AS The Balmoral celebrates its 110th birthday, Sir Rocco Forte explains why this hotel, and Scotland, is so important to him
SOME sofas are made for slumping, defying our best efforts to stay upright. Sir Rocco Forte is doing his best to triumph over the soft furnishings in the Royal Suite at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel. He looks the part, his impeccable grey suit obscuring a taut, muscular frame that’s seen him through several triathlons and an Ironman competition. His deep voice, with its aristocratic enunciation, is softly pitched, compelling me to lean in. I’ll bet it’s an asset during high-stakes negotiations, when others resort to bellowing.
Sir Rocco was here on Thursday to celebrate the 110th birthday of the local institution that began life as the Great Northern Hotel. His family’s links to Scotland are nearly as old as the hotel’s, and in 1997, The Balmoral was the first hotel he bought for Rocco Forte Hotels, the company he created following a hostile 1996 takeover by Granada that dismantled Forte Plc – the empire of hotels, service stations and restaurants that his father Charles had built.
Sir Rocco once explained that it was simply the first solid opportunity to come along, but does he view it as merely an investment, that could easily be sold off, or is there any sentimental attachment to the place?
“I am not in things to buy and sell them. I’m a hotelier and I want to run hotels in the long term. If ever I contemplated selling anything it would be to keep the management of the property and continue to run it anyway. But, you know, my father was brought up in Scotland.
“My grandfather came here in 1911, when my father was three years old. He went to Alloa Academy and then Dumfries College, and was sent back to Italy to finish his schooling. He was always very pro Scottish.
“I remember him going to England-Scotland football matches wearing a Tam-o-Shanter. Then I remember him taking me and my older sister, Olga, salmon fishing in Perth. We stayed at the station hotel there, and it was the first time I’d ever tried porridge. It was my first taste of Scotland and hearing people speak with a Scottish accent. I remember it was raining, not hard, what you’d call a Scotch mist, but there were people standing talking on street corners as if it were bright sunshine. That was my first eye-opener in Scotland. And when I was a teenager I used to come up with my father quite a lot, because he rented a stretch of the Dee, just up from Aberdeen.
“So I’ve always had a soft spot for Scotland. And we’d run The Balmoral under Trusthouse Forte. When Granada took over, obviously the management of the hotel continued. We turned it around so it was making money, and they decided to sell – so I came along and managed eventually to buy it, and had the pleasure of turfing Granada out. It sounds rather petty, but it did give me a bit of satisfaction. It is an iconic property, and it is special, because Edinburgh has an international market, the first UK city outside of London.”
What makes a luxury hotel luxurious? The size of the rooms? The attentiveness of its staff? “Well it’s a combination of a lot of things, but what’s important at the end of the day is the attentiveness of the staff, the level of service, the attention to detail. That’s what distinguishes one hotel from another. People will put up with a hotel which is perhaps not in pristine condition if the service is good. They’ll stick with it. This is one of the few hotels in Scotland where proper five-star standards are being maintained. And probably the only hotel in Edinburgh, though I shouldn’t say that. But I think it’s true.”
A hotel has to work within its community, as well, he reminds me. “I do try to make all my hotels a local destination. If a hotel is ingrained in the affections of the community, then they’ll always recommend it when someone asks, ‘Where shall I stay?’ And you’re offering a service to the community, helping the community thrive and develop, because if it’s attractive for people to stay, they’re likely to come.”
Even in a recession? Or is the luxury market immune? “At this level, customers tend to hold up better and in fact we’ve grown our business over the past three years. As a group – including the Balmoral – after Lehman Brothers collapsed my sales dropped by 40 per cent, like for like, below the previous year. For two months, I thought it was the end of the world, and then it settled down at about 20 per cent below. In 2010, things started to pick up again; 2011 was strong until about October, and then growth slowed. We were running at about 11-12 per cent, and then growth slowed to about 4 per cent, and that’s maintained itself, across the group as a whole.
“Immediately after Lehman, no one knew what was going to happen, so even people with money were reticent to spend it. Once things settled, they started spending money again. Obviously corporates are tighter and it’s difficult to negotiate increases in corporate contracts, but generally on the leisure side, which is about 60-65 per cent of our business, things have come back strongly.”
Sir Rocco and Lady Forte have three children, Lydia, Irene (pronounced the Continental way) and Charles. All seem destined to follow him into the family business.
“They’ve all done holiday jobs in the hotels. Lydia, the oldest, graduated from Oxford and became a waitress – not with me, with Mark Hix, a consultant chef for us at Browns, at his Soho restaurant. Then he let her work in his control office so she learned about that. Then she was headhunted to be an assistant manager at Ma Camino, at Chelsea Green. The manager left after three or four weeks and she ended up running it for a year. She was getting fed up, so I said ‘come and work for me’, and she’s working to improve restaurants across the group. In January she goes to France, to do a year’s MBA course.
“My middle daughter also graduated from Oxford and is doing a six-month training programme, and wants to go work – for someone else – for a couple of years. She wants to do an MBA as well, but she needs work experience elsewhere. It’s good they work outside my firm.”
