Navigating the Crisis | Irene Forte, Wellness Director, Rocco Forte Hotels; and Founder & CEO, Irene Forte Skincare
“This pandemic has also allowed us to reassess how we do business and allowed us to do all the things that ‘we didn’t necessarily have time to do before’.”
In today’s Luxury Leader profile we meet Irene Forte – Wellness Director of Rocco Forte Hotels and Founder & CEO of her eponymous skincare line – who discusses the business of beauty and advice she’d give to her younger self, as well as the impact the coronavirus crisis has had on the wellness sector, and the challenges that lie ahead for hospitality.
Can you tell us about your company and role?
Rocco Forte Hotels is a family-run luxury hotel chain, with beautiful properties in exceptional locations. Each hotel reflects the location of the city it is in and each steeped in the spirit of its setting, united by the Forte family’s signature Anglo-Italian style and warmth. Brown’s Hotel in the heart of Mayfair for example is London’s first hotel and with its rich history personifies the refined sophistication of modern British luxury. My role as Wellness Director involves creating the wellness concept for the group and executing it, as well as overseeing all Rocco Forte Spas operations and having all Spa Managers/ Directors report into me. It also involves concept creation for all new spa openings.
Irene Forte Skincare is a skincare line I launched at the end of 2018 after three years of research and development. The approach is synonymous with the very best that Sicily has to offer, distilling the benefits of the Mediterranean diet into sustainable, natural skincare that nourishes the skin from the outside in. As CEO to a start-up, I oversee every area of the business, be it sales, branding, accounts, you name it…
What impact has the current COVID-19 situation had on your business, and how are you adapting to this?
ROCCO FORTE HOTELS / SPAS
We are in unprecedented territory and it is likely that the leisure and tourism industry will not recover for a long time. Our energy will have to focus on the domestic market. Luckily, for most of our city hotel spas, the local market makes up on average 60% of our business. However, we do not really know whether or when spas will be able to open again, particularly due to social distancing. Given our spas are closed; I have not been able to do my job to full capacity during this period.
Instead, what I have been doing to keep things going is been in regular contact with the Spa team across all the hotels. In preparation for eventually re-opening, we have been working on new hygiene, sanitation and service protocols. We have also been revising our treatment offering, and looking at new ways to generate revenue. We have also been using this time to build on our relationships with our customers, for example, from sharing self-care tips to how to achieve an at-home spa experience.
It is still business as usual for new openings and future projects. Therefore, I am busy working on concepts, design & layout, treatment offering, etc. for a number of new and exciting projects.
IRENE FORTE SKINCARE
One of our biggest challenges is that our supply chain has been hugely affected by Covid-19. Everything is produced in North Italy so our stock is incredibly low and resulting in significant revenue loss. In addition, all the spas that we supply are currently closed, including Brown’s Hotel and Urban Retreat in London. All freelance therapists using our products are out of work and our brick & mortar stores, such as Liberty are not open; and Net-a-Porter is currently only shipping to Hong Kong. Overall, we have already lost 80% of our sales channels.
However, we have a few strong online retailers still open and therefore our focus has shifted to direct-to-consumer via our e-commerce. Similarly, as we have done with Rocco Forte Spas, we have placed an emphasis on at-home self-care through press interviews, IGTV how-to videos, our blog, and newsletter. We want to help our consumers get the right self-care routines, especially given that they have additional time to adopt and perform a daily skincare regime.
Furthermore, we have been working on an EU-regulated hand sanitiser with 70% alcohol, enriched with organic Aloe Leaf Juice and a blend of pure essential oils, including Lemon, Sage and Thyme. This will be launched in the next few weeks and whilst the trend for hand sanitisers may reverse over time, I believe it will persist until there is a vaccine (and potentially even beyond) as consumers will have to remain vigilant about hygiene.
This pandemic has also allowed us to reassess how we do business and allowed us to do all the things that ‘we didn’t necessarily have time to do before’.
What long-lasting changes to your role and business are you anticipating in light of the current situation?
ROCCO FORTE HOTELS / SPAS
I expect spas will have a difficult time until there is a vaccine. Therefore, my role will be to ensure that we have the most stringent hygiene standards in place, and hence to help our spas reassure customers that it is safe to visit. I will also have to be inventive with my teams, and look for ways to adapt our offering and generate new revenue (e.g. virtual fitness classes and self-massage sessions, virtual skin consultations, online product shops with therapist recommendation, and so on).
