Sustainability in Hospitality: An Interview with Irene Forte
Irene Forte is the founder of Forte Organics, an organic spa line that can be found in the Forte hotels around the world, as well as the Forte organics fitness line, now also available at select spas. Furthermore, she is the creator of the Map My Future App, an innovative smartphone application and secure online system to help Forte team staff access relevant hospitality training and identify possible career pathways.
In the photo: Irene Forte (R) with Dottoressa Ferri . Irene worked with Ferri to create the Forte Organics line. Credit: ForteOrganics
Can you tell us your story, how you got started, where your inspiration for everything started.
I have Forte Organics and the Map my Future app. Because my family is in the hotel business, I started by spending school holidays always working in hotels, going through every department. When I was studying at university, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and because I took languages, I took a year out and worked at my dad’s Verdura resort in Sicily.
Afterwards, I also lived in Paris and did a few other bits and pieces, I worked in Plaza Athene in Paris, but essentially I have always worked in hotels in some capacity. I think that in those seven months in Sicily I fell in love with the place, and that feeling now feeds into the product line. When I graduated from Oxford, I still wasn’t sure which department to go into, whether I wanted to go into hospitality or not. I did a development program in Brown’s Hotel in London where I went through all the departments (reception, housekeeping, etc.). I did that for six months and then my dad said, ‘Why don’t you come in on a project basis to rewrite all our brand standards and focus on the service side.’ So my role has developed into a lot of learning and development for the company, I oversee all the L&D side.
Then a couple of years ago –I am a complete fitness fanatic like my father, I have done marathons – I saw the need for a stronger wellness proposition than what we were doing. I know that it is no longer enough to have just a gym and a treatment bed in a hotel. I was a little bit disappointed with what city hotels were doing with wellness so I wanted to create a concept that was all encompassing, available at every touch point in the hotel. The two things I had created on my own – the Map my Future and Forte Organics – stem from my overseeing spas and also my overseeing learning and development at the company. They derive from things that I had learned at the company and therefore I’d seen a need for them.
In the photo: Verdura Resort Sicily
With Forte Organics I wanted to have a uniform line across all our spas. I’ve always been interested in the health side and skin care, and I’ve also seen the growing demand for skin care and natural and clean products. I got a little disappointed with all these strongly marketed brands that don’t necessarily have very good ingredients but they’ve spent a lot on the marketing. I wanted to do something a little different. We have this amazing vegetable garden at our Verdura Resort in Sicily that spans over 2,600 sqm and we have thousands of olive trees, almond trees, lemon trees. That’s where we get all the ingredients. We produce our own olive oil and that’s the base of all our creams – the organic olive oil that we produce. It was a no brainer to create this line, we had these amazing ingredients and I worked with Dr.Ferri who basically created the ingredients in the products. She only believes in natural clean products. That’s how it started. We launched about a year and a half ago, it’s in all of our spas and we use them in treatments. Now it is also available in all of the bedrooms in all our hotels. It includes shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, all that. I am making the next step and starting to push it into retailers. I have been very lucky because I have had spa managers and guests to test all the products. I’ve had a base where I could put the products out immediately, so in a sense I have had a little bit of a head start.
In the Photo: Forte Organics Products
To move to another question. Impakter is trying to bring focus and awareness to key issues, and right now we are focused on sustainability and gender equality. I wanted to pick your brain on this. How do you support sustainability and gender equality in your business?
It is very small at the moment and we just use the people that work for us at the resort in Sicily –the people that are working on the vegetable garden and the people that work for us, they are, by and large, Sicilian. Particularly at the line staff level, we employ a lot of Sicilians.
Is the production line in Sicily?
The production line is in Italy, in Trento. So the people that are looking after the vegetable garden are people that work for us and are full time employees that get all the benefits. They have access to the Forte benefits structure and system. So no, it’s not outsourced, and in Trento it’s a very small team as well, and everything is hand produced, hand manufactured, by a team of three. There is a lot of quality control, and there are a few ingredients that we don’t source ourselves in Sicily, just because we cannot grow them.
Dr.Ferri who creates the formulas, only uses local organic farms to source all the other ingredients. It is very controlled. That is why I do not want it to be a huge production so it does not lose its value. Part of our selling point is that it is ingredients that we are hand picking, that are then being shipped to Trento and hand manufactured in this tiny villa.