His son, it transpires, is at New York University. Goodness, is he safe? Smiling, Sir Rocco tells me that he and his flatmates are, thanks to his friend’s father, booked into the Carlyle Hotel, uptown. Not too shabby, I say, rather enviously. “But his credit card was blocked, so I rang the Carlyle and got him some cash, and also told them he could have anything he wanted on food and drink while he was staying. So I think he had a relatively comfortable hurricane. But the devastation is amazing.”
Why, I wonder, didn’t Sir Rocco retire back in 1996? He was young, fabulously wealthy, and could have thoroughly enjoyed himself. He looks at me as if I’m foaming at the mouth.
“That would be so boring. To do nothing, to spend my time worrying about how I’m going to enjoy myself, where I’m going to go next? I’d be bored stiff in no time. I have to have a challenge, something that motivates me and keeps me going. I enjoy being in business. Even though the last few years have been very gritty at times, and that’s not so much fun.”
Presumably this love of challenge is what prompts him to push himself physically? “I’ve done sport all my life. I was on the fencing team at Oxford, and at school I boxed, I played football, tennis. You name it. Then in the 1980s, when marathons first came on the scene, I did eight years of London marathons, and the New York marathon as well. I started triathlons about four or five years after the buyout, when the business was still relatively small and I had more time [to train]. It’s punishing but you do it because you like it, and you want to compete.
“I got into triathlons by chance, though I’d always had it at the back of my mind. I found out that I could get into the British team to go into the world championships, so I tried out for that, and decided to do an Ironman, and trained for that. That was a big unknown, too.
“When I crossed the finishing line I burst into tears – it was so emotional: the marathon bit, at the end of the day, it was sheer willpower.”
And via sheer willpower, I’m sure, Sir Rocco will realise his dream of “infilling” the missing cities – he rattles them off at speed: “Madrid, Paris, Milan, Venice, Moscow, New York” – where he doesn’t have hotels. It’s about economies of scale, he explains. “I need an infrastructure, and that is expensive, so the same one could deal with a few more hotels.” And a “complete” chain of properties ensures that he can hang on to regular customers as they tour the globe.
Nevertheless, he has no plans to make Rocco Forte Hotels quite as large as Forte Plc finally became.
“You can grow the company through management contracts, and I could make it quite a big company, but I don’t particularly want to do that.”
So just the infilling then, and continuing to run The Balmoral as one of the jewels of Edinburgh’s hospitality industry.
ON Wednesday 15 October, 1902, on the front page of The Scotsman, a small advert appeared: “North British Station Hotel. This hotel in direct communication with Waverley Station is now open F.T. Burcher, hotel manager.”
These days, we know it as The Balmoral, and many’s the time anxious eyes fly up to the clock tower, and pounding hearts find reassurance in the knowledge that the clock is set two minutes fast (except on New Year’s Eve) to ensure passengers make it to the station on time.
According to the hotel’s official history, the North British was “a vanguard for the railway company which built it, a surrogate for the grand station they had never been permitted to erect in the sensitive site between Old and New Town.”
The architecture, executed in golden sandstone, features towers and balconies galore. It’s a glorious mash-up of influences from across northern Europe. Expensive to build as well as to run – it gobbled upwards of 200 tons of coal every month – the hotel was seen as a “sign of the future heralded by the railways, the newly opened Forth Bridge and the electric lights switched on in Princes Street just seven years earlier”.
Nevertheless, some believed the Caledonian, which opened a year later, boasted the more advantageous location. And some detractors found the sheer size of the hotel gauche, complaining “it is coarse and obstructive at once”.
The hotel – working name “Waverley Station Hotel” – was the brainchild of George Wieland, a former NBR company secretary who retired to its board in 1890. Having toured some of the most lavish hotels in the world – where he realised the importance of having a banqueting hall to bring in business – he hired W Hamilton Beattie to draw up plans for Edinburgh.
The hotel would have 300 bedrooms, 52 bathrooms, and 70 lavatories, and was designed to encourage the circulation of fresh air. Lifts shot people straight from the station into the hotel’s foyer, and beyond that, to rooms furnished with mahogany, leather and crimson moquette. It’s said that the bill for plants and flowers exceeded the bill for gas, and there was even a special machine to burnish the silver. Weiland made sure the new hotel’s cellars were full of the finest champagnes, hocks, ports, and whisky, the better to entice his ideal customers – wealthy, landed families moving between their multiple residences.
In 1922, the hotel became part of the London and North Eastern Railway Company and by all accounts the hotel sparkled from top to bottom, but after the Second World War, when the railways were nationalised, and Prestwick airport began getting transatlantic traffic, things began a slow downward trajectory. Even so, the hotel remained the destination for Edinburgh society events, be they corporate or personal.
In 1983, British Rail sold off its rather faded North British Hotel. In 1988, it closed for refurbishment. At the start of the 1990s, Balmoral International Hotels, an Edinburgh based company, bought the venue. In 1997, the Balmoral became the first hotel bought by Sir Rocco Forte as he assembled his portfolio of hotels. It currently boasts Scotland’s only Bollinger Bar, as well as the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant run by executive chef Jeff Bland, a spa, and ten function rooms accommodating up to 450 people.
Famous guests over the years have included Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Palin, Beyoncé and JK Rowling, who finished the last Harry Potter novel here, on 11 January, 2007, and then daubed her signature on a bust in her room.