There will be greater focus on bolstering customers’ immune systems and I plan to push wellness to our customers at various touchpoints of our hotels. This will include sleep, movement, a balanced diet and anti-stress, such as mindfulness and meditation practices.
IRENE FORTE SKINCARE
The skincare segment has been experiencing a boom relative to the broader beauty category over the last three years. Research suggests that skincare will continue to outperform other beauty categories. Self-care will likely see permanent growth as usage of products such as hand sanitisers and moisturisers become a part of people’s daily routine. Consumers will certainly spend less on beauty and personal care products; however, that is not to say that they will not spend- they will just place greater emphasis on relative value. Direct-to-consumer will become even more important.
In short, I think there is reason to be extremely optimistic for the future of skincare.
Can you tell us about your career path and progression into the business?
I am fortunate enough to be born into a family with a history of renowned hospitality, but that is not to say that I didn’t have to work hard to earn my place within the company. I spent all school holidays and my gap year working in the various hotel departments within the group and during my year abroad from university, I was interim Communications Manager at Verdura Resort, Sicily, for six months.
After graduating from Oxford University with a BA in French and Italian, I completed a 6-month development programme at Brown’s Hotel, London. This experience allowed me to work with various departments within the hotel. From here, I joined the Rocco Forte Hotels’ central team as Quality Standards Executive to create brand standards that included a new service philosophy and values, as well as new departmental Standard Operating Procedures, which are now established across all Rocco Forte properties. The following year, I was awarded £250k in government funding to create a careers and development tool for the hospitality industry. This led to the “Map My Future” app.
Whilst still overseeing elements of learning and development for the hotels, I started to manage the Spa and Fitness proposition and launched Rocco Forte Spas that included a new spa philosophy and healthy eating aspect called Rocco Forte Nourish. My title changed to Group Project Director as I was overseeing a number of different projects for the group. In 2016, I was awarded the Caterer Rising Star Shine Award and the following year, was one of the Acorn 30 under 30.
My position now as Wellness Director gives me time to focus on wellness – a big passion of mine. This also gave me time to launch my eponymous skincare line, Irene Forte Skincare. I am immensely proud to have launched my own skincare line, but it was not an easy decision to make. It meant not giving 100% of my time and energy to Rocco Forte Hotels and hence breaking away slightly from the family business.
The original skincare line began in 2015 when I debuted Forte Organics for Rocco Forte Hotels. I wanted to create something that unified all of the group’s spas. I also knew that Rocco Forte Hotels had an amazing wealth of active organic ingredients at Verdura Resort. After looking at a number of Italian labs, I came across Doctor Francesca Ferri of EffegiLab in Trento who I immediately knew was the right fit to help me bring my skincare line to life. The immediate positive reception to the first line made me want to learn more, create more and launch an even bigger line. I also wanted to do something that was fully my own, and that is why I took the big decision to launch Irene Forte Skincare. Together with Ferri’s team of biologists and dermatologists, we used the culmination of 35 years of research over 3 years to develop this line and launched Irene Forte Skincare.
What advice do you wish you had been given or would you go back and give yourself at key points in your career?
I am a true believer that one learns from their mistakes; you learn by doing. I know I have made mistakes along the road and still do but I do not regret any of these as I have only learnt from making them.
I have always been quite headstrong and determined. I was also never under any illusion that launching my business was going to be straightforward. I knew I would have to be resilient, persevere and never give up. My father is a great example of this as he has consistently shown me that the business world is tough and without working hard and giving it your all, you will never succeed.
If I was to give advice to my younger self – this is what it would say:
Do not get emotional when having to negotiate. I have always struggled with this, particularly given that family is often involved.
Try to connect and meet with as many experienced people in the industry you are involved in and get as much advice from these individuals as you possibly can.
Surround yourself with the right support network; have a team (if applicable) that you can rely on, that is not scared to give you their opinion, that you trust, and that complements your own skill set.
Learn to take criticism and adapt things following feedback.
Things will never go as smoothly as you think and some things will not work out but you just need to be strong enough to keep persevering.