By Edward Attwood  www.arabianbusiness.com

Flamboyance is perhaps the first word you’d associate with Sir Rocco Forte. Despite having just stepped off the plane from London, the man who is pretty much regarded as hospitality royalty sweeps cheerfully into Dubai’s Armani Hotel, where a selection of his firm’s nervous general managers are waiting for him.

Sir Rocco’s appearance is more fashion guru than died-in-the-wool hotelier, with beard and billowing cuffs, but his quiet voice is almost regal when he speaks about his ties with the region.

“My old company operated out here – so I had some familiarity and empathy with the area,” Sir Rocco says. “At the same time, the opportunities were there. Initially I set up to be a European hotel company – I hadn’t any intentions of spreading further but now we’re established, we’ve got good infrastructure and a good brand, so it was an easy step.”

Of course, the Middle East marks the first move Rocco Forte Hotels is making outside Europe. Sir Rocco is certainly no neophyte when it comes to the region, both through the Forte Group – where he was once CEO – which had several hotels in the Middle East, and through more recent ties as a former non-executive director with Dubailand, the giant real estate project based just to the south-west of Dubai.

In the last quarter of this year, the group’s Abu Dhabi incarnation will launch into the UAE capital’s highly competitive hospitality market. The location of the hotel – wedged between Al Bateen executive airport and the Sheikh Rashid Road, makes it fairly unique; other new hotels tend to be based either on the Corniche, the ‘between the bridges’ area or on Yas Island. However, the slight delay in the hotel’s launch means that it will be in direct competition with around half a dozen other luxury properties hoping to set up shop in the UAE capital before the end of the year.

“It’s going to be difficult, because a lot of people in the same market going after the same business,” Sir Rocco admits. “But we’re effectively a European hotel, and most of the other hotels are American chains and so on. We’re the only true European hotel at that level and there’s a slightly different feel to it than most of the hotels that are there.”

But Abu Dhabi is not the only location where Sir Rocco is expanding his brand in the Middle East. Confirmed destinations include Marrakech, where the Assoufid Resort will include a championship eighteen-hole golf course, and Jeddah. The Saudi property will be located on Tahlia Street, not far from the Corniche. Elsewhere, the company will also be opening two properties in Egypt, with the recently announced Luxor property joining the revamped Shepheard Hotel, situated on the banks of the Nile in Cairo.

The Shepheard Hotel move, in particular, seems to signify exactly why the brand is likely to stand out from the clutter of Western hotel operators currently plying their trade in the Middle East. As with many of the Forte Collection’s European properties, the Shepheard – which opened in 1841 – has become part of local folklore, having hosted luminaries such as Winston Churchill and T E Lawrence during its long history. The firm is obviously hoping to bring an element of old-world class to the region, which has been littered with ultra-modern offerings.

“In Jeddah, we’ve done the foundations and they’re just tendering the frame of the building – the hotel and separate apartment building,” Sir Rocco adds. “The contract is a 24-month one, so that will take us to the end of 2013. All the hotels [in the Middle East region] are actually quite a long way away – the Marrakech one is 2014, while the Cairo property is due to close in July and that’s 24-month building programme – so again towards the end of 2013. Luxor might be a little bit earlier, however.”

Although the Middle Eastern hotels are still – in most cases – some way off completion, Sir Rocco is already eyeing other opportunities in the region.

“There’s a Beirut property which will be announced shortly,” he adds. “In Doha, again, there are so many hotels with the World Cup coming up. I’ve looked at one or two things there, but the right thing hasn’t come up.”

It seems that Oman is also in the frame – Sir Rocco deems it “a possibility” – while Riyadh is also in the company’s sights. But why Abu Dhabi instead of Dubai?

“The thing about Dubai is that there are so many hotels already here. There were one or two things that I looked at, but the right option hadn’t come along in terms of opportunity,” Sir Rocco says. “But the Abu Dhabi opportunity did come, and it’s interesting to see what they’re doing there to try and develop it as more of a tourism and a business destination, so that’s why we’re there. I think in due course, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t come to Dubai.”

The hotel game hasn’t been an entirely easy ride for the hotel magnate. Sir Rocco took on the CEO role at the Forte Group, the British hotel and restaurant firm founded by his father, Lord Forte, in 1982. The company, started from scratch by Lord Forte in 1935, soon became a household name and a multi-billion-dollar entity, pushing into areas as diverse as high-end hotels and motorway service stations. However, a hostile takeover bid in the 1990s from Granada saw the Forte Group sold for around $6.4bn, with the Forte family receiving $573m in cash.

Sir Rocco then set up his own firm, which currently manages twelve hotels and resorts across Europe. The up-market properties are based in most of the major European cultural cities – including Geneva, Florence, Rome and Berlin – although the chairman says that there is still plenty of work to do to complete that particular portfolio.

“I still want to finish off Europe – there are a number of cities I’m not represented in there,” he says. “Like Madrid, Paris, Milan, Venice, Moscow, Amsterdam, to name but a few. I’d also like to go to the US, particularly in New York.”

However, the downturn in the luxury hotel market has caused problems for the company. As wealthy businessmen and tourists opted to stay at home, Rocco Forte Hotels posted a $41m loss for 2010, on top of a $9m loss the year previously. The chairman has partly resolved its debt problem by selling off the firm’s Geneva property for an estimated $82m and says that concerns over long-term financing on some of the group’s properties have now come to an end.

“The Royal Bank of Scotland were our bankers and they merged with Lloyds – we also had a joint venture with them on part of our hotels,” Sir Rocco says. “We’ve come to a long-term agreement with them on financing on the banking side, and we’ve come to an understanding on the joint venture as well.”

With that hurdle overcome, Sir Rocco believes that his hotels company has definitely turned a corner. In addition, financing won’t be an issue for his Middle Eastern portfolio, where he has teamed up with local investors and will operate the hotels through management agreements.

“Last year, there was a big recovery in the luxury market in Europe. There was a strong recovery in business from the US, which is our principal market,” he says. “Generally, most of the cities we are operating in saw recovery, not just ourselves. At the height of the recession our sales dropped by about 20 percent and we recovered 12.5 percent last year.”

The chairman says that the strongest locations for the firm were London and Rome, with the former now back to the figures it was posting pre-crisis. Elsewhere, Florence has also performed well, with the Eastern European hotels again starting to see some signs of recovery – aided in part by the strong stream of Middle Eastern tourists visiting those properties.

“Going forward, the prognosis is good at the moment,” Sir Rocco smiles. “That is if we are given a fair wind, and if worldwide events don’t conspire against us.”

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