There has been a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere at the Savoy hotel, Florence, in the past few months, and the 52 full-time staff have been feeling insecure about the future.
The employees' union has also been edgy. While engineers, architects and interior designers have been coming and going, and secret meetings have been taking place, employees have continued the day-to-day running of the 101-bedroom hotel with the threat of losing their jobs hanging over them.
Until two weeks ago, no one knew whether or not the Savoy would close for the 15-month refurbishment, starting in November this year. Under Italian law, Sir Rocco Forte's RF Hotels, which manages the property, has the right to close the hotel, get rid of all the staff and start afresh when the Savoy reopens in 2000.
"We're not dismissing anyone - although there is this law which allows us to, because the closure is for longer than 12 months. We expressly said we didn't want to use it, but the union was scared we were going to," says Moreno Occhiolini, managing director of the Savoy.
Now the air has finally been cleared. After months of negotiations with union representatives, an agreement has been reached which was approved by staff two weeks ago.
With the help of a labour consultant, he has found an alternative to laying off staff when the hotel is closed. For the first six months from November, the Savoy will make a financial contribution to its employees, to be topped up by the social security department.
Occhiolini recognises that many staff have been with the hotel for so long that they don't know any other way of life. "We're in business to be successful, but you've got to respect the past, even though it's not our past," he says.
For the second six-month period, from May next year, the season in Florence will kick in and more hotel work will be available. So the Savoy will cut its contribution to staff to a minimum.
Italy is not like the UK in terms of staff turnover. People who have a job tend to stay in it for a long time, and those who lose their jobs find it difficult to secure new positions. "People have grown up in the jobs-for-life culture and with stability in whatever they do. We will support them and help them look for jobs. I'm asking industry colleagues who use seasonal staff to consider them," says Occhiolini.
The final period before reopening will involve training to bring staff from four- to five-star service standard. Employees who have been through the first two phases and who want to return to the Savoy will automatically go through training.
On top of this three-phase agreement, staff will also have the opportunity to negotiate with Occhiolini on an individual basis. There will be financial incentives from the company for people to take early retirement and for those willing to look for another job. In the long term, the company may not have to pay out for too many staff over the whole 15-month period.
A few people will remain with RF Hotels for the duration of the refurbishment. Some will be transferred to other properties within the group and some of the maintenance staff will, Occhiolini hopes, be taken on by the building contractor who does the work. This will have several advantages for the Savoy, if Occhiolini can make it work. The hotel will have a maintenance team who worked on the installation of the new equipment and will be responsible for it when the hotel reopens. It cuts the cost for the company in payments over the period of closure and, also, the staff stay in continuous employment, which motivates them for the reopening.
Next visit to the Savoy: 17 September