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Elisabetta Fabri on growing Starhotels, Covid-19 resilience and supporting women in business

By James Beech

Elisabetta Fabri, family principal of the private Italian luxury hospitality group Starhotels, is helping women in business achieve their potential by launching a new vocational training initiative.

The programme was among the measures by the multi award-winning second-generation president and chief executive in response to the impacts of Covid-19 on the world’s hotel, travel and tourism industries.

Fabri grew up in the family hotel business, which was founded by her late father, Ferruccio Fabri, in 1980. Inspired, she attained her diploma at the leading Swiss hospitality management school Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from John Cabot University in Rome then served apprenticeships in a variety of roles in hospitality management.

In 1992, she made her official debut as an entrepreneur by creating Starhotels International and purchasing The Michelangelo in New York. She was appointed chief executive and vice president of Starhotels SpA in 2000. Fabri became president of the company while remaining chief executive in 2011.

Under her leadership, Starhotels has enhanced its “made in Italy” feel while increasing efficiencies and investing in upgrading renovations and new hotel properties in Italy and Europe. The Castille opened in Paris in 2005, while the company’s first two hotels in London opened their doors in 2014. Starhotels acquired four luxury properties in Italy in 2016—Hotel d’Inghilterra in Rome, Helvetia & Bristol in Florence, Grand Hotel Continental in Siena and Hotel Villa Michelangelo in Vicenza—and the Franklin, the group's third hotel in London.

The matriarch and patron of the arts spoke with CampdenFB about equal opportunities, her thoughts on governance and acquisitions, managing Covid-19 disruption and how the luxury hospitality and travel sectors can recover.

You are a member of the Association of Women Entrepreneurs and Corporate Executives and have supported projects led by Fondazione Pangea Onlus against domestic violence towards women and their children. What prompted you to launch your career path for women at Starhotels?

When the alarming data that in the world of work it was the women who paid the most expensive price of the crisis generated by the pandemic, I felt I had do my part in reinforcing the message that having women in roles of great importance brings added value to the vision and governance of the company. Thus, the launch of our programme dedicated to female managers which entails a 3/5-year career path in different company branches for 10 women, being them Starhotels employees or not. The project aims to be a vocational training encouraging growth and giving access to senior positions, too often the prerogative of men.

Indeed, Starhotels has always reserved ample space for women, who occupy roles of great importance in our organisation: overall, women make up 56% of the company's managers.

Hotellerie is characterised by very different aspects where feminine attitudes, such as attention to details, empathy, patience and collaboration, make the difference in achieving the highest results. I want Starhotels to be the first Italian hotel company committed to providing young women with the opportunity to express their potential accessing prominent roles with the same remuneration as male colleagues.

What impacts have there been on the Starhotels family business to date because of the coronavirus pandemic, in terms of operations, investments, growth and staff?

After a very promising start to 2020, the pandemic has had an inevitable, strong impact on the group in terms of revenues, with a loss of turnover of approximately 80% compared to 2019.

Despite the uncertainty, our company is resilient, solid and has a strong, long-term planning approach. Our strategies have always remained ambitious and we continued to pursue all the opportunities to keep our hotels open at least in the main Italian destinations and to be firm on our medium-term goals.

In 2021 we are launching several new projects, such as the renovation of the Helvetia & Bristol in Florence with the expansion to the adjacent building, featuring 25 new rooms and suites, a restaurant, events and retail spaces and a spa realised over ancient Roman ruins.

We are also working to unveil soon in Milan 40 new luxury apartments annexed to the Rosa Grand, a stone's throw from the Duomo.

How are you managing those pandemic impacts?

In such seriously uncertain times, we had to spare oxygen, reducing non-essential financial efforts, while maintaining our strategic vision for the future. We’re living in unprecedented times and I firmly believe we need to work hard to make the difference.

How has the appointment and promotion of three non-family directors in July 2020 changed how you govern your family business?

The most challenging goal is building a group of capable, smart and motivated team members to achieve the company’s targets. It is not just a matter of how many family members are involved, as long as they all share our common vision. I trust my collaborators; I consider them part of our big family and it’s also thanks to their hard work and dedication that Starhotels continues to achieve excellent results.

What is your recovery strategy for Starhotels? And how will the third wave in Italy impact Starhotels’ reopening plans?

As of today, we have nine hotels open in Italy out of 24, but we’re planning to reopen many others by the end of the summer. The third wave has further slowed down the recovery of tourism and we expect a gradual recovery of the Italian and European tourism towards the third quarter of 2021.

In the meanwhile, we’re concentrating on big projects such as hotel renovations and expansions, and our CSR activity program with “La Grande Bellezza”, a contemporary patronage initiative we conceived, aimed at supporting Italian craftsmanship and beauty through specific projects tied to the company’s hotels.

We intend to continue to be a point of reference for travellers seeking high-end experiences in Italy and Europe, and to represent the excellence of Italian hospitality.

Are you receiving buy-out inquiries from rivals or investors and what is your response?

Our assets and organisation have always sparked the interest of international groups. Nonetheless, we continue to look to the future, deeply passionate about our work and proud of what we have achieved in our 40-year history. We aim for a further growth of the portfolio in those destinations where we are not yet present but, at the same time, we are also open to consider group development projects as long as they are virtuous and long-term.

How should the hospitality and luxury sectors change because of the pandemic?

The survival of companies working in the tourism industry after the pandemic is a very delicate issue: we need to be ready for travellers’ new emerging expectations, a lot has changed. Without any doubt, this experience has marked the overwhelming importance of digital. New technologies will allow a greater personalisation of travel experiences based on a deeper knowledge of the behaviour and personality of the consumer.

What won’t change for sure in the world of hospitality is our inclination to the personal touch, empathy and taking care of the well-being of people, that we’ve always paid great attention to. We strive to provide the best service to our guests, anticipating their needs and exceeding their expectations. What’s more, this crisis offered us the opportunity to devise a new model of tourism, slow—as opposed to the “five cities in five days” mentality: a model that valorises Italy, a luxury destination itself, thanks to which the hospitality will be able to resume the growth of recent years.

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