by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | September 29, 2016

Cheryl-Anne SturkenRocco Forte Hotels, a small, ultra-luxury hotel group that got its start in 1996, is spreading its wings. While the currently existing 10 properties in its collection are largely European-based, the chain is branching into the Middle East and Asia, and bulking up its sales team as it zeroes in on the group market.

Assila Hotel in Jeddah, Saudi ArabiaSpeaking at an industry conference last year, Sir Rocco Forte, founder of this closely held family company that he began with his sister, Olga Polizzi, revealed plans to double the number of hotels in its portfolio by 2020. By painstakingly renovating historical buildings and transforming them into luxury outposts such as the 146-room Hotel de Rome in Berlin in the former Dresdner Bank headquarters, the company is well on its way.

In 2014 RFH formed a strategic partnership with Strategico Italiano Spa, an Italian wealth fund. The latter has since made a significant investment in the company, with the intention of growing the chain's presence in Italy, which currently stands at two properties: the Hotel de Russie in Rome and the Hotel Savoy in Florence. The new injection of capital, however, is also powering Rocco Forte's expansion plans further afield, where the company already is involved in a massive mixed-use luxury development in Shanghai, China (more on this later).

Natasha Shah, director of global conference and incentive sales for RFH, filled me in on the company's ambitious plans from her base in New York City: "Meetings and incentives have become a larger focus for us within the last three years," she said. "It's a segment we are looking to grow, which is why we have bulked up our team in the U.S."

Shah pointed out that most of the brand's group business is U.S.-driven. "We recognize there is a need to have a presence here in the U.S., especially since we don't have an actual property and the brand recognition that goes with it," she said, noting that RFH ended its longtime affiliation (and listing) with global marketing consortium Leading Hotels of the World in January 2016. As she explained, "We've got such a large sales team, that we felt we could handle it on our own."

Shah said that because Rocco Forte's hotels are unique to their destination and not branded with the company name, it's even more difficult for clients to make the brand connection. "Planners know the Balmoral in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is a huge meeting property, but they don't make the connection to the Rocco Forte brand," she said. "But that is also our greatest selling point. Our hotels are truly authentic, and no two look alike."

In the past several months, Shah and the sales team have stepped up their sales efforts, making direct calls on clients and working with third-party firms such as HelmsBriscoe and ConferenceDirect. Among the brand's new initiatives is Forte Organics, a line of bio-cosmetic products created by Effegi Lab in Italy to be used exclusively in Rocco Forte hotel spas. And, this year the company launched a new brandwide food-and-beverage philosophy, centered on nutritious, locally-sourced organic foods. Travelers can expect to find a slew of new gluten-free options in all of the brand's F&B outlets, including mini bars.

On the expansion front, RFH is in active discussions for developments in Venice, Italy; Milan, Spain; and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The hotel will feature four restaurants, a full-service spa, a 4,000-square foot ballroom and 11 meeting rooms. Rocco Forte's most ambitious project will also be its first venture into Asia, in China. A 280-room hotel, yet to be named, will take over the top 15 floors of a building in a new urban complex on Shanghai's Xuhui Riverside area, known as the West Bund. It will feature a grand ballroom, as well as extensive meeting and event space. "Shanghai is going to really push the envelope on group luxury," said Shah. "There is literally nothing that you will be able to compare it to."