There is a wonderful rustic feel to the products. Do you know if there is any environmental impact from your production at all?
Our packaging is entirely recyclable, but I am now looking into alternative forms of packaging. There is maize packaging, packaging made from vegetables, things that I am now looking into. We will need large minimum quantities, and am trying to solve that. Now when we start working with retailers, I think I will be able to obtain the right quantities.
How many Forte hotels are there?
There are twelve at the moment and soon to be two more.
Would you say that you have any previous experience with sustainability? Did your sustainable organic product idea come solely from you being a fitness fanatic?
Yes, and just really the fact that I had become disillusioned with what else was out there. I saw the demand changing, particularly with our generation, with millennials. It is not such a quick fix anymore. We all know that it’s a long game. Everyone is after natural and organic products, I would never put any chemicals on my skin.
There is a growing demand for it, and some people are doing it for environmental reasons, but some are definitely just using the organic label for marketing purposes and following the fad.
When you started were you always more pro-environment, or did it come around through seeing the products in the hotels?
I’ve always been very pro-environment. I’ve always been connected in a deep way to nature. I love the outdoors, every trip I get a chance to go, I always do something crazy like going to the Himalayas, because that’s very much me. I haven’t had huge amounts of experience with sustainability because I came straight into it. But I am trying to launch into it now.
We have created an organic fitness line as well, and doing lots of nice things and are trying to change the way we work in the hotels as well.
Have you noticed any gender equality issues within the organic sector?
I mean not from my experience, because the person I am working with is a woman, and her son is also in the business. It’s a very mixed team. Also in my experience in Forte, we have got my aunt who is effectively chairman of the company, and my father’s right hand, and my sister and I are heavily involved in the business. It’s difficult being a woman in hospitality. I can talk a little more about hospitality here, because it is very very difficult and demanding, the time, the travel, the anti-social shift hours, the kind of late nights. It is not a role that is necessarily conducive to being at home and having a family. You do see in hospitality, more than in other companies, that it is largely men at the top.
The reality is, it is also just a tough job, very difficult to have a family… but then my aunt is an amazing role mother to my sister and I because she is an amazing mother, grandmother, has two retails of her own, and works full time in a company, and she has done it all.
I think anything is possible, I do think it is hard, there is no doubt. And sometimes you are not going to want to be travelling twice a week, you are going to want to settle down, and I think no, I am not. Sometimes I find it is hard to make that next step. Everyone is saying how long until you get married and lose interest. We just need to keep pushing. There is the fact of life that we bear children.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to start in organic or sustainable products business? Has there been a challenge you have had to overcome?
A big challenge that in a sense did not affect me that much is knowing where your ingredients come from. I was very lucky to have this base that I can control and that is on our land.
You can never underestimate how much work it is going to be. It is easy to underestimate when you are first starting, where you think you can just do this and that. It is really about thorough planning.
I had the idea and thought that it was great: “Yes! I will do it”. But of course I didn’t think about all the rules and regulations, and so many things that I didn’t know about. Someone will create your formulas for you, you think that’s fantastic, but then you have to source the bottles and the boxes, and source who is going to do the printing on them, and then you need another company who is going to do the boxes, and someone to do the printing. And they all need to be delivered and filled, and then you need another company that will cover them in plastic, and then another that will do the bags. There are a lot of pieces. I was enthusiastic, found great partnerships, created a product and thought I was done.
There was still lots to do, logos, trademarks, website, lot of things that you don’t think about at first.
How long did it take you from the idea to actually launching the products?
I did it very quickly. Maybe six months. But now that I have been running a year and a half in hotels, I am doing a whole new business plan and a proper strategy. I have the experience and can bring it to the next level. To be honest it was so quick because I had to launch it along with the new Rocco Forte spa. Since then, we have been making improvements, adding products, and taking out products. It is a testing learning curve.
You said there is another line, Forte Fitness Organics, is that a separate line or a subsidiary of this one?
