough? Do the windows open? If that is possible, guests like it."

Space Sells
Old buildings present unique space challenges. The solution is to make one room as big as possible, favoring the bathroom over the bedroom. Double basins appeal, as does a huge bathtub (even if left unused). The travel-size toiletries are gifts to take if you wish. But leave that robe. The practice of chambermaids' removing robes from departing guests' luggage has been replaced by the appearance of an extra charge on one's bill, often before the guest has left the building. (Housekeeping informs the front desk right after you've left your room.)

Wardrobe Matters
Spacious walk-in closets might have to be wedged into corners in old buildings, yet they signal opulence. A housekeeper to unpack and press when a guest arrives and repack when he or she departs reinforces five-star service, which some guests welcome because "they have people pack for them at home," Sir Rocco says. "Others are sensitive about someone poking about in their things, so we always ask first." The optimum number of mahogany hangers is 10: five trouser and five coat hangers.

Sweet Dreams
Hypnose beds — the biggest queen size is 61⁄2 ft. by 61⁄2 ft. (2 m by 2 m) — make for idyllic repose. A choice of 16 different pillows is offered at Brown's, where the sheets are 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton by the Italian brand Gastaldi. Forget that chocolate on the pillow; turndown means pampering bath oils placed by the tub and a choice of still or sparkling water on a silver tray.

Ideal Dining
"Achieving a good hotel restaurant is perhaps the most difficult challenge of all," says Sir Rocco. Success requires a balancing act — or several at once: appropriate grandeur vs. too much formality, service that is attentive yet not intrusive, the needs of hotel guests who may want an off-menu item like a plain omelette after a long journey vs. those of local clientele who want a special feast.

Décor must be rich and warm to work by night but not so gloomy as to depress the lunchtime crowd. Lighting is "most difficult on summer evenings, when it is light outside," Sir Rocco says. To create the right atmosphere, "you start with the light bright inside and then lower it as the light fades outside — you would think it would be the other way round." Since many people prefer the security of having their back to a wall, there's a central column of banquettes at the Albemarle at Brown's, creating the illusion of a cocooned space in the restaurant's most open area. And while the art in a hotel's rooms should be appealing but not bland, restaurant art can be more controversial. "It's fine if some people dislike it intensely," says Sir Rocco.

The Lounge Factor
Hotels need cozy spaces, and Sir Rocco likes to add "naughty corners." At Brown's, for example, a nook that seats 12 in the Donovan Bar — named for the late photographer Terence Donovan — features his sauciest nudes.

Keeping it Fresh
A hotel needs to look as fresh as the flowers at the front desk, yet the mark of spectacular success — 90% occupancy year-round — necessarily means the premises take "a hell of a beating" and thus require constant refurbs done in a manner the guests won't notice. Soft-furnishing updates generate little noise, but since polishing marble can be disruptive, "you do it in the middle of the day," Sir Rocco says, "when most people are out having lunch or haven't arrived yet."