She's the granddaughter of Lord Forte and is TV's Hotel Inspector. Now Alex Polizzi reveals the REAL secrets of her trade
21:07 GMT, 14 July 2012
Coat hangers loom large in Alex Polizzi’s life: they are high on a long list of the irritations she encounters when she checks into a hotel.
And she can rattle off other pet hates at some speed: ‘Staff being on the phone and not acknowledging you: I just can’t understand that kind of rudeness,’ she declares. ‘Staff not offering to take bags up to the room.
‘Oh, in the room, I hate those little signs that say, ‘‘We’re trying to save the environment, please hang up your towel’’. We all know what they’re really doing is trying to save money, so do us all a favour and be honest about it.’
Eagle-eyed: After spending her whole life in the business, Alex Polizzi has good advice for guests as well as hoteliers
We should not be surprised by such a barrage, of course: for 40-year-old Alex is television’s feisty Hotel Inspector and, courtesy of her family background, she has hotelier blood practically coursing through her veins.
The granddaughter of Baron Forte, an Italian immigrant who went on to found the legendary Forte hotel group, her uncle is Rocco Forte, who now runs the global luxury hotel empire. Alex spent her teenage summer holidays on work experience in the family firm then went on to forge her own career in hospitality, including running Hotel Endsleigh in Devon, a favourite of Prince Charles.
It’s a distinguished CV appropriate for Channel 5’s popular series, in which assorted hapless innkeepers and bed and breakfast owners are whipped into shape. The show has just started a ninth, particularly well-timed series, given that millions of international tourists are about to descend on Britain for the Olympics.
It should, says Alex, prove interesting: ‘Britain is going to be in the spotlight so it will be fascinating to see whether there will be a chorus of unanimous approval.’ It is, she suspects, not likely, given what she’s seen in the past few years.
Indeed, some hotels are so bad, she says, that you could pick any one of the five reasons on our checklist, above, to check out immediately.
She adds: ‘We stand up to scrutiny far more now than we did ten years ago, and there are pockets of excellence, but we’ve still got some way to go. Why can’t so many hotels even serve a half-decent coffee
‘Most hotels are bed and breakfast, and breakfast is the one part of the stay which guests feel they are getting “free”. The breakfast is a good indicator of the hotelier’s generosity, so if it is poor, I find it very dispiriting.’
Room to improve: The Caspian in London, which was revamped by Alex Polizzi
What we do very well compared with other countries is that very quirky thing: an inn with rooms, or a restaurant with rooms. And there are some astonishingly good bed and breakfasts here.
‘The area that I think could do with some improvement is the lower-star hotel, which has basically got ideas above its station. And the boutique hotel: to me that has become one of those meaningless phrases. It means an independent hotel basically. And there are plenty of those that are still pretty dreadful whatever they’ve got above the front door.’
As we’ve seen, even very good hotels get it wrong, with those ‘helping-the-environment’ signs and hangers that are almost impossible to take out of the wardrobe. And across the board, says Alex, there’s another universal problem: the lack of English staff.
‘It’s frustrating when someone doesn’t speak your language properly, no matter how polite they are. But I think it’s partly because we don’t really have any centres of excellence in this country that teach the hospitality trade, so candidates come from abroad.’
Then there were those hoteliers in
Wigan who were determined to open an in-house restaurant, against Alex’s
firm advice. ‘I’m not a great believer in opening hotel restaurants,
they just lose money hand over fist and it’s hard to make them work, but
they were determined. Then they had this grand launch at which they
served – wait for it – ham and pineapple sandwiches. It was
For all her
gripes, she emphasises that ultimately, she is on the side of both
guest and hotelier: ‘I have many a sleepless night worrying about how I
can help these people. I’ve run hotels, and I know how tough it is. One
of my biggest beefs is that people don’t give hotel staff a chance to
fix things at the time.
‘I’m that hotel owner who’s gone round the dinner table every night and every morning saying, “Are you enjoying yourself’’ and getting, ‘‘Oh yes, very happy”, and then, all of a sudden, they leave and there’s a steaming review posted somewhere, and I’ll know perfectly well who it is because they’ll talk about their dog Freddie or something specific, yet they never said a word at the time. It’s infuriating.’
This rather British after-the-event grumbling is one reason why she approaches review websites such as TripAdvisor with a certain caution. ‘It was a fantastic idea, and it can be useful, but I just hate the fact that everyone thinks they’re a critic now,’ she says. ‘And actually it serves very little purpose. Most hotels get some bad, some good and some indifferent reviews, so all you’re really getting is all these personal opinions and you’re left none the wiser.’
No doubt her beloved grandfather, or ‘Nonno’, would heartily approve of her insight. He died five years ago aged 96 after building up a vast business empire from a humble milk bar on London’s Regent Street. ‘He had such a keen eye for business, for every detail,’ says Alex.
