Olga Polizzi has made a name for herself in the industry as a first-class designer, boutique hotelier and straight-talking businesswoman. She is a stickler for service, individuality and style and it’s this mentality that has helped cement her two boutiques on the south coast in with some of the UK’s best. Zoe Monk grabbed a slot in the busy matriarch’s diary to get the inside scoop into life as one of hospitality most famous faces.
As interviewees go, I’m not sure you can get any more impressive than Olga Polizzi. Her list of achievements spans more than 3 decades and her projects have become some of the best in the world, so sitting in the tea lounge of Brown’s prior to our meeting, my main concern was making sure I didn’t take up her entire evening with hotel chatter. Not that she’s used to anything less of course.
Growing up as the eldest of 6 children in the famous Forte family, hospitality has forever been a huge part of her life. Her father was Lord Forte, perhaps Britain’s best hotelier and caterer of the post-war era and the founder of the vastly successful empire that ultimately became Forte Group. Despite the group’s hostile takeover by Granada in 1996, the battle that ensued didn’t dampen Polizzi’s passion for her trade.
In 1996 she became design director and deputy chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels, partnering up with her brother Sir Rocco in a bid to carve their own industry legacy. Working side by side with her sibling inevitably has its challenges – “I always have to fight my corner, but at the end of the day he is the boss!” – and together they have created a portfolio of 10 luxury properties in prime tourism pockets in Europe that exude elegance, class and style.
And while expansion is on the cards for Rocco Forte Hotels – the brand is on the cusp of opening its newest offering in Jeddah – it’s not top of my agenda when Olga arrives. It’s early December when we meet, and she is fresh from winning the title of Independent Hotelier of the Year at the Independent Hotel Show 2015, an accolade she was awarded for her two very own boutique hotels on the south west coast.
Hotel Endsleigh in Devon and Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall – “those little ones are especially close to my heart” – have undoubtedly proven that they live up to the legacy of their owner.
Tresanton, opened in summer 1998, led the way for Cornwall’s upmarket boutique hotel resurgence and dozens of others have sprung up since. Hosting just 30 bedrooms, every inch of the property has been given Polizzi’s midas touch and she still has as much love for the property as she did when she opened almost 20 years ago.
Hotel Endsleigh followed in August 2005 and is the smaller sister of the two with just 16 bedrooms, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in class; Polizzi says that 2015 was the hotel’s best year yet.
Impeccably dressed and carrying an air of sophistication, Olga is every bit the successful businesswoman, but my Miranda-Priestly apprehensions are dispelled as soon as she breezes through to my table at Brown’s and breaks into a broad smile.
How has business been for you this year (2015) at both Hotel Endsleigh and Hotel Tresanton?
It’s been our best ever, it’s been amazing; we’ve had a really really good year.
Endsleigh got Country House of the Year this year, so that’s really helped it and we’ve had a lot of bookings since then. But it was already going the right way. Last year we had a bit of money for the first time and this year it’s done really well.
We have a very good chef there now, and we have a really nice manager there now too – he looks about 12 but he’s not! – and we keep thinking of new things to do there.
We put in a new suite in the stable block (at Endsleigh) – that’s got permission for eight new rooms – and we did one suite this year and we are hoping to finish the second one by the new year, so that’s helped us add two extra rooms, because we’ve only got 16 bedrooms. The suites always seem to go first, before the cheap rooms, because I think people like to have a nicer room if they come all the way.
I know Cornwall itself hasn’t had such a good year, I know other hoteliers have struggled.
With both hotels being set on the south west coast how do you deal with the seasonality of the businesses?
I do go down to the properties, not as often as I’d like to, but I’ve had the same manager at Tresanton for 11 years – she has just left unfortunately – she’s very good. But now I have someone from our hotel in Edinburgh to take over, but I think if you have a good person running it then you can relax. Every two days I’ll call and we talk and discuss what’s going on, discuss what we can do if it’s not very busy, any special offers we can run, we are always thinking up things. We always have something on to try and attract people.
It’s nice to just go down there and concentrate on just one thing, whereas at Rocco Forte I’ve always got hundreds of things on.
What’s the difference between designing somewhere like Browns and the likes of Tresanton and Endsleigh?
Tresanton and Endsleigh I can do whatever I want really and I only have to please myself, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here (Browns) I’ve got other people to please and I’ve got to discuss it with others so it’s not quite as easy. Then my taste might not be exactly what the others like, so I always have to fight my corner.
Was it always your dream to have Endsleigh and Tresanton?
No not really. We had about 800 hotels (within Forte Group, led by her father Lord Forte) so when we had the hostile takeover I found I had a bit of cash for the first time. My husband had a little house in Cornwall right next to Tresanton – he said ‘why don’t you buy this hotel? It’s right next door, it has potential to be a really good hotel’. It used to be the top hotel in Cornwall in the 1960s, the likes of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret used to stay but I thought, why on earth do I want a small hotel in Cornwall for heaven’s sake? Anyway we looked at it and looked at it and finally bought it for very very little. Then I went about doing it up, and it took about 9 months or so – it was in a terrible condition, windows coming out of the frames, water everywhere, horrible kitchen, and it started being really fun and I really enjoyed it and it was more fun than anything else I’d done!
