ext week the Georgian doors of Brown's hotel in London's Mayfair will once again swing open for business. But it's not the Brown's it once was. Indeed, a £19m refurbishment by new owner Rocco Forte Hotels could at last see the hotel take its place among the best in the capital, something it has never quite managed in its recent history.
"The new Brown's will bear only a passing resemblance to what was there before we closed it, which was rather a run-down, old-fashioned hotel," says a buoyant Sir Rocco Forte.
While Brown's may have failed in the past to become one of London's top-rated hotels, it is still a famous name, and more than a few visitors over the coming months will be wanting to see the changes Forte has made.
The hotel was closed in April 2004 for a refurbishment that has taken 18 months. Originally, the plan was to complete the refit in phases, keeping the hotel trading. But once work began it became clear there was more to do than originally thought.
"Ideally, you want to keep a hotel open," says Forte, "but the reality with Brown's was that there was such a major amount of work to be done. We completely reconfigured the rooms and bathrooms and put new plumbing and electrics in, so effectively it's a brand new hotel above ground floor. There's no way we could have done that and kept the hotel going."
Forte bought Brown's for £51.5m from Raffles Holdings in July 2003. Raffles had acquired the hotel six years earlier when Granada broke up the former Forte company. Forte, then Trust Houses, bought Brown's in 1968, running it as part of its Exclusive collection of hotels. But when the company became the subject of a hostile takeover in 1996, ownership of the hotel passed to Granada.
The recent return of Brown's to the company fold was seen by observers as a coup for Forte, who was keen to have a London base for his growing portfolio of hotels. The purchase was financed by a family consortium - Sir Rocco Forte & Family - and the Bank of Scotland, which was already a joint-venture partner with the company on other properties.
That Brown's has reverted to Forte ownership adds a nice twist to its history, but he plays down any hint of personal triumph. "The fact the hotel was part of the Forte group is nice, but really it's neither here nor there," he says. "Brown's fits in with what we're doing - it's not too big; it's an intimate hotel; and it's in a fantastic location - basically, the perfect product for us. The fact that it's Brown's and has a well-known name and a good following also helps.
"Having a hotel in London is very important. It's our base. It's a good thing to have a hotel where you have your headquarters so when you are taking people out to lunch you're showing them the group in action. London is one of the most important hotel cities in the world. It's a crossroads for people travelling from all parts of the world and, therefore, a hotel in London is very visible."
The refurbishment has cost £19m - a couple of million pounds over budget - but major changes have been made. The hotel's reception area has been reconfigured and all the rooms enlarged, with an additional floor added. The hotel has gained one more bedroom and added space to all 117. Fifteen of the rooms are spacious suites.
Olga Polizzi, Forte's sister and officially Rocco Forte Hotels' director of design, has been responsible for the refurbishment of Brown's.
She has had a hand in designing many of his luxury hotels, although she is now stepping back to oversee the work of other designers. Her trademark stamp is contemporary, modern and edgy, with a softness that makes hotels comfortable and accessible. And she doesn't shy away from boldness.
Sense of history At Brown's the traditional features of the public areas have been retained, so the hotel still has a sense of history. Enormous Georgian sash windows, wooden fireplaces, oak panelling and high ceilings remain, lending character and spaciousness. But small, new details are evident. The entrance hall on Albemarle Street, for example, has a new mosaic floor; the reception area has been reworked, creating a more natural flow from reception to check-in; and banquette seating in the restaurant adds a less formal feel.
Downstairs, the six private dining rooms, which can accommodate up to 120 guests, have been left intact, with big fireplaces, gilt mirrors and huge dimensions. However, bold designer wallpaper in two of the rooms enhances their dramatic appeal.
The new Donovan Bar on the ground floor, with its subtle lighting and intimate seating, pays homage to the British photographer Terence Donovan, and his prints line the walls. A Bill Amberg-designed leather bar is dominated by an original stained-glass window behind, back-lit to stunning effect.
Polizzi's hand in the 85-seat Grill restaurant (with three-course lunch at £25 per head) is again underplayed, featuring original wooden panelling with moss-coloured banquette seating, cream linen Roman blinds and original 1930s Italian lights.
But it's upstairs that the design becomes more contemporary, and what could have been a traditional, chintzy hotel has been turned into one with a very modern, European feel. Bedrooms (starting at £295 per night, with a suite costing £2,495) are more akin to trendy boutique hotels with their stark, almost masculine touches, neutral wall colours and hi-tech finishes, which include leather desks and, in some rooms, limed oak floors. All rooms have high-speed internet access, interactive video on demand and two-line phones. The rooms also have neat, walk-in wardrobes with minibars and safes, and all feature at least one antique that blends the old with the new.
So is this the Rocco Forte signature look? "All the hotels are quite different," claims Forte. "My sister hasn't done all the hotels herself; we've used outside designers who she guides, as normally they haven't done a hotel before.
"We prefer using designers who haven't worked on hotels before, because they bring a fresh approach. The fact my sister is there makes it possible, because she understands the issues that relate to hotels. She can guide them and make sure the rooms function from a hotel point of view and are comfortable for the guests," he says. "I leave the design more or less to her. I tend to look at practicalities - I see a room and look at whether I feel comfortable in it. If I'm reading or watching television or listening to music, does it all work for me?"
Brown's is made up of a series of typical London Georgian townhouses. It was London's first upmarket hotel - opened in 1837 by Lord Byron's valet, James Brown, when he acquired four adjacent townhouses in Dover Street. In 1859 the hotel was bought by James John Ford, who extended it into the St George's hotel on Albemarle Street, which backs on to the Dover Street property.
