Imagine Eloise at the Plaza, but in the setting of ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, chronicled by Slim Aarons. That’s what we see when we close our eyes and imagine Marie-Louise Scio’s childhood at her parents' hotel, Il Pellicano, in Porto Ercole.
Nested in the rocks of Tuscany, in the shade of the towering cypress trees, overlooking the Tyrrhenian sea, bathed by a transparent blue water, it was in 1979 that Marie-Louise’s father purchased the hotel from it’s original owners. And from what we understand, it was exactly like we’ve seen in the iconic photographs.
“I grew up immersed, looking from behind the bushes, at an incredible kind of life of a very joyful adulthood, all throughout my childhood that’s all I saw. At the Pellicano, I would spy on my parent’s social life, see all those adults having fun and being so glamourous. I had a beautiful image of what it was like to be an adult.”
She explains, “I can’t remember one guest specifically, but I remember a lot of people, breathing that air, always in awe of the elegance of these people. On Friday nights the women would come down in their long gowns and turbans and the men would only wear linen suits. It was ideal, the holiday mood and everyone was so graceful and welcoming and nice, there was this amazing ‘Joie-de-vivre’.”
Semaine: What were your earliest memories there?
Marie-Louise: “Me and my brother used to get in big trouble together. I remember that there were these lobsters at the grill and we decided that we wanted to save them. So we took them out of their tanks and threw them in the swimming pool. Obviously all the guests started screaming there were 20 lobsters in the swimming pool which obviously died after a second because of the chlorine. But I will never forget that ! Nor the amount of trouble we got in after.
I also remember me and my girlfriends used to go to the rooms where they had terraces or little gardens and put on a Madonna show - I was a huge Madonna fan at the time - and we would ask people to come and see the choreography we had put up and pay for the show. When my father found out we got in a lot of trouble. I was in trouble a lot of the time actually.
I don’t know if my son will have the same memories... we were 4 kids: I grew up with my younger brother, getting in trouble together. Kids were allowed in the hotel at the time. Maybe he will hate it because his mother is working and the other mothers are on vacation but I hope he will get a lot from it. I realized growing up how much it gave me in terms of esthetics and maturity. You gain a lot being surrounded by so many different people. You get exposed to so many way of thinking, you meet so many incredible different people and that has to be defining. The world comes to your living room when you live in a hotel. It is going to give him something in life, which I think he will realise much later. But let’s see in 10 years what he says about it.”
Semaine: And have you seen a change in the crowd?
Marie-Louise: “It’s physiological that since 1965 to today, traveling has changed so much. Style has changed too. But you do still get the woman in their 20’s or 30’s with a great sense of style, understated and chic. Which is always so nice to see instead of people wearing their house around their neck.
In the world of selfies, people that want that kind of attention will not come here - and I am quite happy about that - It’s not a place to come and show off, to show how rich and powerful you are and how famous… You can be sitting next to a real famous person here and no one could care less.”
Semaine: Do you think that new technologies influence the way people travel?
Marie-Louise: “I think the Internet and social media have influenced the hospitality world immensely. I am personally not someone that would go on trip advisor - well maybe I should - but I would rather listen to people I respect, and travel based on their advice. We have nearly 70% direct bookings, without travel agents or booking agents, which in today’s world is immense.“
Semaine: How would you define the guests?
Marie-Louise: “Il Pellicano attracts a certain kind of crowd. It is kind of a self selective place in some ways. It is very private and has always attracted a kind of a crowd that never wants to show off or be seen. It’s kind of a hidden - not so hidden - treasure. It’s the least flashy place from its guests to the way it's done. The hotel is on a beautiful coastline, where there is not that much development around. It’s the Tuscan coast but it’s not as obvious as the choice of in land Tuscany, of places like Chianti etc. It’s luxurious in terms of it’s nature and what it has around and in the way you are treated because there is a lot of care. It’s not luxurious in a ‘gold knobs’ kind of way. We want the hotel to be elegant and simple with an understated kind of chicness. It is what it was known for and we wanted it to stay like that. It’s a rare thing to find - understatement.“
Semaine: Do you think it has created some sort of club?
Marie-Louise: “It’s a tribe because people feel that this is their home and it’s their kind of club. I love that idea. Some of my closest friends are people I met here. Although we are quite visible as a hotel in the press, the most powerful communication is still really word of mouth - having someone you trust telling you to go somewhere - it creates this kind of ‘club’ feeling.”
Semaine: And this cult was supported by the imagery?