It is separate, it is called Back Label, they source and hand make all their items in Italy, so I saw a lot of synergy with them. They are a lovely couple and they effectively set up a business that is nourishing to the skin, made of seaweed and milk. Actually, I am wearing one of their t-shirts because they are amazing. With them I just think that in a way, we are now really concerned with what we put on our skin but not many people are actually concerned about the latex and the polyester they wear, and the horrible washing machine products that we put on our clothes. I feel that’s also something that people will become more aware of with time. We created a fitness line together that we sell in our spas. It’s just a natural, organic line, it is all handmade and has beautiful stitching, and they are such a lovely small team. Again, in a similar way to the Forte Organics it is small and very controlled.
Speaking of Map My Future app. Essentially this is like a tech company: Have you noticed bigger difficulties for women within your app?
In hospitality there is a big issue with high turnover rates. Actually it is hard to attract people into the industry now, because it is no longer glamorous. People see that it has antisocial shift hours. A lot of people come into work in a restaurant because they are trying to make it in a different profession, and they do it to make money on the side. The Map My Future app was created to show that hospitality really is a viable career option, and that you can grow with it. So it has shown more opportunities to both men and women and people that come into the industry.
Effectively, within it there is a career map, it’s made for companies. I have launched it here at Rocco Forte hotels and everything has been made bespoke to our company. It shows all the routes you can take from waiter to say general manager, and it shows you all the skills you acquire for each role, the salary that you can get. It is trying to incentivise people to stay and say ‘look I can set that goal for myself by doing this and this’. Within the app itself there is a prepopulated online training. You set yourself a goal when you sign up to the app, which is the next step up from the role that you are in. It tells you the steps you must take to get there – all the classroom training but all the training that you can do on the app, but also other skills and things. There is a “personal success” page which shows you where you are and what you still have to do. We have trained live career persons within each department which are your go to person for relevant career advice.
The other hard thing about hospitality is that yes, you have HR people and they give you advice but they do not necessarily have all the relevant knowledge. It is having someone that you can relate to. And then there is a whole Facebook style news feed, because most people that work on the floor do not have work emails, it is difficult to communicate with them. So then with a mobile, you have it on you, and there are all the company standards and other tricks and things to remind yourself. And then we cross promote vacancies, so you can apply for any of the vacancies in the hotel via the app.
In the photo: Irene Forte talking at t Roccoforte hotels Annual Conference in 2016
Anyway, it is a framework but it is being developed so that other companies can then use the model. I got government funding for it, I got £250,000 for it, to create the app. That is where I will need to go to now that I have launched it in the hotels, to obtain a bit more funding to make it white label ready. I have a lot of interest from companies in hospitality.
Everyone is so behind in hospitality in terms of tech, they struggle to invest in tech for the guests, it is the last thing that they do.
Now we have tested it with Rocco Forte Hotels and we are getting ready to launch it further. In a sense I have been doing it through the company with a project manager I hired who is a lovely brilliant girl. She has been doing all the day to day management of the app, and now we outsourced to a third party to create the app, which is a very male dominated world, for sure. But the three of us that work on the app are women, we do the managing the side not the tech side. Now that we are about to take it to the next level, I will be able to see a bit more the tech side. The app is about creating equal opportunities for everyone.
What has been your biggest difficulty in launching this app, have you had any challenges you have had to overcome?
I think our company is very old school. My dad is 72 my aunt is 69. The concept of technology is quite foreign, and we have had a lot of general managers that have been around a long time. My biggest challenge has been to change their perception on tech, and to understand that we have to be more forward thinking. I think that it has been changing the mindset. On the other hand, HR and training managers love it and they think it’s brilliant. But it has been about trying to sell it to people that don’t always understand.
Do you believe you had any competitive advantage when launching these lines? Apart from your family being in the hotel business of course.
I have been very lucky, I have been able to have an amazing network of amazing people. Both the things I have done have had connections with the bigger company. The fact that my products have been run out of Rocco Forte hotels and is working well has definitely been beneficial. In that sense I have had so much opportunity. It would definitely have been harder if I hadn’t had these networks, the PR, the hotel teams. However it does come down to hard work more so than anything.
What is next?
I ‘ve got to continue growing these two projects. And I will be continuing to focus on what I am doing at the hotels. I do have a full-time job and am trying to expand the projects on the sides. So far I have had a very good reception.