If a "to-see-before-you-die" list for accommodation existed, Villa d'Este would be at the top of the list. Owner and CEO, Jean-Marc Droulers, gives us an inside tour through the renowned family-run resort.
When most folks travel for leisure, they think of the city or village they're pining for first then search for the best accommodation. Not when it comes to the enchanting and sublime Villa d'Este—a destination in its own right for over one hundred years
Ever since the green-blue waters of the pristine Lake Como began attracting visitors to its shores, the Villa d'Este, its crowning jewel, has been the subject of awe and renown. Built in 1568 as the summer estate for an Italian Cardinal, it was passed down from one royal owner to the next until it opened its doors to the privileged public in 1873 as a first-class paradise on earth.
As graceful and enchanting as its surrounding landscape of crystalline waters, bountiful gardens and fabulous fountains, the Villa d'Este has long shared the stage with some of the world's most prized possessions. A destination in its own right, the 16th century Italian palace has played second home to a an awe-inspiring list of names, from Giuseppe Verdi, Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock to King Leopold of Belgium, John F. Kennedy and Bette Davis, to name just a few.
Inheriting the famed oasis from his father in the late 1960s, Jean-Marc Droulers has been painstakingly perfecting its prestigious place as a leading hotel of the world through discreet "evolutions." After added modern touches such as a floating swimming pool, sports club, cooking classes and a resplendent spa to the hotel's long-list of amenities, Droulers once again raised the stakes on luxury this past year with the opening of two historical private villas on the hotel's property. Here the award-winning hotelier discusses life within the beautiful walls of the celebrated Villa d'Este and his dreams for its future.
What is your definition of luxury?
The time to enjoy what surrounds us.
If luxury were a person who would it be?
If luxury were a place where would it be?
The entire city of Palermo, Sicily for its culture, history and outstanding setting.
If luxury were an object what would it be?
Something that is exceptional because it transmits the talent, taste and humanity of the person who created it.
You have spent all of your life near and within the villa. What does the villa represent for you?
It is certainly the big love of my life, and therefore requires little effort to take care of and look after that love. It's something that is minute after minute and hour after hour, always different. There is little repetition. I've greeted maybe thousands of people who have walked through our doors, but it's never the same. My sustained curiosity and excitement towards our new clients, my staff and the location makes my job consistently pleasurable.
How is luxury expressed at Villa D'Este?
Certainly in the sense that everything is personalized, from the furniture, decoration, and atmosphere of the place to our way of receiving the guests. When you arrive you have the feeling of arriving at a private club, where you are greeted with warmth and recognize and are recognized by the people around you. It has always been my quest to make people feel as guests in a home, and not as clients to a company.
How is the Villa D'Este experience unique?
When you go to Villa D'Estee, you expect to have an experience that is a little out of time. To live in a centuries-old Italian Patrician villa that appears to have changed little, while enjoying all of the comforts of today. The essence of the atmosphere, through the decoration, furniture, and flavor of the surroundings, transports you to another place in time.
Your philosophy at the hotel is that it is not just a place to sleep and eat but that it is a way of life. How would you describe that way of life?
It's a reflection of a certain cultural lifestyle, one that searches for, and responds to, elements that inspire the senses as well as please them. While it's certainly not of the standing of the Louvre, the hotel is decorated with museum quality artwork and designed in such a way to provoke a sense of well-being with the community and within the overall environment. It is a place in which socializing with one's neighbor is commonplace, while absolute solitude is accessible at any moment if one desires.
What are your favorite parts of the hotel?
If I were a client of the hotel I would prefer to stay in the small Queen's building rather than in the main Cardinal building because it has only 34 rooms, all of which have views of the lake. Since it's smaller the staff can quickly learn your tastes and personalize the services to suit them. Not to mention that I think that it's more romantic in terms of its decoration, seclusion and intimate size. Regarding the rest of the hotel, my preferences change from time to time. Right now I really like the formal restaurant, but three years ago I was obsessed with the informal one. I move my table and my place frequently, but what I like to do is sit at a table with a strategic view of everything that's going on. I live the life of the hotel, and use a lot of the services to see how smoothly they work.
The Villa D'Este has always been one of Europe's most elite destinations. How has the clientele changed since you began?
The clients become younger and younger with each year. In the past, the transmission of wealth by inheritance happened later in life, whereas now people are earning their fortunes in banking, technology, business, etc at a much earlier age and so the money has shifted into younger hands. That, combined with globalization, means that clients from all over the world, including those from Russia, Japan and Australia are coming in increasing numbers, and at younger ages.
What do you think it has become one of Europe's number one vacation destinations for Hollywood stars?
That's a big word. Yes it's true that George Clooney spends 6 moths of the year in Lake Como and that that generated a lot of interest, but the hotel has always attracted the elite, from royals, business tycoons and politicians to celebrities today.
Which have been some of your most remarkable guests?
Alfred Hitchcock. He used to come a couple of weeks every year as it was a secluded place for him and his family. He really didn't want to be mixed up with what was going on. Really what is great about Villa D'Este is that it's sort of like a ship. Once you're on board you're really on your own and it's easy to protect your privacy if you so choose. He was always in the background, observing what was going on behind the scenes and curious about how things were done. He loved spending time in the kitchen. He also had a preferred table on the terrace under one of the trees.
You recently opened up two private villas on the estate. Please tell us about the Villa Cima and Villa Malakoff and what inspired you to offer them to your guests for rent?
In July 2006 we opened two private villas within the gates of Villa d'Este. They
both date back to the beginning of the 19th century and have undergone significant renovations. The idea was to ensure that they perpetuate Villa d'Este's reputation for traditional elegance and hospitality together with the most updated modern facilities. It is exactly what luxury clientele expect from their vacations today: "a home away from home". This need has grown enormously in the last few years; a place where families can reunion from time to time and discover again that feeling of being in their Grandparents' house. This combined of course with all the services of a five-star Hotel.
Why do you feel that private villa rentals (with 5-star servicing) has become such a important trend in luxury accommodation?
Because families lives apart all year through, children study away from their home town, parents travel around the world for business, family houses are being given away because they're too difficult to keep up with properly and too expensive to maintain. This is probably also why historic properties are undergoing a burst of interest in the US as well as in the European market.
Did you open these villas up for rent because you sensed a change in the customer's demand?
Yes, our clientele is very demanding and their needs exactly correspond to those above described. When you have worked for so long in the hotel industry, and you know your target clientele you can perceive their needs changing before they actually do. This is part of the experience but I must say a big role in this is also played by the type of property you own, and Villa d'Este is not only fascinating and unique in the atmosphere but is also very rich in facilities we can put at the clients disposal.
How do you plan on extending the Villa D'Este empire over time?
For a long time I have dreamt of having something in New York. I don't know whether it will happen, but I'd love it! I certainly would love to do something in Rome, and the tip of Sicily but there is nothing specifically in the works.
What are some of your favorite places to stay around the world?
What really makes a stay at a hotel most important are of course the memories that are generated there with someone special. That said, my favorite places are the Four Seasons in NY, in Paris I have my little habits at the Crillon, the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, the Ritz in London, and of course there are lots of smaller hotels as well. In the Far East I do it basically for business. When I'm on holiday I usually prefer to take my boat around the Medterranean, my travels are mainly for business that's why I have no experience abut the Aman hotels, though I have heard much about them.
When travelling, what are some of your favorite places to shop?
In Milan, I go to Lorenzi for impeccable men's accessories and lifestyle items from razors to books and wine; in Naples I go to Marinella for ties; In New York, Paul Stuart for menswear; of course in Paris, it's Hermès.