Roberto Wirth – The Man, The Myth, The Legend

The world is changing rapidly, globalization is taking over many things. But some things are not influenced by any passing fashions. The heritage of arts and classical music, for example, an everlasting history which keeps a connection between our world and its past, and unique and rare people for whom the main values are culture and nobility. Hotelier Roberto Wirth embodies these values in his personal and professional life.

He preserves the soul of the Hassler Hotel with his strict and high standards management, which make the Hassler the most unique and precious hotel in Rome. Mr. Wirth keep on being internationally diplomatic, makes things, which are almost impossible in our time – he remains true to himself, offering guests the best, and skillfully maintaining a clear Hassler hotel’s concept in mind. I was honored to ask him a few questions about his projects, keeping in mind some current global topics.

Christina Rusu: Mr. Wirth, my congratulations! This year you turned 70 years old. You look amazing, you expertly run a business and actively participate in social life. In many interviews, you talk about your childhood routine at the hotel. Do you have a vivid memory of that time when you were a child?

Roberto Wirth: I am a second-generation owner of the Hassler Roma and representing the fifth generation of a famous hoteliers family. I believe in carrying on the rich tradition of the Bucher-Wirth Swiss hotel dynasty and, as General Manager, I have been deeply inspired by my father’s model. My family used to live in the hotels they owned and managed and that’s why I have been raised, for approximately 14 years, in hotels. For almost two centuries, the Bucher-Wirth family has made a strong impact in the field of luxury hospitality and continues to do so. I have always wanted to become a hotelier, hotels have always fascinated me, throughout my childhood and earliest memories, since I grew up in this environment. Passing through the various rooms, the Concierge’s desk, how the waiters served clients at the restaurant… And through it all observing my father managing what appeared to me to be a royal palace…

Being born profoundly deaf, all this left an indelible imprint on my mind as a child… I have learned the true sense of hospitality from my family. I knew from the very start that this was what I wanted to do. Even when my father attempted to discourage me insisting that there was a lot of verbal and telephone communication involved. The imprint in my mind was set, and nothing was dissuading me that this was to be my life. One of the sweetest memories I have from my life at the Hassler is Audrey Hepburn walking down the stairs. Her grace and elegance fascinated me. She looked like a fairy princess to me. The Hassler was a second home for her, she used to spend a lot of time in the hotel and she used to send every year, personally to me, Christmas greetings. She always had a smile for everyone. The Hassler Roma was the place that Audrey Hepburn called home while filming Roman Holiday. Right here at the Hassles in 1954, Audrey Hepburn received the communication for The Academy Award nominee for Best Actress for Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. 

When I was preparing for the interview, I had planned to ask who you would have become if not a hotelier. But studying your life, I noticed that outstanding enthusiasm, and how determined to become a hotelier you have been since you were 3 years old. I therefore will not allow myself such a question. I know that your parents had other plans for you. But your results in the management of Hassler show that no one else but you could do this. It is with such a mission in mind – nothing is impossible – you founded CABSS. What does this project mean to you?

My motto is “never give up”. I was born profoundly deaf and I have always been socially active. In 1992, the “Fullbright -Roberto Wirth” scholarship for Italian students who are deaf or hearing impaired, was created. Each year the scholarship allows a student to study at Gallaudet University, Washington D.C. and specialize in an area that might benefit Italian deaf and deafblind children from an educational and psychological standpoints. In 2004, I founded the Roberto Wirth Fund that later became CABSS (Assistance Center for Deaf and Deafblind Children – www.cabss.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting deaf and deafblind children, and their families. The association focuses in particular on children from birth to six years and works with projects that promote an adequate cognitive, emotional, social, linguistic and communicative development that allows children to fully express their personality. Furthermore, the organization provides the children‘s parents with adequate psychological support and guidelines to educate their offspring.

As part of this Project you communicate a lot with children. Was there a case or situation in your experience that offers memorable emotions?

Every child is important for me. The organization offers early intervention programs to deaf and deafblind children between the ages of 0 to 6 and parents play an important role in their child‘s growth and development. CABSS encourages parents to be active participants in their child’s individualized program. Parents receive psycho-pedagogic support to learn and understand how their child communicates and acquires information. They gain a better understanding of what their child‘s strengths are. They learn techniques and communication methods that act to reinforce the parent-child bond. Often, a deaf person is confused and does not believe he can be, live or work like an ordinary person. In reality, deaf people can reach the same goals as hearing people. This is why with CABSS I try to implement many initiatives that help deaf people to easily reach their goals and give visibility to the deaf community. We can do everything except hearing.

Your ambitions are impressive. What motivated you to become a hotelier and prove not only to your father but to the whole world that there are not impossible tasks for you?

