An Interview with Marco Novella , General Manager of Villa San Michele by Orient Express, Florence

By Paul Joseph

Perched majestically on a hillside above Florence, Italy sits one of the flagship hotels of the Orient Express group, and one that is steeped in history.

Set in a former monastery dating back over 500 years, the property contains stunning frescos and ancient carvings that give the impression of a museum and Renaissance art gallery as much as a world class hotel.

But touch the surface and you soon discover the standards of excellence that have made Orient-Express one of the most renowned luxury travel and hospitality groups in the world. We spoke to Marco Novella, General Manager of Villa San Michele, to discover more about a truly remarkable hotel. A lot of people come to Florence for its incredible history, but I understand Villa San Michele has its own impressive story to tell?
Marco Novella: Yes, we go back over 500 years to the Renaissance period which brought many people - especially artists - to Florence. Consequently we have many features and pieces of art that date back to that era, when the property was a monastery, including our facade which is attributed to Michelangelo himself.

There is a very strong sense of place here, and it perfect for people who want to discover more about Tuscany, the landscape, the culture, the architecture, because you can actually find all of this here at San Michele.

SY: You also have a very special location, high above the city, but still within easy reach. How important is that for your guests?
MN: Very important as our location means that we are also a retreat. We are just 15 minutes from the city centre of Florence so you can discover the city and then return back to the hotel in the afternoon to enjoy the rest of your day here around the swimming pool and our beautiful garden. We find that after a few hours in the city, which is normally very busy with people, our guests are ready to come back to Villa San Michele to regenerate themselves.

SY: Can you tell us about dining at Villa San Michele?
MN: Yes, well the hotel has one main restaurant which is called La Loggia, and it is basically an outdoor restaurant. There is a roof, but there are no windows or barriers, so you can enjoy a panoramic view of Tuscany. It is one of the most romantic places not only here in Florence but I think in the whole of Italy. A lot of people come from far to visit our restaurant, as it has built a very strong reputation and become one of the top few points of reference of the entire city.

But more than just views, La Loggia has achieved its reputation for the quality of the food. Our head chef Attilio di Fabrizio is a very highly regarded chef in Italy, and he likes to help people understand the food and culture of Tuscany, so he creates regional dishes with local ingredients, but with his own special twist. In terms of presentation, you can be sure you will never find another restaurant in Florence that serves dishes like him.

SY: What about some of the hotel’s other stand-out facilities?
MN: We have a stunning heated swimming pool, built high up above our garden and is only accessible to guests of the hotel to ensure their privacy. The temperature of the water is kept at around 26 in the summer and around 28 or 29 in the mid-season. There is also an outlet for food and beverage up there which is more casual than La Loggia and serves pizza, grilled meats and fish throughout the day. It is a beautiful spot, and because of its position it provides even more elevated views of Florence and Tuscany than the rest of the hotel.

We also have private dining rooms for up to 20 people, a wine cellar where we have about 700 Italian wine labels, a fitness centre with the latest technogym equipment, and up by the pool we offer massages in gazebos. We didn’t have any physical space to build a spa so we thought we could create a very private area by the pool where people can enjoy the views they they receive a massage.

SY: I understand the hotel’s Presidentiaal Suite is something very special?
MN: The Presidential Suite is called the Limonaia Villa, and you don’t even realise it is there, it is so private. It comprises three bedroom and bathroom suites together. We saw that there was potential in restoring what was the former orangerie of the monastery into a beautiful accommodation that would also be very private and discreet, so that’s what we did. On the top floor is a separate dormitory with its own private garden and private plunge pool, which means even if the whole villa is occupied, the most important person in the family can retreat up there.

SY: And you also run cookery classes?
MO: We have a cooking class which runs 3 times a week, each for two-and-a-half hours. It’s a very hands-on class, and it’s special because the head chef from L Loggia is present most of the time. He is the leader of the kitchen and he shows it completely.

The cooking class is a way to approach our ‘business’ of hospitality, and show that we are not just here to offer a room to sleep but an experience. We want you to come away from here knowing exactly where you have been. So it’s not just about learning the secrets of the chef, but about learning typical dishes of Florence as well.

SY: What would you say makes Orient Express stand out from the crowd amongst other luxury hospitality groups?
MO: The reason is very simple: people choose us for the quality in everything we do, from our ingredients, to our fabrics, to our furnishings, to our garden. It is the highest quality you can find in luxury hospitality, and fortunately for us there are not many hotels today that can compete with us.

But part of that quality is in our people. Once guests know they can find the same high standard of service in all of the Orient-Express properties, then people will trust the brand. When we close in the winter, we retrain our entire staff from A-Z, because even if they’ve been with us for many years, they always need to refresh their knowledge. And it is not basic training. We take them to one of our hotels for 5 days before the beginning of the season.

It is also a way to make them feel part of an organisation. We get together with staff from other Orient-Express hotels in Italy, all the housekeeping departments, everyone, and there are maybe 10 groups of them. So it’s a way for them to get together, exchange ideas and by doing this we always find a way to improve.

The other reason why I think people are in love with us is that we don’t offer a typical hotel experience. Normally 50 per cent of the things we offer our guests are in-house experiences and the other 50 per cent are created by our concierge and PR team who work extensively during the year to create ideas for experiences and activities that you cannot do unless you stay with us.

Finally, there is the authenticity of our properties. We don’t try to change things, the layout, the materials, we respect the place. So our uniqueness is a combination of place, location, service, and the people. It’s more of a soft brand in this sense, and the uniqueness of the experiences that we create.

SY: In the past Orient Express has perhaps been known for attracting a slightly older client base. Are there any ambitions to reach different demographics?
MO: Yes, and it’s actually already happening now. Of course we are not one of these fashion brand or super modern hotel brands – we don’t belong to that type of hospitality – but our guests are already changing.

There’s a growing number of younger, more affluent people who like to discover new experiences and we are trying to cater for them by creating unique excursions and activities. For example, we recently learnt that a Roman amphitheatre had been discovered buried under a palace in Florence, and although this has not yet been officially made public, we have arranged with the authorities to allow some guests to visit the site that is currently being excavated.

If you saw our guests 10 years ago they were totally different. Now you have 40 year old parents with their children or maybe with their own parents, so you have to adapt the operation and the services to their needs.

This year we also became the first hotel in Florence to create a kid’s club. It’s in the woods, in the building that used to be a chapel in the monastery. It was previously converted into accommodation but now it is a kid’s club where a woman looks after the children morning and evening and allows the parents to enjoy the swimming pool and a good meal. We’ve also created what we call a new ‘kid’s concierge’ service which involves organising activities for children away from the hotel.

So the basic qualities and standards of our hotel will always remain the same, and our job is to keep innovating and coming up with new ideas to match the desires of our guests.

By Paul Joseph