Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte is a cheerleader for Boris Johnson and Brexit, but the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has put his allegiance to the test.
Fresh from arriving at Gatwick after a meeting in Rome at his newly reopened Hotel de la Ville, Sir Rocco begins a rant against the government’s ‘draconian lockdown’, calling mandatory face masks ‘a bit of nonsense’ and saying the 14th quarantine days rules are ‘a farce’.
He says, ‘I am a complete cynic about the whole situation. For most young people who get Covid, it’s a walk in the park.
Warning: Sir Rocco Forte says unemployment will destroy families
Therefore, the entire country should not be forced to lock up and follow restrictions because of a group of people at risk. We must be able to continue with our lives in the normal way. ‘
Forte, 75, is herself in the risk category. He developed the coronavirus the day the government announced the lockdown in March, and it took three weeks to recover. “After an hour I was exhausted,” he says of the height of his illness.
He is now completely healthy again and has resumed the intensive exercise regimen he started in his 50s. Before our morning meeting last Friday, the former triathlete had already cycled 14 miles in 40 minutes with his personal trainer, plus “some strength training and bench press.”
Sir Rocco has been through Covid-19 and believes the lockdown is more damaging than the disease.
He says, “The economic damage will be enormous and we have not yet seen it start – the unemployment that will arise and the families that will be destroyed as a result.”
He added: “Understandably, the government is cautious, but this lockdown has taken too long. We need to find ways to normalize the situation as soon as possible: not scare people into thinking that anyone who gets the disease will die, and free up places. ‘
Sir Rocco, son of legendary Trusthouse Forte founder Lord Forte, is one of Britain’s most famous businessmen.
He founded Rocco Forte Hotels with sister Olga Polizzi in 1996 after Trusthouse Forte, which ran 800 hotels from Sandy Lane in Barbados to Hotel George V in Paris, was bought by TV group Granada in one of the city’s most hostile takeovers.
He developed his anti-lockdown stance after witnessing the destruction wreaked on his international group’s 14 luxury hotels, including the Balmoral in Edinburgh and the Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg.
Last week, he took the ‘heartbreaking’ move of laying off 20 percent of his 450 UK workforce as he forecasts a loss of £ 60 million this financial year.
“I’ve lobbied to get a leave of absence for the hotel industry, but that’s not the case,” he says. “I warned that job losses would result – and we’re starting to see a lot of people being laid off across the industry.”
Five-star Le Richemond in Geneva, owned by Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan, closed indefinitely in late August, and Forte says many smaller hotels will follow without access to debt financing.
“We’ve had five months without income, and four of those months were the most important of the year for us,” he says. “That’s £ 60 million out of the window, when we would have had an inflow of £ 30 million in a normal year.”
The largest market of his group is American tourists, who account for up to 45 percent of the guests, followed by the Middle East and Russia. Due to international travel bans, the occupancy rate has fallen to a ‘low point’.
“We’re looking at a maximum occupancy of 20 to 25 percent in the group – and some are much lower,” he says. When Brown’s in Mayfair, a favorite hotel of Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde, opened this month, it was only nine percent full.
At Brown’s, Forte hosted a victory celebration for the conservative party workers who worked on Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign in 2019.
The Prime Minister came over for a drink with his team, and the bill was £ 12,000. In the same year Sir Rocco donated £ 100,000 to the Conservatives.
He has no plans to donate to the Tories again – “right now I can’t afford that” – and his enthusiasm for Boris now seems lukewarm. “If you generally support a government in its overall policies, it doesn’t mean you have to agree with every action they take,” he says.
Forte lives in England and pays taxes in the UK, and has shattered Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s plans to raise taxes to pay for the crisis.
“We have about £ 300 billion in additional national debt, which at current rates will cost £ half a billion every year to pay off,” he says.
‘Those are peanuts in relation to the total budget expenditure. Why do we have to start paying it back today? We paid off our World War II debt to the Americans three years ago. ‘
Instead, he says the Chancellor must “take action to get the economy moving” – to encourage foreign investment to make Britain “the most attractive country to do business.”
He adds, “The way to increase tax revenues is by increasing the economy, not by imposing heavy taxes on businesses and individuals today.”
Forte, who grew up in Italy, says he is old enough to have traveled across Europe as a student before Britain joined the EU, and welcomes a freer trade movement once Britain is freed from ‘control of Brussels’.
He says, “Now that we are leaving the European Union, we have the opportunity to do even more than in the past, without the restrictions imposed by the EU.”
He adds: ‘Europe is not a static situation – things are constantly changing to be even more restrictive and controlled by Brussels. I see the problems in Italy in their dealings with the EU: they argue over whether to increase the budget by 0.5% of GDP and as a result there are crisis meetings.
The Italian economy is where it was when it entered the monetary union in 2000, but Brussels will not allow expansion. We are talking about cuts in this country; you should see what has been applied in Italy. ‘
Despite the coronavirus, Forte hopes to expand its Rocco Forte Hotels group to open more hotels in Italy and then in the US, starting with New York and Miami.
He has signed a lease for the Baglione Hotel Carlton in Milan, which will open after a two-year renovation led by Forte in early 2023. The Villa Igiea in Palermo is also being upgraded and will reopen in May.
In his group’s first resort – Verdura in Sicily – Forte is developing residential villas that guests can rent, supported by funding from the Italian government. Eight have been completed and a further 12 will be ready in March.
“I see the pandemic as a temporary bleep,” Forte says – although he admits that the uncertainty scares him. “The financial crash was a very difficult time, but you could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “That is not possible with this crisis.”
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