“Focus on your work with passion”. Today, I consider the Hassler my passion, my home and my family heritage. My commitment, dedication and personal touch are what have led the hotel to achieve its position as one of Europe’s top hotels. It is not more difficult because I am deaf: we can do everything except hearing. As in most of the things I do, my deafness does not hinder me, it has actually refined other skills and perceptions. Deafness is not and has never been a handicap in my work. I only sometimes need an interpreter for special occasion, like doing a speech in front of a public. As time went on, and particularly nowadays, technology is the miracle that has assisted me in being able te pursue my dream. Before the latest technology, I depended on other people to make telephone calls for me, but now I have the option of sending emails and messages with my mobile phone.

Hassler became the first in many ways: the first hotel in Rome with a penthouse with a private terrace. You first organized New Year’s Eve in 1978, and your mother Carmen organized the first Thanksgiving dinner in the ’60s. Are you always seeking out to do something new first, or does this happen by chance?

The success comes from hard work… Just use the head and not the feet… I can say I achieve the aim to keep Hassler Roma independent and one of the most well-known worldwide property in the luxury hospitality industry. I am constantly open minded towards news and changes, focusing in particular on technological innovations.

Hassler is one of the most Prestigious hotels in Rome. Despite the new projects of Rocco Forte hotels, Bulgari Rome and others, Hassler has one main advantage: Hassler is individual, not influenced by standardization and mass globalization. If Hassler was a Person, what characteristics would he/she have?

I consider the Hotel the woman of my life and my first aim is to keep it as a jewel that shines more and more. The Hassler is the woman of my life, I am bound to nurse it, treat it with velvet gloves and love it with all my heart. Italy has a great hospitality tradition linked to family-owned properties but things are changing.

International chains buy many family-owned hotels. It is a pity; the big fish eats the small fish. The Hassler is an independent hotel and I am proud of it. The arrival of new competitors in the luxury sector is not only a stimulus to further efforts and to stand out, but it is a plus for the city and for its image, which benefits from the arrival of all these players. Improve the quality of the city: Rome needs quality hotels. As I have already said, being an independent hotel, the Hassler has its own character, personality and history, and this is becoming very rare. So, if Hassler was a person… a Lady, an international grace-charming roman, passionate of art and taste. A woman who belonged to the socialite world capable of managing every type of situation with great diplomacy and savoir-faire.

What is your favorite place in the hotel?

I cannot choose only one favorite part of the Hotel, because I love it entirely, especially its exclusive and unique location at the top of the Spanish Steps in the smallest square in Rome. The Palm Court garden is a little oasis, protected from the outside chaos, where I enjoy relaxing “al fresco” moreover (especially) during summer time.

For a couple of months now, I have been working on a biographical article about Aristotle Onassis, and his wedding present to the Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco was a yacht. The royal couple spent their honeymoon on a cruise. And I know that they also stayed at Hassler during this period. I understand your confidential relationship and privacy standards with each guest. However, may I ask if someone from the ”Golden Books” ever influenced the history and success of Hassler?

The Hassler is the favorite destination of royal families and heads of States from all over the world, of famous actors, of the most important orchestra conductors, sopranos, tenors, singers and world-famous artists. For example, the Danish royals, Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid used to stay at the Hassler at least twice a year. Their passion for Italian food was such that, for Christmas, the hotel management would send a parcel with fresh fruit and vegetables along with a case of a famous Italian drink to the Royal palace in Copenhagen. Upon departure, the royal couple would express their satisfaction about their stay in the penthouse suite with the following farewell: “I do not say if we come back, but when’ we come back!”. Besides royal families, many Heads of State preferred the Hassler for their official visits to Italy. Dwight Eisenhower stayed at the Hassler several times and once, shortly before winning the US Presidential elections, the Front Office manager placed a little ivory elephant in his suite as a good luck charm. The elephant, in fact, is the symbol of the Republican Party. The future President was deeply touched by such a thoughtful gesture. At the Hassler we can make every wish come true. When a hotel offers a great experience, all guests, VIPs and less VIPs, are treated equally: each of our guests should feel like royals when entering the Hassler. Our job is to anticipate their desires, learning in advance about their habits, offering them something unique, up to their expectations. The Hassler has always been renowned for being “the” home away from home for sophisticated travelers. With more than 40 years of managing the Hassler and 15 years of experience in the hotel business, I, as Owner and General Manager, personally welcome guests as I would in my own home, with consideration and care. I always keep an eye on every aspect of the Hotel in order to give our guests the best service and experience when in Rome. I welcome and greet them to make them feel like home and willing to come back. Furthermore, I always guarantee the utmost privacy during their stay.

The gorgeous Princess Diana told you personally that her best Bellini cocktail she’d ever had, was in the Hassler Bar. Which cocktail do you prefer?