He certainly remains a towering presence in the life of his family. Lord Forte had six children – Olga, Alex’s mother, was his second – and Alex was the oldest of his 12 grandchildren, raised in London in a sprawling Catholic Italian clan who gathered at Nonno’s every Sunday without fail for lunch. ‘We came from that background where children were seen and not heard. If we got too noisy, Nonno would glare at us,’ she recalls.
Each summer, the clan would decamp to the family-owned hotel in Portugal, where Lord Forte would rent a villa for the children and grandchildren, expecting the latter to present themselves to him for breakfast at 7.30 sharp each morning.
‘He would come to the villa for breakfast before playing golf and we were expected to be up and ready. It was a command performance, like The Sound Of Music,’ Alex recalls.
For all his patrician ways, his grandchildren adored him. ‘He was just lovely: incredibly funny and warm and generous,’ Alex recalls. ‘He was small, only five foot four, and very Italian-looking with a little moustache.’
What he lacked in physical stature, however, he made up for in presence. ‘He was an amazing chief executive; he really did know everybody’s name. He always knew the doormen, he would always say hello, and he always had what he called ‘folding money’ in his pocket which he distributed with great largesse. I never saw him lose his temper, which is something I admire. Just seeing him and how he was with people and what his expectations were of staff really had an impact upon me.
‘Both my mother and grandfather tried to dissuade me from going into this industry. My grandfather was all for my education and he was very proud of me, but I suppose he always thought every woman ultimately was going to be a wife and mother, and he couldn’t see how on earth you would be able to continue with your career.’
Undeterred, Alex insisted on holiday
jobs in the family firm, waitressing and working in the back office:
roles in which the fact that she was the boss’s granddaughter did her
few favours. ‘The staff were so keen to show they weren’t treating me
nicely that it was like the opposite to sucking up to the boss’s
daughter. I never had a friend wherever I worked because they were all a
bit wary of me,’ she says.
studying English at Oxford, Alex moved to Hong Kong to do a two-year
management training course with the Mandarin Oriental: a deliberate
attempt to put some distance between herself and the family name.
'Britain is going to be in the Olympics spotlight'
‘I had done a very miserable stint in Monaco where my family had a hotel. I did front-desk training for a month and I was so lonely and very conscious of being on show. Of course, they would have gossiped if I had messed up, it’s human nature.
‘I put myself under pressure to perform well and because I come from a long and very proud tradition I knew I could not let everyone down. I decided it was much healthier to make my mistakes in a hotel where I wasn’t known.’
Alex would, she says have loved to have been a doctor if it wasn’t for her feeble maths. ‘And that’s why I understand when hoteliers I’m trying to help will bury their heads in the sand over figures.’
If not entirely consciously, she acknowledges there may have been another reason behind her stubborn drive. When she was nine, her father, Alessandro Polizzi, was killed in a car accident, leaving her mother, Olga, a widow at 32, to raise two small daughters, Alex and her sister Charlie, now 36, on her own.
Money wasn’t tight – Nonno saw to that – but nonetheless Olga clearly felt the need to provide for her young family, transforming almost overnight from stay-at-home Italian mamma to professional force to be reckoned with.
Today, she is design director for the Trusthouse Forte group; owns two high-end hotels of her own, and retains a ferocious work ethic.
‘Going to work wasn’t about putting food on the table but all I know is Mum never worked before, and then after my dad died she worked full-time, and in fact her career has really been the thing that has given her an enormous amount of satisfaction in the last 30 years,’ says Alex.
‘It’s defined her and I think some of that must have filtered down. I didn’t get married until I was 36. My work has defined me and I’ve been happy for it to do so.
‘I like the person I am at work, and I can’t imagine ever giving that up for anything.’
Her husband, Marcus Miller, is also in the hospitality trade, running a bespoke bakery that supplies many of London’s leading hotels. Motherhood – she has a three-year-old daughter, also called Olga – means her time as a hotelier is over, at least for the time being.
Now she reflects that despite how much the world has changed since her grandfather warned that motherhood was incompatible with working full-time in hospitality, he has probably been proved right.
‘I did many years of working every Christmas, every Saturday night, the summer holidays, and now I have a child I can’t imagine how I would do that again,’ she says.
‘I’d love to have a business again, but I don’t think I’ll be able to run a hotel. Unless you have a stay-at-home husband, it’s not possible.’
So for now she will stick to inspecting others, partly, she admits, because she just can’t help herself: ‘It’s a running joke that Mum and I can’t walk into a hotel lobby without straightening something if it’s not symmetrical,’ she says.
‘It maddens me that people can’t see it for themselves.’
The Hotel Inspector is screened on Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 5.