Twenty-five years ago, Sir Rocco Forte and his sister Olga Polizzi joined forces to change the way we see and experience modern luxury. They had a vision for a new paradigm of hospitality: sophisticated, design-driven hotels, characterised by a unique marriage of British polish and Continental flair. They would have a decidedly global lens on style; but would also be warm, welcoming, and eminently comfortable—places where the best qualities of home dovetailed with impeccable service.
No small ambition, back in the megabrand hotel world of the mid-90s. But then, both innovation and the art of a sophisticated welcome are in the Fortes’s DNA. For almost 100 years—from the time Sir Rocco’s father, Lord Charles Forte, began his hospitality training, aged 21, in Brighton—hotels have been both family business and family passion. With decades of experience working alongside their father at Trusthouse Forte, Sir Rocco and Ms Polizzi, who acts as Design Director, brought a new perspective to European hostelry—one uniquely informed by their British-Italian family heritage. Appropriate, then, that the first two Rocco Forte Hotels to open—both in 1998—were the Balmoral in Edinburgh, and Hotel Savoy in Florence.
As the portfolio expanded to comprise Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg (1999), Hotel Amigo in Brussels and Hotel de Russie in Rome (2000), and London’s venerated Brown’s Hotel (2005), Olga Polizzi established a new lexicon of hotel style. Rocco Forte Hotels was one of the first brands to privilege a sense of place in the interior design; she wanted “Scotland to feel like Scotland, Rome to feel like Rome.” Simultaneously, she introduced the look and atmosphere of an elegant home into rooms, suites and public spaces— mixing antiques and contemporary art, vintage furniture and textiles woven by local artisans. In an era whose prevailing aesthetics were monochromatic minimalism or extravagant-maximalist everything, Polizzi’s chic take on what a hotel should be was genuinely pioneering.
In 2009, with nine properties in European capitals, Rocco Forte Hotels opened its first resort, Verdura, on the southwest coast of Sicily. Here, the Forte foresight manifested in two areas that would become cornerstones of the brand’s offering: wellness and cuisine. Under the aegis of celebrated chef Fulvio Pierangelini (now RFH Creative Director of Food), a vast organic garden was cultivated at Verdura, furnishing the resort’s kitchens and its beautiful spa with the freshest greens, myriad varieties of tomatoes, flour from heritage grains and more. The spa itself boasted state-of-the-art facilities ranging from thalassotherapy circuits to infrared saunas, years before they were commonly seen outside of medical spas and wellness retreats.
But it was in the following decade that Rocco Forte Hotels became a truly next-generation luxury concept—thanks to the next generation of the Forte family. Irene Forte was the first of Sir Rocco’s children to join the company, in 2013; initially focussing on quality across the group, she rapidly found her niche in wellness, helping to cultivate the spa offering and integrating exclusive amenities into the rooms and suites. Since 2018, she has acted as Rocco Forte Hotels’s Wellness Director—the same year [correct?] she launched her much sought-after eponymous, 100 percent organic skincare line, formulated entirely with ingredients and actives sourced from the gardens at Verdura. In 2022, she’s leaning further into the role, as four of the Rocco Forte Hotels spas are rebranded Irene Forte, at the Hotel de la Ville in Rome, Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia, and Verdura Resort and Villa Igiea in Palermo.
Lydia Forte, who followed her sister into the business in 2014, has focussed her talents instead on every aspect of the eating and drinking experience. She has set the RFH bars and restaurants apart from the competition by focussing on superlative quality of ingredients, elegant but unfussy preparation, and genuine warmth. This ethos—the ineffable difference between a good experience and a great one—was learned, she says, as a child at Sunday family lunches, watching how much pleasure her grandmother put into feeding sons, daughters, and grandchildren simple things prepared with love.
Charles Forte, Sir Rocco’s youngest, come onboard in 2017, and now oversees hotel development. It’s he, along with his development team, who keeps a finger on the pulse of where Rocco Forte Hotels will go next, and how. His personal passion project is Rocco Forte Houses, the brand’s first fully-serviced private accommodations. They launched in 2019, with a chic 18th-century palazzo on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, in which five exquisite apartments ranging from two to four bedrooms are spread across several floors, all sharing a gorgeous roof terrace that’s exclusive to guests—who can avail themselves of all the services and amenties of Hotel de Russie and Hotel de la Ville, including the Irene Forte Spa and Fulvio Pierangelini’s restaurants. This year will see Charles launching two new Rocco Forte houses, each with as ideal a location as the one Rocco Forte House in Rome enjoys: one in Milan, on the Via Manzoni, and the other in Florence, on the Via Tornabuoni.
In 2022, a quarter-century on from when Sir Rocco and Olga Polizzi joined forces, the Fortes are looking at a bright—and busy—year. The Carlton, a new hotel in Milan, is being renovated; new Irene Forte-branded spas will open at Verdura, Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia, and at Rome’s Hotel de la Ville. Villa Igiea, the jewel of Palermo, will welcome guests for its second summer season. Rocco Forte Houses are set to open in Florence and Milan. More impeccable style, more thoughtful and warm welcomes. The future honours the past, and the family traditions carry on.