Davide Bertilaccio: In conversation with the CEO of Villa d’Este Hotels

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Shortly before our interview at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, Davide Bertilaccio was going through the boxes in his loft in Italy. Among the crates, he found a statue of a Buddha from his time in Bali, knick-knacks from stints in North Africa, and a keepsake from Kenya. He also found a photo.

It was of a 19-year-old him. “It was taken just out there,” says the 56-year-old, taking the picture from his wallet and pointing to the lobby beyond the restaurant in which we’re sat. “I used to work here, back when it was called the Hyde Park Hotel. It was my very first job. I worked at the grill, carving meat, serving roast potatoes.”

Dishing up Sunday roasts as a teenager clearly didn’t deter Bertilaccio from a life in hospitality. For, after studying tourism at the Travel Institute in Udine, and then hotel administration at Cornell University in New York, Bertilaccio embarked on what must surely rank as one of the most prolific careers in the luxury hotel industry.

From the United States to Europe to Asia to the Middle East to Africa and back to Europe again, Bertilaccio’s resume includes positions at some of the biggest names in hospitality, including the Fairmont group, Four Seasons, Rocco Forte, Armani Hotels and Starwood.

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Before becoming CEO of Villa d’Este Hotels in April 2022 – a portfolio that includes the five-star Villa d’Este, two four-star hotels in Como, and the recently-refurbished Villa La Massa in Florence – Bertilaccio served as Regional Vice President of Rosewood Europe, helping oversee a refurbishment of Paris’ Hôtel de Crillon, notching up a string of awards at Tuscany’s Castiglion del Bosco, and earning Rosewood London a reputation as one of the capital’s most respected hotels.

We’re meeting at Mandarin Oriental, not Rosewood London where you recently served as Vice President. Any reason for that?

[Laughs]. Well, once you close the door, you close the door, psychologically. There was also a bit of nostalgia about coming back here. I really wanted to walk in and see that staircase. It’s still the same! The marble, the elevator. When I was working here, many years ago, the Queen used to sneak in the back and come in for afternoon tea.

It’s a silly question, but what persuaded you to join the Villa d’Este Group?

At first, I didn’t want to go. I was happy at Rosewood. But there was this insistence. ‘Come, let’s just have a conversation.’ So I went and I met Dr Giuseppe Fontana [the owner of the Villa d’Este Group] and his daughter, and there was an instant click; he’s a gentleman, from another time, the sort you don’t find anymore, extremely focused, something happened. He asked me a very simple question, and I was very blunt. ‘It’s a beautiful place, it’s a grande dame, but it needs to move into the 21st century. You can only rely on past glories up to a point. Let’s preserve it – but let’s do something new.’

Villa d’Este is routinely spoken about as being one of the best hotels in the world. Does that make your job more or less difficult?

More! I came in with a task set by the shareholders – to keep the DNA, but to evolve with the times. The challenge is how to do that without upsetting people. I have regular guests chasing me around the hotel asking ‘Hey, you, what are you going to do here?!’

So, what’s the answer?

Experiences. Creating experiences. I want you to check in and stay for four or five days. The average stay is currently three nights. There were some things that weren’t at Villa d’Este when I arrived that I expected there would be. I thought there would be a fleet of Rivas, for example, 10 or 20, but when I got there there were none! This year, we’ve tried to assemble a fleet of classic Rivas. We have the first fully-electric Riva – the first one they ever produced was made for Villa d’Este. Everything is about the experience. This has been my focus of the last 12 months.

Hence opening last Christmas, for the very first time?

Exactly. Crazy. We said we either go wild, or we remain humble. Well, with someone like me, you can only go wild. I risked my career because I asked for a massive investment. We turned Villa d’Este into a fairytale. We had millions of lights. We did a lighting ceremony with a children’s choir, a cocktail party, we covered the terrace by the lake with fireplaces. No one on the lake had ever done it. The challenge is what do we do this year?!

Get Father Christmas to drop by?

Yes, I’m talking to him now, actually.

What other plans do you have in the pipeline?

I recently received the green light to expand the group outside of Villa d’Este and Villa La Massa, in terms of finding other five-star properties. We would really like to create a Villa d’Este Collection. I’ve been looking at properties in Italy – although I wouldn’t mind acquiring Harrods! They would have to be historic buildings. They couldn’t be modern, contemporary hotels. I’ve been looking at places in Venice, Rome – places where Villa d’Este would fit in perfectly.

As well as Villa D’Este and Villa La Massa, the group operates the four-star Palace Hotel and Hotel Barchetta Excelsior in Como. What are the plans for those two properties?

I’m currently in discussions with the shareholders, I’m not particularly keen on having four-star hotels and five-star hotels – I don’t see a proper identification of the brand. We used to own those properties, but they were sold years ago so we have a management contract which expires in 2027. I want to keep pushing them to do well. Numbers-wise, I don’t think they’ve ever done better. So we shall see.

You’ve been employed by hotels on four continents. Is it nice to be back in Italy, not far from where you grew up?

Out of 35 or 36 years in this industry I have lived probably 23 or 24 years abroad. And in all sorts of places – Tunisia for six months after the Arab Spring, Morocco, other parts of north and west Africa. It’s been incredibly rewarding. I’m not the typical Italian, insomuch as wherever I go I have to have a plate of pasta. But I’m very happy to be back home in the north of Italy. The collection of cheeses here is the best, for one thing.

What’s the best city for a 48-hour break?

They say you are either more London or more Paris. I’m much more Paris – sorry! Though I may prefer
British people over the French.

What’s your favourite building?

Favourite new building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, because I helped open it. Old building? Palazzo Corsini, Florence. Wow.

Which architect would you commission to design your own home?

Sir Norman Foster, and I have in mind this amazing house he built in southwest Corsica. It’s a concrete-and-glass rectangle he built on a cliff there for a billionaire in the 1980s. It has a beautiful garden overlooking the ocean. Even now, it still looks modern. I would do a copy-and-paste on that house.

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Which interior designer would you commission to take care of the inside?

I like very much Aline Asmar d’Amman, who I worked with at the Rosewood Hôtel de Crillon. She worked a lot with Karl Lagerfeld, before he died. De Crillon is a very historic building but she managed to ensure the suites are amazingly contemporary, but also very classical. Not too cold, very warm, very inviting. She’s also just a lovely lady.

Which car do you drive?

I’ve been a happy Land Rover driver for more than 20 years. I don’t think I’d ever swap my Range Rover for another car. The Range Rover is a little like Villa d’Este – timeless, elegant, something that everyone tries to copy, but no one can quite achieve.

Judging by the Audemars Piguet ‘Jumbo’ Royal Oak on your wrist, you’ve got a thing for watches?

Ha, yes, well, with my limited means. I bought this one 20 years ago. It wasn’t too expensive back then. Someone offered me €80,000 cash for it the other day – but I said ‘no’, I would prefer to leave it to my daughter.

If you could stay in any hotel this summer, outside of your group, which would you choose?

There’s a new place in Sicily called Theresia Resort Sea and Spa. It’s in a secluded area right on the water. They have these amazing rooms right over the sea with nothing around – it’s almost like being in the Maldives. I’ve only every been to Sicily once, for a few hours, to collect my dog. So I’d love to go there.

Carrier offers seven nights at Villa d’Este from £5,200 per person based on two adults sharing an Executive Double Garden view room. Price includes breakfast, flights and transfers, carrier.co.uk

Read more: The best luxury hotels in Rome

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