Thursday, 2 June 2011

He came, he saw, he was conquered

He came, he saw, he was conquered

When I get to meet Italico Rota to find out all about his life, I feel immensely happy. He makes me feel special, he makes me feel as if I am the most important person around.

Signor Rota makes you live a dream, your dream. And this is exactly what hospitality is about: making you believe you are in your little part of heaven, away from your cares, away from your daily drudge.

Mr Rota is a GM extraordinaire and one of Malta’s most loving and useful ambassadors. He is not a member of any diplomatic corps but he helped Malta get known and get loved for over 30 years. After living here for so long he feels even more Maltese than most of us locals.

 He has Maltese citizenship and also retains his Italian citizenship, not that he needs it that much nowadays he says, since he ha everything he needs here. “Malta is a corner of paradise. Everything about it is good and I love it grandly." He is more Maltese than most of us because, unlike us, he does not find fault with everything Maltese and with all that Malta has to offer. He talks to everyone, locals and foreigners, about the charm, the beauty of Malta and of the loving Maltese people. I wish I could clone this man and have him teach us all how to love what we have on this little rock. And grandly he does it too.

He might have lived most of his life away from Italian shores and piazzas but his way of communicating and loving life is definitely a remnant of his Italian origins, a part of the old Italy where the gentlemen were always exuding limitless charm. He is so proud of being Maltese that he manages to imbue a good feeling in all those around him.

When I meet him at the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa in San Anton, where he is GM, I instantly notice that it’s not just the guests who feel this electrifying Rota energy. In or out of his presence, all his staff are a bundle of energy, all full of praise for him. All this might sound as if his only job is to exude his natural charm. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The hotel seems to run like clockwork. Staff are friendly and make sure you are given prompt attention and service. He also moulds and grooms people to become leaders.

In the Corinthia Group he is the eldest GM, while his protégé and ex-deputy Jonathan Pace became the youngest GM in the history of the Corinthia. Jonathan Pace worked closely and most happily with Signor Rota. He eventually became his deputy and thanks to Mr Rota’s faith and trust in him, he was handpicked to run the Marina Hotel at the Corinthia Beach Resort as GM when he was only 27. A true feat for Mr Pace and another milestone in the Rota list of successes.

And Jonathan Pace, Mr Rota’s ‘pupillo,’ has now moved even higher: he has become GM at the Company’s Panorama Hotel in Prague. Another first for a man just over thirty. Mr Rota’s main words of advice to Mr Pace and everyone he has had to guide or mould is “to have a shower daily before coming to work.” I stupidly think that he is talking about personal hygiene: but the shower he speaks of is of humility, which gives you a strong bond with all the people around you and makes you a great leader.

As Mr Rota says “the highest person in any organisation is the one who never knows enough and is always learning”. How does he do it I ask him? How does he find the strength to remain so positive all the time? “It’s easy” he says, in his sonorous sing-song English that still lilts beautifully with an Italian echo. How come it is easy? I stress. “Because I love it, I do not strain to do it. I love people. I love being with them and making sure they are happy and that they feel special.”

While we are going round the hotel, he greets everyone effusively and the women are treated like a bevy of Duchesses of Cambridge straight from their royal weddings. He bows to them, kisses their hands, compliments them and booms his words of advice about where to go or what to do. And the males are greeted as eloquently and with heartfelt smiles and handshakes.

At some point I pin Signor Rota to his story. I ask him what he started life in hotels as. As a lift boy, he quips. And proceeds to take out from his pocket a very well-preserved silver dollar dated 1881. “This has been in my pocket practically since I started working. I was working in Milan when I was 14 and an Italo-Americano asked me a few questions about me and my life. He then gave me this dollar which I have preserved for good luck ever since. “It has been my own ‘porta fortuna’ for 59 years. It has never left me and it has been a great deliverer of good luck and good stories.”

Oh how annoyed and angry I feel. Why can’t silly dollars speak? I want to ask it all that it has seen to get the full story of this man. Throughout our conversation he peppers it with comments about how good his staff are, how he needs them and how he just contributes his little bit. Speak dollar, speak and tell us more of bellboy days and other secrets.

