Spotlight on Italian Hospitality
Italy’s travel & tourism sectors have been performing strongly of late and the outlook for continued growth remains positive. Now welcoming more than 48 million tourists annually, Italy has become the most visited country in the world, when measured by international tourist arrivals. Qualitatively, Italy fares well, too, picking up the gong for ‘Best European Country’ in the Telegraph Travel Awards 2017 as voted by consumers. Boasting more UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites than any other country (47), beautiful countryside, glamorous beaches, fabulous fashion and a cuisine that enjoys universal appeal, it’s easy to understand why tourists are so enamoured with the nation.
Given the demand from well-travelled international visitors, how is it, then, that the vast majority of hotels in Italy remain so dated and tired? Low quality pervades while prices are eye-wateringly high. Why are sophisticated, worldly tourists obliged to and seemingly content to pay through the nose to experience inferior accommodation, that looks out of fashion even to my Nonna.
It’s a paradox all the more striking considering that Italy is deservedly renowned as one of the most design conscious and creatively capable of nations. Indeed, ‘Made in Italy’ is a global shorthand for leading edge design across industries from fashion and furnishings to supercars and yachts. Why has the sense of style that defines brands from Armani to Cassina, Ferrari and Riva, to mention just a handful, not permeated the interior and product design of the country’s hotels and resorts?
As the daughter of an Italian who proudly maintains strong connections to my home region of Veneto,
I can perceive two reasons for this anomaly although neither provides a satisfactory excuse and both pose considerable risk to sustained tourism success.
First, the majority of Italian hotels are small or medium in size and remain largely family-run concerns. Even in the big cities, international corporate chains are still scarce, accounting for only 4.1% of the total rooms available in 2015. Without doubt, this produces a pleasantly personal approach to hotel keeping but it has also resulted in a low penetration of global standards or best practices in product design, guest experience, and service. With few benchmarks, local hoteliers adhere to their own view of the world and perpetuate rules and practices that may long have passed their expiration date. In terms of hotel hardware, becoming stuck in the proverbial rut is exacerbated by an unwillingness or inability to part with privately held capital to fund repairs and renewals yet alone to invest in modernising infrastructure or decor.
More significant, however, is the local hotelier’s ability to fall back on the underlying allure and charm of the Italian lifestyle, which creates a kind of aura of forgiveness around the customer who obligingly turns a blind eye to the frequent ‘material’ deficiencies. Italians have made an art form of enjoying and promoting a way of life that values noble and wholesome qualities, such as family, conversation, connection, pleasure, vitality and well-being, as the fundamentals of life.
Affectionately known as la dolce vita, after Fellini’s landed film, this simpler and slower lifestyle, which restores the human spirit and inspires greater consciousness and internal tranquility, is rightly considered a rare and precious luxury in today’s fast-paced, urban society. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that three quarters of tourist arrivals into Italy come for leisure and are ready to be seduced by this deep sense of contentment. Amid a landscape of organic beauty, rich in nature and history, it’s understandable that they forgive more fickle or transient pleasures, including modern amenities, contemporary interiors and furnishings.
But who says the charm of la dolce vita and a broader national culture, which does pride itself on style, have to be mutually exclusive? Recently, Luxury Branding has been developing the destination concept and branding for a mixed use resort in northern Tuscany. Our governing idea has been to reimagine the tired Tuscan tale through an offering that blends the best of history with an entirely more progressive view of Italian hospitality: old wine in new bottles if you like. And in our search for comparators, we found two examples that demonstrate perfectly how, at once, to extol the beauty of Italian living while elevating the guest experience through modern distinction.
La Bandita is the renegade brand behind two properties; one a 12-room funked-up townhouse and the other an elegant luxury villa come stylish country inn. Both challenge the outdated and typically tired Tuscan aesthetic to create sleek yet inviting hotels that transcend the Tuscan lifestyle by providing environments and experiences designed for a design literate and aspirational audience.
Locanda al Colle is an elegant farmhouse where charm and grace create the backdrop for contemporary artwork and modern design. The attention to detail that has gone into the curation of modern furnishings has created a stunning hotel that feels luxurious and homely in equal measure.
It’s interesting to note the background of each brand’s visionary. La Bandita was created by a former music executive from New York and his wife, a writer for Condé Nast Traveler, while Locanda al Colle,
is the brainchild of an internationally acclaimed fashion designer who spent part of his career in Uruguay. Both owners have infused their appreciation of Italian hospitality with their international influences, capabilities and experiences, which were also cultivated outside the hospitality industry itself. Their understanding of the modern traveller’s mindset is revealed in details which combine to produce innovative, alluring and relevant concepts for a worldly guest who loves Italy but doesn’t wish to compromise their sensibilities. In the context of a stagnant hospitality market, their differentiation and desirability are shining examples of what can be done.
Of course, there are many more reasons to explain why Italian hotels can be so shoddy: e.g. seasonality, a sluggish economy and a relatively insular culture with a native mindset more inclined to retrospection than progression.
I, for one, hope that we’ll see more collision between the discrete worlds of high-design and humble-living. The strongest concepts are often born from a creative tension and the duality at the core of these universes strikes me as brimming with potential.
Perhaps further foreign interventions and new world influences will be required to catalyse and propel change in the market, or perhaps the international traveller needs to find the confidence to demand more from Italian hotels. One thing is for sure, however, there is considerable opportunity for improvement.