Marie-Louise: “Slim Aarons was always around and I used his imagery as a reference when I did the renovation. The idea was never to make a book but it seemed obvious at one point. I also wanted to use a contemporary photographer such as Juergen Teller, to do the ‘third chapter’ to create a bridge between John Swope, Slim Aarons and Juergen Teller.”
Semaine: So you tried to continue the narrative?
Marie-Louise: “Yes, we have some clients that have been coming since the opening of the hotel. But we also try to appeal to the new generation. Age is very diverse, you have the 25 year olds to the 80 year olds. If the people that have been coming since the beginning would have stopped after I redesigned the place, that would have meant I had done something wrong. To appeal to both is very important to us and to have both would be ‘mission accomplished’. I want to create something that is timeless.”
Semaine: Is it linked with the idea of heritage?
Marie-Louise: “Some people don’t consider heritage as being a good thing. When people renovate hotels they tend to try and eliminate the past. I, on the contrary, think architecture is a container for amazing stories, and people should capitalize on that. It was our approach at Il Pellicano when we renovated, to bring out the historical aspect. It is only 50 not 2000 years old but it still has a significant history, an incredible social history. We wanted to be respectful of that past, highlight it and allow our guests to experience it. If you stay in the past you could become iconic, in the wrong sense of the word. 'Oh the Pellicano used to be', and if you are too contemporary or trendy you don’t last in time. Our approach was to create a bridge between what was the past and our contemporary vision. This requires constant attention.”
Semaine: So did you always think you would inherit your family hotels?
Marie-Louise: “No, the last thing I wanted to do was to work in the family hotel. It never even crossed my mind. I studied architecture at the Rose school of design and after a few years working in architecture and in interior design my father asked me if I would renovate a bathroom and a bedroom. And I said why not. And that’s how it’s started really, a little bit by chance. One year it was a bathroom and a bedroom, then it was three bathrooms and three bedrooms and three years later it was the whole place.”
Semaine: Did you know you would end up in Italy?
Marie-Louise: “I didn’t know I was going to go back to Italy. I came back because I was at a crossroad in my life. I had lived in Switzerland, in England, then Providence in Rhode Island (I was at Rhode Island School of Design) and then in New York. I was wondering ‘what was next’. I had lived abroad for so long and I was either going to stay abroad and make my life there, or maybe it was time for me to come back. There was always something I was missing from Italy, besides my family. I think there was also some sense of duty. But when I did come back I had such a culture shock. And I think I still have it.
I have been back for 15 years now but when you have travelled a lot and lived in so many places, it’s hard to call anything home. Rome is my home but I still need to get out a lot and I travel around. It expands your mind and widens your horizons.”
Semaine: How would you define your job as a creative director?
Marie-Louise: “My job is very diverse. I oversee the positioning and the strategy - where we want to be when we are old, for both of the hotels. And I am also involved with the work of other people in the finances etc. but that’s given to professionals. On a day-to-day basis I oversee the strategic marketing, the communication and everything that involves the senses really. From the purchasing for the shop, to the graphic projects. I have a pretty busy day. I choose everything that involves the senses in the hotel: from the plates to the towels to the beach beds and the menus. The music or what you can buy in the shops or the uniforms. Pretty much everything. I am also very engaged with the guests in the hotel.”
Semaine: How much do you engage with them?
Marie-Louise: “I think it’s absolutely fundamental to be engaged with guests, it makes a huge difference. In hospitality, the ‘Home’ aspect is key. It’s in the DNA of our hotels. One of our main philosophies. Having familiar faces you know from the hotel makes a difference, have the staff trained in not such a formal manner - of course very respectful and proper but not that kind of textbook formality -, it’s an alchemy of passion and love: a way of doing things that make people feel at home.
Today this expression is very overused: ‘To feel at home’. But it’s a feeling that you can’t fake, it has to be the real intent and you can’t corporatize that feeling. La posta Vecchia and Il Pellicano were really two homes and we wanted to maintain that feeling. We have over 50% of repeat clients and it’s because they really feel at home when they come to Il Pellicano or la Posta Vecchia. We have clients that have been coming for 50 years.”
Semaine: What would you say are the differences between the two hotels?