While in Milan working continuously, he studied all the languages he knew he would eventually need. He studied English, German and Spanish, while French and Italian he already knew, and now he also speaks Maltese. And he worked, as he says, round the clock, to save enough to go to university in the USA. Meanwhile, this man kept rising in his roles: from bellboy to positions in F&B, HR, accounts and even sales and marketing. His lifelong dream however was to go to university and he managed.

So from his little town of Parma, Mr Rota went to Milan at the tender age of 14 and subsequently all the way to New York. In New York he finalised his thesis, which was purchased by a leading hotel group, the Sonesta Corporation, which subsequently employed him on the strength of that same thesis. The chairman of Sonesta gave him the special task of introducing and implementing in Europe the hotel management system the corporation had developed in the USA.

Italico was very successful in this and travelled between New York and various places. Eventually he wanted to find a base, so he settled with the same group in Munich, then Milan, then Beirut. However, the settling hardly happened, as he had to travel back and forth to New York, so he came to Malta for a holiday to get away from it all. And the man who came for a few weeks of rest fell in love with the island and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thankfully for us Maltese the man’s history is tied unequivocally to Malta and Gozo. Or rather Gozo and then Malta, as his first years here were spent in Gozo. And the chairman of Sonesta was shattered, but still happy that his own ‘pupillo’ left his company to further his career. He remained in Gozo to develop, for an Italian entrepreneur, a site in Sannat, which was turned into one of our most interesting hotel stories: the Ta’ Cenc, which under Mr Rota’s management, became one of the most sought after places in the Mediterranean. It featured in Conde Nast Traveler as the 21st of the top 100 hotels in the world.

While in Malta, Mr Rota met another man who mesmerised him. This man was Mr Alfred Pisani, chairman of the Corinthia Group. And then six years ago Mr Rota joined Corinthia as GM of the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa in San Anton, where 49 years ago the Corinthia-Pisani story all started.

Mr Rota tells me: “Mr Pisani is a man of great vision, a born leader and an example to us all. I say this because I truly believe he is one of a kind and Malta is lucky to have had him and his vision. My chairman is a down to earth person in reality, as are most of the intelligent men on this planet.” Before I leave, a beaming Italico Rota tells me that Malta has given him everything: he met his charming, loving German wife while he was in Malta; he had his children here; he discovered real friends here and he found his real happiness here. His final words to me are “Malta is a gem, an old precious gem that never loses its worth.”

I leave the hotel on a high just as I am sure most guests staying at the Corinthia must feel.

And what does Italo Rota’s own pupillo think ?

I spoke to Jonathan Pace about Mr Rota to see what he thinks of the man and if he thinks of him as a legend. Mr Pace was once Mr Rota’s deputy and today has risen, at an incredibly young age, to become GM at the Panorama Hotel in Prague, one of the many hotels that are owned or run by the Corinthia Group.

To Jonathan, Mr Rota gave him the best lessons not just in hotel management but in life. According to Jonathan “Mr Rota is such a people’s person who treats people well. Whether you are a guest at his hotel or a member of staff—in whatever grade—he makes you feel good. He is always positive and this is felt throughout the hotel. Mr Rota is not a GM who stays at his desk crunching numbers; the numbers and reports are important but can be done when there are no people and by others. To Mr Rota the best thing to do at the hotel is to look after your guests and make sure they are treated like very important people.” 

According to his pupillo, Mr Rota’s presence is electrifying and he is there to make sure all is fine with the food, the service and the whole hotel operation. According to Jonathan Mr Rota does a great job and also knows how to enjoy life. He loves his food and travelling but most importantly for his job he loves his staff. The way Mr Rota treats his staff is part of the living legend of a man who came from nearby Italy for a vacation to rest and overstayed by over 30 years.

The rest is part of Malta’s hotel history.    

This article first appeared in the June 2011 issue of the MHRA magazine


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