Hotels are in the blood of Alex Polizzi, or Alessandra Maria-Luigia O Polizzi Di Sorrentio as she was born. Her grandfather was the legendary hotelier Lord Charles Forte, an Italian immigrant who opened a milk bar on London’s Regent Street in 1935 and turned it into an empire of over 800 international hotels. Her mother, the enterprising hotel designer Olga Polizzi, owns two UK hotels that she jointly runs with Alex. Charles’ son, Alex’s uncle Rocco, also established his own chain of luxury hotels, the Rocco Forte Collection.
Before helping out around the world with the family concern, Alex studied at Oxford University. Her business apprenticeship included working for the famous chef Marco Pierre White and at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. It was no surprise that her experience and expertise then drew the attention of UK television channels. As the presenter of two series – The Hotel Inspector and The Fixer – Alex is now a household name. Known for her insightful ability to transform the fortunes of failing hotels and for her lively advice, she has recently started to write about her specialism.
Alex Polizzi now lives in London with her English husband Marcus, a specialist baker, and their small daughter, Olga. Her recent ventures include creating a wholesale bakery, Millers Bespoke Bakery, that offers fine food to clients such as Fortnum & Mason.
Being part of the Forte family, did the hotel business always feel like ‘home’ to you?
‘I’ve been around hotels - and working in different aspects of them - since very young. The work ethic was very strong – and was further emphasised by my mother who brought up my sister and I by herself. (Her father, Alessandro Polizzi died in a car accident when Alex was nine and is often wrongly referred to as a prince or a count when in fact, he worked for Alitalia). My mother met my father at 16, marrying him not long after. She went from being a traditional, stay at home mum to a top executive. She begged me not to go into hotels, reminding me of the long hours and poor pay but I was keen to make my own way in the hotel world. She was – and still is – a great role model.’
You helped your mother open two hotels in the UK. What inspired this?
‘We wanted one to be the epitome of the seaside hotel, one to be the epitome of the countryside hotel. We hope that we’ve achieved this vision. The first venture, The Tresanton, is in an appealing spot on the Cornish coastline and features an Italian manager popular with Italian tourists! The Endsleigh is in its own plot amongst amazing landscaped gardens as designed in 1810 (Prince Charles is rumoured to be a fan). It makes a great base for exploring English countryside with the wilds of Dartmoor on the doorstep. Design-wise, both share a mix of contemporary and antique. Neither has a fridge or trouser press as we think great personal service is what people go away for…’
What’s your advice to businesses in the current economic climate?
‘I think no matter where business is based – whether in Italy or the UK - it’s the service that counts. I want my programmes to encourage people to be the best they can be. If they’re family-run, it’s that much more difficult. I should know - I worked with members of mine for long enough! Any business has to be regularly assessed. The best advice given to me was by my grandfather, Lord Forte. He said, ‘If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t look at the bigger picture, deal with one thing at a time.’
Would you consider making an Italian TV version of ‘The Fixer’?
‘My producers would love me to do a series on expat business and so would I – in theory. However, I’m already away from home two days a week filming and don’t want to leave my daughter for any longer. It is interesting to think that Italian business probably presents quite a different scenario. I’m no expert on it so can’t comment specifically. What I do notice is that in the UK, everyone’s scared of conflict. Maybe that’s why I can preside over it because I’m not English! I am not of the opinion that it’s the end when shouting occurs. My husband often says ‘why are you shouting?’ But to me, gesticulating is just putting one’s point of view across more forcefully. In the UK, perhaps there is more repressed rage?’
Do you feel particularly Italian?
‘I feel at home in both worlds though I’ve spent more time in Britain and had a very British education at Oxford. I’m aware that I display traits of both cultures. When I was younger, I thought I felt more Italian but was probably more tempestuous… There is a feeling that with the last grandparent gone, so are the strongest links of my Italian roots. Equally, my husband Marcus is English and doesn’t speak Italian. That said, by choice our vacations are taken in Italy. Favourite places are Florence and anywhere on the coast of Tuscany. Food-wise, I only eat Italian. I was taught to cook by my mother who was taught to cook by hers. I like risotto and arancini but don’t eat masses of pasta. I do have a major failing for Italian wines, however!’
Being based in England, do you still visit Italy?
‘I still have two uncles, an aunt and cousins there. My grandmother died not long ago. I used to visit her twice a year. My grandmothers were Sardinian and Venetian, one of my grandfathers Neapolitan. My remaining Italian family is all based in Rome. I lived there for five years from the age of 26. I went to work for my uncle and fell in love and stayed on. It was a happy time of my life, especially spending so much time with my widowed grandmother. So many things to love there…springtime in Rome; the fact that in an hour and half you can be at the beach; amazing restaurants; the modern and ancient co-existing so beautifully. It’s more parochial than England.’
How has marriage and motherhood changed your life?
‘I had a lovely life for a long time doing whatever I wanted. It took a long time for me to settle down. Aged 40, I’ve only been married for five years and now I’m a happy convert. An Italian side, a sense of family, has definitely come out…I’ve always been part of a big, happy family with my aunts, uncles, cousins and even worked for one side or the other. Now I have my own tight unit that I cherish. After years of working hard all day and night in hotels it’s such a relief to be at home in the evenings. I put my daughter to bed at 8pm and often fall asleep giving her a cuddle! I really like having my weekends to myself now at home with the little one. I guard my private time jealously. Now I have the luxury of a child, I can’t see myself running a hotel again. Also, my husband works very hard with his bakery business. Someone’s got to bend; otherwise you wouldn’t get to see one another.’
With two new TV series in store, what’s been your biggest business challenge or surprise to date?
‘There are plenty of both. Challenges include sorting out a hotel of 110 rooms on the English coast and making places of faded glamour relevant…The most surprising has to be a very strange nudist hotel! I thought of naturists as tipping through sunlit fields - not in the British industrial city of Birmingham! I got into the spirit of things, though I did find it odd eating dinner and having two naked men at the bar behind me! I kept my dressing robe on at that point. It was all a bit bonkers, darling! Didn’t the nudity bother me? Oh, all life’s rich pattern!’
The Hotel Inspector is on UK Channel 5 from 5 July for 8 weeks. The Fixer will be on BBC 2 later in the year. Alex’s book, Little Black Book of Hotels is published by Quadrille and her travel column in UK newspaper, The Telegraph. For information on her hotels, see: www.tresanton.com and www.hotelendsleigh.com