Marie-Louise: “The two hotels are totally different in their architecture and their location. La Posta Vecchia has much more history than Il Pellicano. It is a 16th century villa built on Roman ruins, 19 bedrooms with an incredible collection of Renaissance furniture. It was a private house for a while and then turned into a hotel. It was restored by Franchetti in the 60’s. He brought incredible art and furniture. It has its own little world and is a very special place. 30 minutes from the centre of Rome, on the sea, in the middle of a park. It’s quite unique. Also it’s a different kind of lifestyle than at Il Pellicano. La Posta Vecchia is for the art lover or the person who doesn’t want to escape the city. It’s also different in the people you meet. It’s not a place where you will be dancing around the pool at 3 o’clock in the morning with 50 people. So many elements make those places special. But they are quite similar in the interesting people you meet there, what they bring to you and what you bring to them on a human level.”
Semaine: How do you create the right mood?
Marie-Louise: “The right ambiance is like a good recipe: You need the right amount of salt, the right amount of pepper, the right amount of onion, garlic and tomatoes... And to cook it at the right temperature. It’s a mix of things that creates this magic related to a hotel. It’s about the guests, the kind of music, the choice of the scent, the towels that you have…. it’s all of those little details that creates the intangible mood.
One day, my friend Camille just said ‘you are the chief of magic’, and I thought that’s such a good way to put it.
I started a consultancy company for other hotels recently, to bring in that recipe. So many times I walk into a hotel and I think ‘oh this could be great if only...’, or you feel like they are trying too hard, that there is something not quite right. Old hotels don’t realise that sometimes it needs to be updated without killing its soul. It means bringing together the elements in a more contemporary way, a bit more polished or tighter.
After working at Il Pellicano and La Posta Vecchia and traveling so much I thought I could put my experience out there and see if I can help. It’s the creative direction with the knowledge of a hotelier - you need to have that, you need to know what you are doing in terms of hotel logistics merged with the creative approach. I want to be the chief of magic for others.”
Semaine: We have heard you wanted to open Il Pellicano in other places?
Marie-Louise: “I would like to open Il Pellicano in the States and in England. I think it’s an approach, it’s a philosophy we can adapt. Italianness is a brand in a way. Il Pellicano is a symbol of Italian hospitality and it’s not just related to the fact that you are on the beach. It’s all linked to the intangible ‘thing’ we were discussing. The good recipe but together. I believe that it is exportable.”
Semaine: Could you define Luxury?
Marie-Louise: “It’s about time and how and where you decide to spend it. Related to hospitality I think luxury is honesty. It’s about populating your places with people with real content, with real layers. Not things that are beautiful in appearance, pretty on the surface, and that are actually empty. It’s choosing to spend my time in beautiful places and surrounded by things that touch me, move me and give me something. So it’s not about star ratings in hotels, not about Michelin stars in restaurants, it’s the honesty of the product, the honesty of the vision and veracity of the intent. It could be a cracky little bar on the beach with amazing sea food cooked with passion but you are eating on plastic chairs. It doesn’t really matter because the focus is on the food not the surroundings.”
Semaine: How important are details for you?
Marie-Louise: “It’s key to be consistent with your intentions, so if your intention is to create whatever world it’s about following that through and doing that properly. The hypothetical fish restaurant we are talking about is about having top quality fish, it’s not about the chairs and the furniture and any detail at all. Simply that food. So it depends on the intent. But if you want to create a place where details are an important element and really matter then they have to be really thought out and really done well, with real passion. The human error is normal and I sometimes like to see that in hotels. Otherwise it feels robotic and fake in a way.”
Semaine: What era inspires you?
Marie-Louise: “I really like this time. I am really inspired by today and I think it is an incredible time to be in. A time where boundaries are pushed and there are almost none between discipline. Music inspires me, art, just life in general. I am very curious. I take in a lot. I like to play with those interactions. Hotels can work with fashion designers for example. We did a collaboration with APC because I really like their brand and company. I love their vision and their approach. High quality products and no bullshit. It’s the same with Juergen Teller, he is a no bullshit guy. His photographs are about raw, about the real, bringing up the soul. Those partnerships are born out of human relationships. There are no sitting down strategic partnerships. They are honestly constructed. We work in different sectors but we share the same kind of vision and are very similar in a lot of aspects.”
Il Pellicano and La Posta Vecchia are two rare pearls in today’s world. Marie-Louise has made sure they have evolved with their time and has been respectful of what they were, keeping their old-school charm and their uniqueness. The hotels have some of her qualities: chic with depth, yet without losing lightness, and so discreet - She managed not to name drop once all throughout this interview - because, we guess, what “happens at the Pellicano, stays at the Pellicano”.
By Marie Winckler for Semaine.