Hotels & hospitality

The Italian Job

Following a six-year restoration, Castillo di Casole in Tuscany is finally due to open this summer. General manager Bart Spoorenberg describes the operational challenges of transforming a one-time Etruscan castle into a 41-suite boutique hotel and why hotel management is in his blood.

With Castillo di Casole opening on the 1 July, reservations have just gone live and we’re getting a lot of requests coming in, ranging from car launches to weddings. I have to be careful about that last one as weddings can easily take over a whole hotel.

My background has been very diverse. I studied hotel management in Holland, before moving to the US, where I was part of the opening team of the St Regis in New York. Later, I was asked to come to Italy when Sheraton purchased the CIGA hotels.

Apart from a stint in Brussels, I have been in Italy for the last 12 years. First, I managed the Cala di Volpe in Sardinia, and next the Hotel Romazzino. Finally, Timbers Resorts found me, and I decided to jump ship. That was in 2008 and I’ve been with Castello di Casole ever since.

The project was originally conceived in 2005 and took some time to get off the ground. There were some delays in the conversion process, owing to design, historical building oversight committees, and problems with the local town.

At the time, we kept going where we could, but we scaled it back a lot. Now we’re back up to full speed. It’s a unique product, not just because it is in Tuscany but because of the services that go with it, the estate.

My job is to manage the operations side of the resort. This is particularly challenging because we have two different types of structures – the hotel and private homes. There are synergies, and we’re looking to see if we can realise as many as possible, but we have to offer very distinct types of services.

We’re currently in the process of hiring most of our staff. The executive team is on board, and they’re extremely established, with an average of 20 years’ experience each. We’ve just hired the kitchen manager, F&B manager, bar manager and so on; most of the other staff will come in from mid-May.

One of the promises we’ve made to the local town is that we’ll hire locally. A lot of our staff are without experience, and have never even seen a five-star hotel, so they’ll all have to be trained from the ground up.

In part, this was a deliberate decision; I’ve always said you hire for attitude and train for skills. There’s just this connection, like this person gets it, and you see it. While passion is one of these overused words in our industry, these people really have it.

Although I didn’t select the architects and design partners, I have been involved with the designer from the ground up. I remember the first model room that they put together, which was three months after I joined. I think the only thing that remained from that room is the flooring – everything else was changed. Not the couches, not the curtains, not the light fixtures, nothing has remained the same.

It was an interesting process because they thought they had it nailed. While they’re looking at the wow factor, I’m looking at operations and maintenance, but I think we eventually found a happy medium.

I don’t think informality excludes five star luxury – actually, the opposite is the case. People in these country hotels are looking to relax. If they want to walk around in shorts in summer, they should be able to do so, and go to a pizzeria wearing shorts and flip-flops.

It’s all about making them comfortable. Luxury here involves going back to basics – it’s about enjoying good food, good wine, not worrying about anything, feeling at home. I don’t think that has to do with whether or not staff wear a tie.

The villas too are about simplicity. They’re built to share with friends and family. We have guests coming in from all over the world, bringing in grandpa and grandma and doing big dinners. Our owners don’t want a private chef, they want a local housewife to come in and cook the local food that people eat at home.

The bathroom lines have been developed with local products – rosemary and sage, referencing the spa. I don’t necessarily think more is better. We’re not looking to give people amenities morning, noon and night, but what we do, we want to do right.

I expect my key markets to be the UK, US, Benelux and Germany. We’re working on the home market but we feel that’s going to be beneficial mostly during the off-season. Then, we’re looking at small corporate groups, culinary getaways and product presentations. During peak months, it’s a balancing act between groups and individual clients.

Considering the recession, I feel very fortunate to be opening this year, rather than, as scheduled, in 2009 or 2010. In another few weeks, we’ll be taking possession of the hotel, and that’s exciting. My role will become more operational, which is something I’ve missed – it’s in my blood.

This article appears in the Spring 2012 edition of Hotel Management International

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