Italy’s Portrait brand focuses on guest experiences

FLORENCE, ITALY—Valeriano Antonioli has traveled the world during his nearly 30-year career in hospitality. He has held positions in 12 different cities including Milan; Los Angeles; Saint Petersburg, Russia; and Scottsdale, AZ.

After spending seven years in the U.S., a conversation with a member of one of Italy’s most famous families lured him back over the pond in 2010 to become the CEO of the Lungarno Collection, based here.

“I received an offer from Leonardo Ferragamo [the son of Salvatore Ferragamo, founder of the eponymous luxury goods company], who convinced me to join as CEO of the Ferragamo family-owned hotel company,” said Antonioli, who noted that—as a hub for food, culture and art—Florence holds many attractive qualities. “It has an international flair while remaining a very authentic Italian city. Logistically, it is also perfect, being only an hour and a half away from Rome, Milan and Venice with the high-speed train. Most importantly, it is here in Florence where my children were guaranteed a great education at the International School of Florence. Lastly, being very sports-oriented, Florence and its surroundings are perfect for all types of fitness, my preferences being skiing, mountain climbing and cycling.”

Returning to Italy brought forth some new challenges, since the hotel climate here is very different from the U.S.

“In Italy, a charming boutique hotel has approximately 30 to 40 rooms, while a large hotel has 100-plus rooms. In the U.S., up to 150 rooms may still be considered as being boutique,” said Antonioli. “In the U.S., the hotel business is, in general, a two- or three-party business with an owner/developer; an operator (brand); and sometimes also with a franchise/brand. The hotel business is very often seen as a real estate business with hotels changing ownership and brand very quickly. I once checked into a Park Hyatt hotel in the evening to check out in an InterContinental Hotel the next morning.

“In Italy, the vast majority of the hotels are family owned, unbranded and, in many cases, in need of capital for a renovation,” he continued. “I find that in the U.S., the hotel industry is very corporate with large-scale investment, huge brands and lots of sell-buy transactions. In Italy, independent hotels are still striving and, consequently, the guest experience is more authentic and not based on procedures.”

The Lungarno Collection currently consists of three boutique hotels in Florence—Hotel Lungarno, Continentale and Gallery Hotel Art—as well as two properties under the Portrait Hotels brand, Portrait Roma (Rome) and Portrait Firenze (Florence).

“The creation of the Portrait brand was a natural evolution following a winning format that we experienced in our hotel in Rome, previously known as Portrait Suites,” said Antonioli. “Our tailor-made service and attention to detail—for which our now Portrait Roma is known for around the world— has been an inspiration and model for the conception of Portrait Firenze and the brand itself. Our expectations are to be front-runners in hospitality, putting our clients center stage and distinguishing ourselves from a traditional hotel experience. More than a brand, it’s a lifestyle. All of our hotels are tied to the culture and values of the family Ferragamo, which stands for culture, elegance, timeless style and craftsmanship, coupled with a great sense of customer service. Every guest should leave our hotels with a shopping bag full of lasting memories and stories to share.”

The CEO noted that the Portrait brand is fixated on helping guests have the ultimate experience both in and out of the hotel. Considering their locations, a guest could become overwhelmed with the number of opportunities that await once they step outside.

“The scope of the Portrait brand is to provide our guests with an authentic hotel and cultural experience—innovative hospitality designed to offer not only an iconic location, but a personalized experience as well,” he said. “We tend to become the personal local assistant of all our guests. Everyone on the lifestyle team is equally responsible in the decision-making process and able to provide any kind of recommendation to our clients.”

He continued, “Our Portrait University uniquely recruits and trains employees, providing hands-on hotel and local experiences reflecting in extremely personalized service. This can only be done with strong internal communication where essential information is shared in order to create a competent team and trustworthy relationships with the guests.”

Portrait Roma opened in 2006; it took eight years for Portrait Firenze to join the portfolio. Antonioli pointed out that finding the perfect location is what has slowed down the growth process.

“Portrait Roma is located on Via Condotti, seconds from the Piazza di Spagna, and Portrait Firenze is at the Ponte Vecchio,” he said. “Finding a hotel development opportunity at a comparable and iconic location in other European cities is not an easy proposition. However, I hope to be able to announce a new opening soon.”

Each of the Portrait hotels have been doing well. According to Antonioli, they are both top performers on STR’s Revenue Generation Index (RGI), and are ranked within the top two hotels in their respective cities with RevPAR reaching approximately $738.

Both the 12-room Portrait Roma and 32-room Portrait Firenze pride themselves on making their guests feel at home, noted Antonioli.

“The first thing our guests will notice when arriving is that there are no physical barriers,” he said. “They will arrive in a very hospitable and home-like environment—a living room rather than a hotel lobby—where the contact with our team is friendly and familiar, while maintaining respectable distances based on our clients’ wishes and cultural traditions. If the guests want, we will treat them like ‘returning old friends,’ but if they prefer, we will keep a professional distance.”

The philosophy has worked with many a guest. Antonioli shared one of his personal experiences: “I received a letter from a guest who had stayed at the Portrait Firenze and explained to me the difference between his pre-stay and arrival experience in comparison to a big hotel brand. Once he filled out our pre-arrival questionnaire, our lifestyle team members knew his preferences and requests upon arrival. When he arrived, he got a welcome like an old important friend visiting us. In other hotel experiences, he had to wait for a guest relations agent before receiving any responses regarding the stay.”

He continued, “The team members of our Portrait brand are chosen first for their attitudes and skills, rather than their professional competence. We look for those who love what they do naturally; appreciate serving guests; and are great communicators and listeners. These attitudes, combined with the knowledge and empowerment given through Portrait University, create the uniqueness of the Portrait brand. We have had members of our lifestyle team assist guests in preparing for a local marathon, while other team members became witnesses and guests of last-minute weddings. Once, we had to ship to the U.S. a Vespa used for a tour of Rome, which made two young people fall in love. The Vespa became their souvenir of that moment.” HB