So what was the aim when you first bought Tresanton and then went on to open it as your first boutique hotel?
Boutique is such a difficult word – I remember my very lugubrious accountant in Cornwall said no-one makes money from hotels in Cornwall and I said, well I’m not putting in all this effort to not make any money! So I did spend a lot of money on nice pieces and I really wanted to do something that I would like, so I went for a hotel that I would like staying in. It was amazing, it caught the imagination immediately and I think people were sorry for our family because of the takeover, so I got a lot of publicity. I’ve never had a PR, I’ve never taken an advert, I’ve never used an agency, so I really just went for word of mouth. And it was really full in those days, it was 110% full, sometimes it was overbooked.
Now it’s slightly harder because there are many more hotels in Cornwall and I do have a PR lady now who works for both hotels because you do have to keep in the news. One good article makes the difference between lots of bookings and then you’re made for a few months.
Return guests are incredibly important, especially for a small hotel, otherwise you lose all your customers.
What have become integral elements to the success of your boutique hotels?
I have amazing staff in both hotels – we never put up with bad ones. We have a few who don’t smile and they are out quite quickly. But I don’t like prescribing what they have to say, so I like them to use their own language and people like that.
What criteria do you look for in managers when you hire?
At Endsleigh I have a male manager, but I like to have women managers. Women are more hands on – but actually the manager at Endsleigh is also really hands on – when it gets really crowded they will help in the restaurant, they’ll pick up a cup and clean a table, not be too grand and pounce around drinking a glass of Champagne.
It’s hard because it’s a very close relationship. The former manager at Tresanton she became like a member of the family in a way. She was young and I got on very well with her, you know sometimes I made her cry, but also we had some good times. I think a good hotel manager has to be able to look after their guests and look after their staff. And it’s very important, you can’t run a hotel without good staff. I like having someone with some good financial nous too, they should understand about budgeting, I don’t like them spending money all year through. They have got to have a little knowledge of food but very few people really know food well. I’m into really good ingredients, very simply cooked, I don’t like messed up food on the whole.
Are your hotel’s restaurants popular with outside diners as well?
They have to be, because it’s very important. It’s nice to get locals, it gives the whole hotel a different feel. In winter we give good deals for locals, and we have loyalty clubs in both hotels.
What were some of the main challenges when you started the two hotels?
It was very hard to get good staff. I thought many people were out of work in Cornwall so I’ll get staff like that, when in fact I couldn’t get any staff. Now we are better known people ask to come to us so it’s much easier. Plus we have good connections with a lot of the hotel schools.
What do you think you’ve learnt from creating your own two hotels and how does it differ to your role at Rocco Forte?
Well I never used to get involved with the food side of things or the sales side or the technological side (at Rocco Forte) and now I have to do a bit of everything. This gives me a chance to look into all aspects of hotel keeping and so many people who have never run a hotel think they can run a hotel, they don’t realise the hard work and effort that they have to put in.
If you’ve got that personality you can welcome people and host them, but it’s not all about that. Housekeeping for example is incredibly important, if you don’t have a clean room you have nothing. And you mustn’t walk into a room and feel that 150 other people have slept in it before you, which is a rather horrible feeling. It’s got to be really clean, so we are terribly into mattress covers, pillow case protectors, cleaning the place thoroughly and I think that’s so important.
How have you noticed the industry develop over the years? What have been some of the major changes?
When I first went down to Cornwall around 15 to 16 years ago, you couldn’t get a decent vegetable anywhere; I had to get all the vegetables down from London. You could get good fish and good meat but no vegetables. Now everybody wants local – local cheeses, local meats – it’s not just us, everyone is doing it and if you’re not, I don’t want to hear the word microwave or see a microwave, I don’t have those at the hotels!
In your designs do you tend to follow trends, or keep up with the ‘latest’ styles?
Not really. I read everything, I look at every design magazine I can get my hands on, and I do look at other hotels now and again, but not enough. One does move on, I’ve done my grey and beige period and now I’m in my more colourful period, like everyone else.
Do you get inspired by other hotels?
I don’t get inspired by other hotels that much really, I still haven’t found my perfect hotel. But then I’ve never done the perfect hotel either! But I love seeing something well done.
Would you add another hotel to Endsleigh and Tresanton?
I’d love to. I keep looking, but I’ve had so little time to really wander around and look. I’d love to find something else by the sea. But really I don’t mind where, it would be nice to have another one by the sea and it would be nice to have another one to do, but it’s difficult because I’m working quite hard.
Would you ever see your role with Rocco Forte coming to an end so you could take on Endsleigh and Tresanton full time?
Oh yes! It’s different having your own place, it’s full on with Rocco Forte, it’s every day, so I do see myself slowing down… and perhaps buying a new hotel!