Sir Rocco Forte eyes Middle East expansion

Sir Rocco Forte, chairman and CEO of Rocco Forte Hotels, discussed his brand’s Middle East expansion and overall operating climate during a recent sit-down with Hotel Management.

Forte, whose collection currently numbers 13 hotels, is readying to take on six more hotels in the Middle East and Northern Africa via management contracts. He told Hotel Management that while the economic crisis did take a toll, the hotel industry is poised for recovery. "Many projects became financially difficult," he said of development during the past economic slowdown. "It’s now coming back, but bank financing is still difficult to come by. They are much more cautious."

Nonetheless, Rocco Forte Hotels is steaming ahead and will hold the management contracts on such properties as The Rocco Forte Hotel Abu Dhabi, a hotel, which will open at the end of the September and the first in the collection to employ Forte’s name. "It’s a very modern building," Forte said of the property, whose designers were also behind the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. "We’ve worked with them to slightly modify the hotel’s original intent. We wanted to give it a warmer, more European feel." The hotel will have such features as strikingly big Presidential Suites, a large pool deck and expansive meeting facilities.  

Other hotels slated to debut are in Jeddah (2013); The Luxor Hotel in Egypt (a property that will go through a refurbishment period and redebut in 2013); Marrakech (2014); and The Shepheard Hotel in Cairo (which will close at the end of 2011 and go through a full renovation before reopening in 2014). A deal has also been inked to operate a hotel in Beirut. Forte is tight-lipped on the project as of now, but the hotel will have a residential component, as well as shopping and several restaurants.

Taking on management contracts is a slight departure for Forte, who has mostly owned hotels, which include Rome’s Hotel de Russie and the Brown’s Hotel in London. Growing management fees will be a focus for the hotel collection for years to come. "Building up management contracts is our direction," Forte said. "There is a limit to what you can do with the banks. But, having gone through the recession, we’re back on track. The Middle East will be all management contracts. Owners approach me to run their hotels. They like what we have done and do in Europe."

Indeed, but it’s imperative that the hotels are operated the Forte way. "Owners come to us for our brand," Forte said. "They want us to inject that. We also have a bit more of an owner’s mentality, so we look at costs. We don’t want to do a hotel without managing it. I’m very careful about what I get into."

So, when will his brand break into the U.S. market? Specifically, New York. Forte said he’s looked at potential projects and locations, but "nothing has worked out yet." He told Hotel Management that there is room for a hotel in New York in his mold. "My kind of hotel doesn’t exist here yet," he said.

Until then, Forte will keep an eye on further expansion, while making sure to not neglect his already formidable hotel collection. "They are the ones earning you money," he said. According to Forte, his London and Rome properties account for the collection’s best RevPAR numbers and are both faring well. "London’s back to where it was before the crisis and Rome is almost there," Forte said, adding that sales growth improved 12.5 percent last year and that American business, which has grown 28 percent year-over-year, is helping underpin revenues.

The future appears bright for Rocco Forte Hotels. "The stigma of using a luxury hotel is gone," Forte said. 

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