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Sir Rocco Forte wants Britain reopened for business

Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte is a cheerleader for Boris Johnson and Brexit, but the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has tested his loyalty. 

Fresh from arriving at Gatwick after a meeting in Rome at his newly reopened Hotel de la Ville, Sir Rocco launches into a tirade against the Government’s ‘draconian lockdown’, calls mandatory facemasks ‘a bit of a nonsense’ and says the 14-day quarantine 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 families will be destroyed by unemployment

‘Therefore, the whole country shouldn’t be forced to lock down and follow restrictions because of a group of people who are at risk. We should be allowed to get on with our lives in the normal way.’ 

Forte, 75, is in the high-risk category himself. He developed coronavirus the day the Government announced the lockdown in March, and took three weeks to recover. ‘After an hour, I was exhausted,’ he says of the peak of his illness. 

He is now back to full health and has resumed the intensive training regime he took up in his 50s. Before our morning meeting last Friday, the former triathlete had already cycled 23km in 40 minutes with his personal trainer, plus ‘some weight training and bench presses’. 

Having experienced Covid-19, Sir Rocco believes the lockdown is more damaging than the disease. 

He says: ‘The economic damage is going to be huge and we haven’t seen the beginning of it yet – the unemployment that is going to be created, and the families that will be destroyed as a result of that.’ 

He adds: ‘It is understandable that the Government is cautious, but this lockdown has gone on for too long. We need to find ways to normalise the situation as quickly as possible: stop scaring people into thinking everyone who catches the disease is going to die, and get places open.’ 

Sir Rocco, the son of the 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 the Hotel George V in Paris, was bought by TV group Granada in one of the City’s most hostile takeovers. 

He has developed his anti-lockdown stance after witnessing the devastation wreaked on the 14 luxury hotels across his international group, including the Balmoral in Edinburgh and the Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg. 

Last week, he took the ‘heartbreaking’ step of making 20 per cent of his 450 UK staff redundant as he forecasts a £60million loss this financial year. 

‘I have been lobbying to get furlough extended for the hotel industry, but that hasn’t been the case,’ he says. ‘I warned job losses would be the result – and we are starting to see throughout the industry many people are being made redundant.’ 

The five-star Le Richemond hotel in Geneva, owned by Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan, closed indefinitely at the end of August, and Forte says many smaller hotels without access to debt financing will follow. 

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‘We have had five months without any income, and four of those months were the most important of the year for us,’ he says. ‘That’s £60million out of the window, whereas we would have had an inflow of £30million in a normal year.’ 

His group’s biggest market are American tourists, who count for up to 45 per cent of guests, followed by the Middle East and Russia. International travel bans have reduced occupancy rates to ‘rock bottom’. 

‘We are looking at a maximum of 20 to 25 per cent occupancy across the group – and some are much lower than that,’ he says. When Brown’s in Mayfair, a favourite hotel of Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde, opened this month it was only nine per cent full. 

Brown’s was where Forte hosted a victory celebration for Conservative party staff who worked on Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign in 2019. 

The Prime Minister dropped in for a drink with his team, and the bill came to £12,000. In the same year, Sir Rocco donated £100,000 to the Conservatives. 

He has no plans to donate to the Tories again – ‘at the moment I can’t afford to’ – 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 tax in the UK, and has short shrift for Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s plans to raise taxes to pay for the crisis.

‘We have about £300billion of extra national debt, which at today’s rates will cost half a billion pounds to service each year,’ he says. 

‘That’s peanuts in relation to the overall Budget expenditure. Why do we have to start repaying it today? We finished repaying our Second World War debt to the Americans three years ago.’ 

Instead, he says the Chancellor should ‘take action to get the economy moving’ – to encourage foreign investment to make Britain ‘the most attractive country to do business in’. 

He adds: ‘The way to raise tax revenue is to increase the size of the economy, not by imposing heavy taxes on businesses and individuals today.’ 

Forte, who grew up in the UK but is of Italian heritage, says he is old enough to have travelled around Europe as a student before Britain joined the EU, and welcomes a freer movement of trade once Britain is released from ‘the control of Brussels’. 

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He says: ‘Now we are leaving the European Union, we have an opportunity to do that even more than we have in the past, without the restrictions of the EU imposed on us.’ 

He adds: ‘Europe is not a static situation – things are continually moving to become even more restrictive and more controlled by Brussels. I see the problems in Italy with their dealings with the EU: they are arguing about whether they can increase the budget by 0.5 per cent of GDP and there are crisis meetings as a result of that. 

‘The Italian economy is where it was when it joined the monetary union in 2000, but Brussels will not allow expansion. We talk about austerity in this country; you should see what has been applied in Italy.’ 

Despite coronavirus, Forte hopes to expand his Rocco Forte Hotels group to open further hotels across Italy and then 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 refurbishment under Forte’s guidance in early 2023. The Villa Igiea in Palermo is also being upgraded and will reopen next May. 

At his group’s first resort – Verdura on Sicily – Forte is developing residential villas for guests to rent, backed by funding from the Italian government. Eight have been completed, and a further 12 will be finished by March. 

‘I see the pandemic as a temporary blip,’ says Forte – although he admits 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. ‘With this crisis, you can’t.’

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