Top resorts are his Forte
SCIACCA, Italy – Rocco Forte sits down to a late lunch – it’s just after 3 p.m. – at Verdura Golf & Spa Resort in Sicily, and looks very much at home, as he should. Forte built the sprawling seaside resort that opened in 2009, just outside of the town of Sciacca.
It’s a light lunch, just a bit of prosciutto and mozzarella and a glass of white wine, which seems to fit with Forte’s trim, athletic build.
Despite the Italian invasion in pro golf, led by the Molinari brothers and Matteo Manassero, Sicily didn’t get its first real golf course until 1993. And if the island finally has become an attractive golf destination, much of the credit goes to Forte.
“If I didn’t have a passion for golf, I would have never done this,” he said as he recounts some of the difficulties he ran into, including fierce opposition from the Green Party in Sicily and having to buy property from 72 owners to finally get the nearly 600 acres he needed.
“This is by far the most luxurious resort that exists in Sicily, and it’s one of the best resorts in the Mediterranean,” Forte said, not without justification.
While there’s a certain feeling that five stars in Italy is never really five stars, that’s not the case with Rocco Forte Hotels, 13 distinctive properties (and growing) scattered primarily across Europe. Like Verdura, his other Italian properties, in Rome and in Florence, are top of the line.
“My message is service, service, service,” he said.
Forte says his best hotels actually are in Germany, because his message gets across: “I say I want it like this, and that’s the way they do it. Here in Italy, it’s a little different.”
But his employees are catching on, and Forte’s visits help everyone learn the Rocco Forte style.
“They’re proud of this place and what it’s about,” he notes. And they should be. From the golf courses and the tennis courts to the 4,000-square-foot spa and the presidential suite – with its private swimming pool – Verdura is an impressive operation.
Forte originally worked with his father’s company, which after merging with Trust Houses, became a major empire, with 800 hotels, 1,000 restaurants and 100,000 employees.
But the new company faced a hostile takeover, and in 1995 Rocco was forced out. The next year, he started his own luxury hotel line.
Forte, who once got down to an 8 or 9 handicap, let his game diminish a bit as he took up marathons – eight in a row in London, at one point – and then triathlons. But he still tries to play once a week in England, either at Sunningdale or at The Wisely, near his country home. He clearly loves the game and regularly competes in the European Tour’s pro-am, the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
“It’s an absolute game,” he said. “It gets you. You always think you’ve found the secret and can’t wait to get out there.”
Sure enough, a couple of hours after lunch, Forte was on the range, hitting balls as the sun set behind him.
He complains that most golf resorts have a nice hotel, but not great golf.
“Here the golf is as luxurious as the rest of the environment,” he said. “I tried to make it like an exclusive private course.”
Forte got Kyle Phillips to design two 18-hole courses, as well as a par-3nine-hole course.
The director of golf is Niall Cameron, an affable Scot who has an impressive resume, which includes growing up as a member at Turnberry and serving as former head pro at Royal St. George’s. Cameron also has designed the new golf course at Assoufid, a resort that opens in 2013 in Marrakech, Morocco, and will be managed by Forte.
Forte is proud of Verdura, and of his role in promoting high-end tourism and golf in Sicily.
“I wanted to go to the south of Italy, and you don’t get much farther south than this,” he says.
Although he admits that Sicily still needs to improve its infrastructure “significantly,” Forte believes the process has begun.
“There’s a chicken and an egg to everything, and Verdura should serve as a catalyst for a lot of other things to happen,” Forte said.
He recalls with pride running into some golfers from Milan at Verdura who told him, “We finally have a place we can go to in Italy.”
Some challenges remain – including erosion along the coastline threatening two holes – but Forte is optimistic that his efforts will pay off:
“At the end of the day, I think it’s going to be worth it.”