Princess Diana was one of our loyal guests. I had taken the initiative to organize a small party for her on our panoramic guest terrace on the 7th floor, as she was with a small intimate group including her sister and some assistants. I asked her what she wished to drink, and since she was often in Venice, she replied asking for a Bellini, which we proceeded to prepare with great attention as we always do for our guests. We use freshly squeezed peach juice, prepared right at the moment, which really makes the difference. Before departing she told me personally that it was the best Bellini she had ever had, which was a great accomplishment for us. My favourite drink used to be Gin Fizz which was very much in vogue when I was young, but now I prefer an Italian Prosecco.

As a successful and wise hotelier, you well and accurately understand the requests of the guests. Are there any different specifics in the new generation of your guests?

Hospitality industry has changed a lot; do not forget the cutting-edge that is having a huge influence in every aspects of our life, the “globalization” which affected everything… We have clients coming from every country of the world and the biggest trend is the request of a customized service that can turn a trip in a one-of-a-kind experience.

I am one of your loyal guest at Imago restaurant, and I have noticed turtles everywhere, and in one interview I read that the restaurant is not the only place in the hotel with turtles. What does the turtle symbolize for you? Slow and steady wins the race. This matches the philosophy of life of Mr. Wirth who loves turtles.

Exactly, the turtle is my favorite animal. For me, the turtle represents a way of living and it became my philosophy of life: slow and steady with determination and persistence, you win the race. They know exactly where they want to go and come to trust steps, rather than speed.

Imago restaurant

Francesco Apreda fully expresses himself in the kitchen of lmago, and brought the Michelin star to the restaurant. What emotions did you have when you first found out that lmago had been awarded?

Image, dream, vision… Imâgo encompasses in one word the philosophy of the Hassler Roma‘s gourmet restaurant: a place where vision and taste intertwine to offer a unique culinary experience. Fifty-one years ago, in 1956, my father Oscar Wirth opened the very first panoramic restaurant in Rome – the Roof Restaurant, as it was known then. It was the first of its kind, surrounded by an aura of fascination and glamour like none before. Then, 50 years later, I close the restaurant and together with a decor team, the restaurant entered its second phase of life. Every detail was studied to give the greatest exposure possible to the incomparable view, where each detail is reflected and magnified by the mirrored tables and wraparound windows. Together with the Chef I designed Imâgo‘s kitchen giving new impulse to the restaurant. After a complete restyling it’s new name, Imâgo, derives from the Latin “image”, “vision” and “thought”. In 2008, it was awarded one Michelin star. A great emotion, we were truly happy and this rewarded our efforts and encouraged us to do more and better.

Andrea Antononi was a real sensation and a pleasant surprise last year. Tell me about your choice, for what qualities did you choose Andrea for Imago?

14 years ago I created Imâgo for being the place to taste the future and who better than a 27-years old enthusiastic Chef along with a young and dynamic team who do not exceed 30 years old can tell the new cuisine? Originally from Rome, the Executive Chef Andrea Antonini has worked alongside culinary legends, including 3-Michelin-starred Chefs Quique Dacosta and Joan Roca i Fontané, who helped him develop his creativity. During his time away from home, Andrea has not abandoned his roots, instead he has nurtured his love for Italian and Roman cuisine. We share the same culinary philosophy and concept for Imâgo. The seasonal menus will pay homage to traditional Italian cuisine, with a modern spin, using only the best seasonal produce.

Andrea Antonini and Roberto Wirth

You have also invested in a few projects in Tuscany and Umbria. Why exactly these areas? Could you describe these places?

I have noticed that many Hassler loyalty guests after visiting Rome and its wonders would spend some days in the countryside. So, I decided to invest and it is my pleasure to take you on a discovery journey through Italy and introduce you to the other part of my collection. Three gems: the Hotel Vannucci and the Bastia Creti in Umbria and the Parco del Principe in Tuscany, each featuring its own distinctive personality, sharing a timeless elegance and an authentic Italian style.

Meticulously designed historic villas and residences, in unique and unparalleled locations, where guests can appreciate the distinctiveness of an exclusive style. Enchanting settings where one can feel the personal touch of a family-owned business.

Please, do not forget II Palazzetto in Rome, a beautiful 19th-century building overlooking the Spanish Steps.

You are a person with high standards and requirements both to yourself and to others. You have high standards for the hotel staff and the reputation of Hassler. It is not necessary to be personally acquainted with you to understand that you are a strong and demanding person. Does this aspect of your character affect your family?

I am a demanding person, detail-oriented, open-minded and I can recognize talent. I appreciate the hard work and the efforts and I strongly support my team. At the same time, I am a sensitive person. I apply the same vision to my family, I am father of two gorgeous twins, a boy and a girl, who are well grown up now. I have always tried to push them in pursuing their path in life and support them with that. Being a very demanding person, I always desire the best for them.

I can’t help noticing your wonderful sense of humor. I think this is very important. In today’s world, you can go crazy without a sense of humor. What qualities do you consider pivotal for a modern person?

The sense of humor is essential in life, then determination, perseverance, flexibility, curiosity and never give up!

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