If you had a chance to build a hospitality brand from scratch, what would you create? For Silvio Ursini, it is a small collection of ultraluxurious properties in the world’s most international cities and glamorous resort destinations. The hotels will eventually number 20, with each commanding the pinnacle rate in its market – think USD1,000 a night and beyond.
With three openings thus far, in Milan (2004), Bali (2006) and London (2012), and another trio slated to receive guests this year, the Executive Vice-President of Bulgari Hotels & Resorts is in no hurry to complete the mission with which he was tasked in 2000. What started as a pet project while he was still the Creative Director of the jewellery company soon became a full-time responsibility. These days, Ursini jets across the world weekly to scout out locations and check on existing projects.
“We reject cities that do not sustain the high rate,” he declares over tea on a languid afternoon at Bulgari Resort & Mansions, Bali, fresh off a plane from Dubai. A wedding is taking place on a glass-paved platform fashioned to appear to float over an infinity pool, while well-heeled honeymooners sip margaritas at the bar, listening to waves crashing onto the private beach some 150m below this cliff-side, all-villa hotel.
He continues: “In other cases, the physical location is not right. In our business, a difference of 100m can mean a good or bad address. The views, the energy, the exposure to sunlight, the arrival, they have to be perfect. Sometimes, even though it is a neighbourhood we want to be in, the building just does not work. So, it is a real coincidence that we are opening three hotels this year. Each property usually takes six to seven years from start to finish. This is the kind of pace: one or two per year.”
His goal is not to amass a sprawling hotel empire, but to ensure that each of his carefully considered properties communicates the same lifestyle message as Bulgari does, as a high-end jeweller with a proud 135-year Roman heritage.
“We are jewellers because we make beautiful jewellery,” he explains. “But in a way, we are also jewellers in spirit, in that we handle precious, rare things. This hotel, you can consider the location as a rough stone. When you dig out an emerald or a diamond, it is an ugly, rough piece of rock. That is what this was 14 years ago, when I visited the site for the first time. We came up there and we walked through the bushes and the rocks. I could immediately feel that there was something incredibly precious about this place.”
Partnering Antonio Citterio – the Italian designer does all of Bulgari’s hotels – Ursini created an edgy, contemporary resort constructed using traditional Balinese techniques. The villas are decorated with fine materials such as silk curtains, bedspreads that take a month to weave by hand and genuine antiques sourced from the island. Even the china deployed in the restaurants and minibars is custom-made by Gaya, a renowned ceramics factory run by two Italians who live in Bali. No expense is spared.
“The whole hotel industry, with very few exceptions, has gone down a road that is driven by maintenance,” he laments. “They do not necessarily choose beautiful materials and finishes, thinking about the guest experience, but they choose them thinking about the housekeeper. Okay, then let the housekeeper design the hotel!
“‘Oh, but this silk is too delicate. How are we going to keep it?’ Of course it is delicate. If you buy a beautiful silk dress, you will send it to the dry cleaners. You are not going to wash it in your tumbler. Again, it all goes back to the fact that people are spending a lot of money to stay with us, and we need to give them back what they deserve.”
It is this attention to detail that drives loyalty, despite the expensive bills. Ursini estimates that 60 per cent of his clientele at the Milan and London hotels are repeat customers. “It means that we know them,” he says with a beam. “We know their preferences, they know the staff. It is amazing. It is like a home.”