Alexander Graham Bell is said to have made the UK's first telephone call from Brown's in 1876, and Rudyard Kipling wrote many of his books there.
This history and the hotel's quintessential English feel has helped it retain a loyal following. Contractors working on the refurbishment speak of people coming to the door and pointing out the room they stayed in 60 or so years ago.
One rumour currently doing the circuit is that an American has booked a room at the new-look Brown's for 100 nights a year for the next 10 years. Sadly for the sales team it turns out to be untrue, but bookings are already looking healthy for Christmas and the New Year, and the first week of trading is proving popular with some guests who are keen to see the changes.
But others have expressed concern about the new look, and Forte is realistic. "I think it was important to keep the cosiness and feel of Brown's and try to keep an English feel to it. There will be some customers who won't like what we've done. People say to me ‘Don't change it,' and then they never go to the place. I've never known a hotel that has generated this degree of interest."
Recruitment With the hotel shutting for 18 months, most of the staff had to be laid off and a new line-up sought before the opening. Forte displayed some of the old magic with the recruitment of well-known Savoy Grill matre d' Angelo Maresca and executive chef Laurence Glayzer, whose CV also includes stints at Harry's Bar and the Ritz. The general manager will be Stuart Johnson, who has moved back into hotels from his job as UK publishing director for Cond Nast Johansens. He has worked for Cliveden, Claridge's and the Connaught, and he became the youngest-ever hotel manager at the Savoy at the age of 32.
So what next for Rocco Forte Hotels? Three hotels are due to open in Germany over the next two years, and the group has just announced a new 101-bedroom project in Prague. Forte's most ambitious project yet, a new-build golf and spa resort near the village of Verdura on the southern coast of Sicily, is due to open in 2007. "I want to be in Paris, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona and Moscow - that's where I'm actively looking. We've signed a deal in Prague, and there's a very likely site in Moscow and a possible one in Milan. The idea is to become the European luxury hotel chain.
"We're starting to look at management contracts, but until we've established the brand and are in a strong enough position to demand what we want, we won't get into contracts. I'd only do a management contract if I could control the way the hotel is designed and the decoration - it's got to fit in with the idea of the chain."
But, for now, Forte is content. He's running a business which he admits is more focused than the old Forte empire ever was, and prefers that. Nor is he building a business to sell or planning a stock market flotation. "I don't have an exit strategy. I am doing something that I very much enjoy - I find the hotel business fascinating. If somebody asked me if I'd take over a big chain and run it, then I would say no. I'd rather carry on doing what I'm doing now.
"There's a certain satisfaction in building something from scratch, knowing that 10 years ago Rocco Forte Hotels didn't exist."
How the new Forte has grown
Since it was established by Sir Rocco Forte in 1996, Rocco Forte Hotels has steadily expanded its portfolio of luxury hotels in several key European destinations. It now has: Hotel de Russie, Rome; Hotel Savoy, Florence; the Balmoral, Edinburgh; St David's Hotel & Spa, Cardiff; the Lowry hotel, Manchester; Hotel Astoria, St Petersburg; Hotel Amigo, Brussels; Le Richemond, Geneva; Château de Bagnols, Beaujolais, which is managed by the company on behalf of Lady Hamlyn; and Brown's hotel, London.
Three hotels are due to open in Germany, including the Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt (2006), the Hotel de Rome, Berlin (2006) and the Hotel Ludwig in Munich, scheduled to open in 2007. The year after next sees the opening of the Verdura Golf & Spa Resort in Sicily; and a new hotel in Prague, a £65m joint venture between Rocco Forte Hotels and Bank of Scotland, is scheduled to open in 2007.
In the year to the end of April 2004 the group reported a 19% increase in pre-tax profit to £10m. The company saw sales across its then 10 hotels rise by 12.4% to £87.8m. Occupancy grew by six percentage points, average room rate by 1% and food and beverage sales
About Sir Rocco
Sir Rocco Forte, 60, is chairman and chief executive of Rocco Forte Hotels, the company he founded in 1996. His aim was always to create a collection of luxury European hotels with high levels of service that are stylishly designed and have their own personality, reflecting their location and nationality.
He was formerly chairman and chief executive of Forte Plc, the company founded in 1934 by his father, Lord Forte. As chairman he had responsibility for more than 800 hotels, 1,000 restaurants and nearly 10,000 employees in 50 countries across the globe. He was also responsible for taking the family firm from a UK-based operation to an international player by purchasing the Le Meridien chain in 1994 from Air France as well as a handful of prestigious hotels, including the George V in Paris, the Sandy Lane in Barbados, the Ritz in Madrid and the Plaza Athénée in New York.
His time as chairman was thwarted, however, when the company became the subject of a hostile takeover bid by Granada in 1996. It was subsequently broken up.
He was knighted in December 1994 for services to the UK tourism industry and has also received the Gran Croce dell'Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italia, the highest Italian accolade, for his strong links with the country.
He was president of the British Hospitality Association from 1991 to 1996, and is also a member of the executive committee of the World Travel & Tourism Council as well as principal patron of Hospitality Action.
Forte was educated at Downside School in Somerset and read modern languages at Pembroke College, Oxford. He qualified as an accountant in 1969. He is married to Aliai Forte and has three children, Lydia, Irene and Charles.
He is a keen sportsman and in 2001, 2002 and 2003 represented Britain in his age group at the World Triathlon Championships. He has also run several marathons, raising significant amounts of money for charity.