When a smile makes a big difference | Italico Rota

Karl Stagno-Navarra speaks to Italico Rota, General Manager at Corinthia Palace Hotel, Attard and talks about his 43-year romance with Malta and Gozo

Orphaned from a young age and raised by an aunt in Milan, Italico Rota made his career in the hotel industry through just a simple observation.

“I was just a boy, when every Sunday morning I would go with my younger brother to see the people entering the zoo. We had no money and could never afford the entrance ticket. So we used to just look at the monkey cages from a ridge just a few metres away from what was once one of Milan’s most prestigious hotels.”

Rota goes on to explain how a storm had cut his Sunday ‘tour’ of the zoo short, and led him and his brother to seek refuge under the large canopy that led into the luxury hotel.

“I asked a white-gloved, and tailed doorman if we could take refuge from the rain, and he told us to stand still in a corner until the rain stopped. As we did, I noticed porters carrying luggage for well dressed men and women, who tipped back for opening doors and calling taxis for them.

“I wondered: how could I earn that kind of money? The tips were great and by the look of them, they were quite hefty, so I asked the same doorman that gave us shelter: how could I ever get to work there?”

“He looked at me and said: “Young man, you look quite charming. I suggest you go to the concierge and leave your details with him.” I managed to get a job as a lift boy and moved on a little further, eventually earning enough money to study in the United States.”

As the interview is interrupted by Rota, who gets up from his seat to welcome guests entering the restaurant for breakfast, playfully greet the children and ask the parents whether they’ve had a good night’s sleep, I cannot help but not notice the eloquent man’s charisma.

“This is what we are all about. Every guest is a VIP, he tells me, stressing that in a luxury hotel, every client is considered to be special, be you a King, Queen, businessman or just an ordinary citizen. Here we sell smiles, comfort and service,” he says.

So where were we?

“Oh, did I tell you that I am 73 and still going strong? Do you know I have been in Malta for almost 35 years, and that my ID card doesn’t have an ‘A’ for alien on it?” he asks.

It’s worth noting that Rota’s name is an icon in the local hotel industry. He is considered a pioneer of luxury hospitality in the Maltese islands.

Malta and Gozo materialised as an option for Rota once he had completed his university course in the US. He went on to study at Ecole Hotelier in Switzerland and secured jobs at the prestigious Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan, the famous Gritti Palace in Venice, the Grand Hotel Parkers in Naples and the Grand Hotel Excelsior in Florence and Rome, not to mention also the landmark Plaza in New York.

Once he grew tired of traipsing around the globe, Rota decided that he wanted a break from it all.

“So I went to a travel agent 34 years ago and I specifically told him: don’t send me to the usual places, I want something different, and he suggested Malta, which I immediately accepted.”

Picture the scene: Rota lands in Luqa and stays at the Phoenicia in Floriana, hiring a motorcycle. He goes about practically everywhere, falling in love with the place, until he crosses to Gozo and drives up a hill beyond Tas-Sannat and discovers the landscape at Ta’ Cenc.

“Oh my God this is beautiful, I said to myself, and I witnessed the most beautiful sunset I could ever witness in my entire lifetime. I was in love with that spot.”

So back at his hotel, Rota was quick to telephone two hoteliers, friends of his who had asked him to speak to them if he ever came across any new opportunities to invest.

“When I returned to Rome I told them, you must see this place, it’s the ideal location for a great hotel, and while they were sceptical about an unknown island such as Gozo, I told them: “look, if I had the money I would invest it there,” and they took on my suggestion. We travelled to Malta and we built Ta’ Cenc, the most luxurious hotel in the Mediterranean.”

“Our clientele was so discerning. We hosted the some of the most respected members of Maltese society, among whom you might have found many of your most prominent politicians today, such as a young and mischievous Austin Gatt, who used to come with his father for Sunday lunch. Other guests included members of the judiciary, advocates, businessmen, and private citizens.”

The hotel attracted numerous foreign dignitaries on private holidays such as former French President Jacques Chirac, TV personalities like Raffaella Carra, the late maestro Luciano Pavarotti, director Riccardo Muti and many others.

“Some would fight to always have the same table for Sunday lunch, or perhaps the same chair or same waiter…we hosted so many clients. Ta’ Cenc was always bubbling with activity and our service earned us a grand reputation.”

“With cooks brought over from Cipriani in Venice and pastry chefs from Rome, we were perhaps the only ones in all of the Mediterranean that handled our clients’ linen or crockery with white gloves…”

He tells me about some difficulties encountered during the 70s and 80s, when Gozo was still connected with the old Zammit Ferries.

“After sunset there were no more ferries and I used to have clients arriving late at night, so I used to dress like a commando and hop onto Dun Guzepp Hili’s private boat and quietly make the crossing to Cirkewwa to collect my guests in pitch darkness.

“I used to have to ask my guests to duck under deck and keep quiet because if we were intercepted by an AFM patrol boat we would have all been arrested. Obviously this would have instilled fear in the guests, but I would ensure that drama would have been forgotten with the hospitality offered once arrived at the hotel.”

Rota trained and sponsored tens of Maltese who have made a name for themselves in the hotel industry around the world, some of whom today occupy very senior positions within large hotel chains.

“You see, my motto is simple: be nice, be polite, smile and most importantly sell your country, and let your guest feel at home. With that philosophy, you cannot go wrong.”

Rota is a believer in the qualitative rather than quantitative aspect of tourism for an island like Malta.

“This island has a great product, but we just have to learn how to get it right and lead foreigners to actually come to Malta not for the usual cliché of sand, sea and sun, but its uniqueness, as no other country in the world has a comparable historical heritage.”

This, to Rota, is the significant difference that should put Malta on the very top of the destination list.

“I can tell you that the Maltese are great people, hard workers and it offends me to see hotels engage foreign general managers when you can find excellent and skilled Maltese for the job.”

“Why should hotels look overseas when Malta has it all?” he asks.

Rota is apolitical. His main concern is Malta and its guests.

Rota has hosted royalty, heads of government, politicians, musicians, film stars, football players… you name it.

But is it true that most guests are so discerning?

“Well, you learn through the years that every client is different, sometimes they have strange requests and I try to accommodate them as I can.

“I remember a particular incident in which a British woman telephoned me to ask for the same room, waiter, driver and chambermaid. I replied that I could guarantee all but the chambermaid who had just announced that she was pregnant and retiring from the job. She suddenly got mad at me and said: “What? Pregnant? Couldn’t her husband have waited?” And I told her: “Madam, in Malta it usually takes nine months for a baby to be born, perhaps could you postpone your holiday to that period, when the weather would be even better?” Rota chuckled.

Rota has received numerous honours both in Malta and in Italy for his lifetime of experience. He has been hailed as an ambassador for Malta by all who know him, and his enthusiasm for the island makes you wonder, just where you’ve been looking to miss its true beauty.

Walking around the grand halls of the Corinthia Palace in Attard, you notice the respect all employees have for the man.

“You see, these are all my family. I have 172 employees here, and I know them all by name.”

“I augur that all these men and women pursue their careers in hotels and be the next generation of ambassadors for Malta,” he concludes.

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