Sir Rocco Forte talks hotels and Toronto

Sir Rocco Forte

Sir Rocco Forte at the Hazelton Hotel in May. (Julia Pelish Photo)

[Sir Rocco Forte was recently in Toronto and I caught up with him for a chat at the Hazelton Hotel. Rocco was the one-time owner of the King Edward Hotel in Toronto and it was his first visit back to the city in nearly two decades. He’s a luxury hotel entrepreneur and his Rocco Forte Hotels operates 13 of the most outstanding properties in Europe. Among the things he mentioned were Internet bookings make up only 10 per cent of his company’s revenue and he’s looking to expand to New York City, preferably in midtown Manhattan. He was in Toronto to meet with travel agents, who he relies on heavily for business. You’d think a guy with a net worth in the billion-dollar range might come across a little Donald Trump-ish, but Rocco was nothing but friendly and gentlemanly, with a lot of thoughtful answers.

Below is my article that appeared in the Toronto Star recently.]

HOTEL MAGNATE SEES BIG REBOUND IN BUSINESS

If you think luxury travel died with the financial crisis, Sir Rocco Forte says you would be wrong.

Forte, whose eponymously named hotel chain caters to clients with the biggest of budgets, was in Toronto last week to meet with travel agents and reported strong performances from his European-based hotels in 2010.

“I’ve never seen such a quick rebound,” Forte says of the recession’s end. “The top end has come back quicker than anything else. Our sales growth last year was 12.5 per cent. Our U.S. business increased by 28 per cent and our Canadian business increased by 32 per cent. Out of North America, we get 25 per cent of our business.”

Those are much more robust numbers than the frightening early days of the crisis in September 2008.

“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 20 per cent decline from the previous year,” says Forte during an interview at the Hazelton Hotel. “I think a lot of people stopped travelling because no one was sure what was going to happen in the world, not necessarily because they didn’t have money. As soon as they saw the world wasn’t going to disappear, they started travelling again. Also with corporate travel, there was a stigma with using luxury hotels during the recession, and that’s changed.”

The friendly 66-year-old British billionaire once owned the King Edward on King St. with a previous company, Trust House Forte. He began Rocco Forte Hotels 14 years ago, starting with the Balmoral in Edinburgh and Brown’s Hotel in London. The chain operates 13 of the most outstanding hotels in Europe and now is expanding outside that market with a hotel in Abu Dhabi set to open in coming months.

“Now that it is firmly established in Europe, we have infrastructure and brand name to go outside of that area,” says Forte, who said he has his eye on what he calls the “traditional” part of Manhattan, meaning the area of 5th Avenue and Central Park West.

His visit to Toronto was his first to the city in 18 years and like a lot of people he was curious about the number of high-end hotels opening in the city.

“I don’t know enough about the Toronto market these days but it’s never very nice when a lot of hotels come online at the same time, because the demand doesn’t grow as fast as the supply,” he says.

As for re-entering the Toronto market, he isn’t ready to commit just yet but says with a smile, “Now that I’ve made the first step in coming back, I’ll keep it up.”

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