Financial expert and ten times New York Times bestselling author David Bach speaks with Valeriano Antonioli, CEO of Lungarno Collection, a leading hotel management company owned by the Ferragamo family. The conversation took place at La Terrazza bar on the rooftop of Continentale, one of Lungarno Collection’s favorite hotels.
David Bach: The hotels forming the Lungarno Collection group—Portrait Florence, Rome and shortly Milan; Hotel Lungarno, Continentale, Gallery Hotel Art and Lungarno Apartments—are consistently considered as some of the best hotels in the world as well as being our local favorites. Why do you think your hotel brand is so successful?
Valeriano Antonioli: The combination of great service, great location and great design has played a really big part. It seems easy, but actually with great hotel design you need to have a certain taste that people want to take home with them. For example, take the features on this terrace at the Continentale, a hotel that’s 20 years old: a lot of people want to replicate something like this for their own outdoor spaces at home. We opened the Portrait in 2014 and the Hotel Lungarno reopened after renovation in 2017, both have many features that guests really love thanks to our interior architect Michele Bönan, who our president Leonardo Ferragamo selected from day one. The locations are also extraordinary. The Hotel Lungarno is right on the river and we’re sitting here at the Continentale overlooking the Ponte Vecchio: I’m biased, but I think this is one of the best locations in all of Florence. There are other hotels, which might be even nicer than ours, with beautiful gardens and pools, but they’re not in the city center. If you want to hear a violin player on the Ponte Vecchio at 8pm while having dinner in one of our restaurants, you can only have it here. The last part, which is most important of all, is our people’s attitude. We encourage our employees to be independent, so they don’t have to follow a script. They can just be themselves.
Your Hotel Lungarno was the first place where my wife, Alatia, and I stayed in 2018 and that experience was a big factor in us deciding to live in Florence. That week you were hosting a Spoon Dinner. Everyone was taking pictures with this spoon and we thought to ourselves, If we ever move to Florence, we have to get ourselves invited. Amazingly enough, we went along the first month we moved here in 2018. That first dinner led to many of the friendships that we now have in Florence. What was the genesis for the idea behind the Spoon Dinners?
It all started with a hole. In 2014, we decided to add a white wall at our Gallery Hotel Art to hang pictures inside. In the 1990s and 2000s, the white wall was where many famous photographers hosted their shows. Then Florence got used to modern art and we stopped doing it. So, I thought, Let’s do it again, but let’s hang something on the wall outside. In 2014, the World Cycling Championships came to Florence, so we hung 24 bikes on the outside wall of the hotel. It became so famous that the city’s tour guides all stopped to look. The following year, we had the Expo in Milan, which was focused on food and we decided to hang 34 spoons on the wall because the implement had been invented by Caterina de’ Medici. Once the exhibition finished, we wondered what to do with the spoons. At that time, we didn’t know, so we put them away in a basement somewhere. Meanwhile, with our chef team, I started brainstorming the idea of organizing a dinner with multiple Michelin-starred chefs. My wife and I started by inviting two couples and it took off from there. Soon I was inviting 30 people, then 40 and eventually we arrived at 70. We called it Spoon because I thought, Wow, we have so many spoons in storage that I’ll give an extra-large spoon as a mark of gratitude to every chef who comes to cook. Now we only have a few left!
You’ll need to order some more.
You can’t get them anymore. We’d have to start from scratch to find an artist who could produce them. The main purpose was to bring people together. At a certain point, the food part became secondary and the social part became the primary reason to come to Spoon. After you’ve been to Spoon, you’re left with emails and phone numbers.
I love the fact that there’s this process by which the men change seats after every course.
During the dinner, everyone will meet 10 new people. Every time you move, you say who you are and what you do, and that’s where the friendships begin, or maybe you’ll meet a doctor, attorney or future business partner. You’re bound to meet people who can help you to solve something because all the guests are expats or internationally minded Italians. Everyone who comes to a Spoon Dinner is heavily involved in the life of Florence. Nobody is there by chance.
You’ve done an amazing job of selecting a unique group of people. It’s like a club. What do you look for? What makes someone “Spoon-worthy”?
Our Spoon Dinner guests have to be international, speaking English as a main language and Italian as a secondary one. Plus, they have to be fun people, able to entertain and be entertained, have a good laugh and be very social. It’s not always so easy to find these kinds of people. I’ve also met guests who didn’t want to move after the second course because they’d met someone they really like. In those cases, I get bossy! Either you move or you move out. [laughs] This is not the place where you stop the procedure because you’re feeling comfortable in that seat.
The last Spoon Dinner that I went to was after Covid at Palazzo Capponi in one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen in my life. Given that every Spoon Dinner offers something different and fresh, how do you excel every time?
The next Spoon Dinner (on September 26, 2022) is centered on Killer Boogie with have two professional dancers. We’ve sent all our guests a video to get everyone enthusiastic about the dancing, which we’ll do as a group of 60 people. Every time, we come up with a new situation.
How do people find out about Spoon Dinners?
We have a small section on our website, but people don’t get it because when you read that it’s a dinner to make you socialize over great food and that you have multiple Michelin-starred chefs, it’s not unique because lots of people have already done that. Our singularity lies in the group of people we’ve put together who have become Spoon Dinner ambassadors. Recently, I was in Milan and someone asked me when we were planning on bringing Spoon to Milan. My reply was very soon!
You’re about to open a new hotel in Milan. Tell us more.
When Portrait Milano opens in December, it will be spectacular because we’re talking about one of the Catholic Church’s most important monuments that has been transformed into something else. The property was once a seminary and now it’s becoming not only a hotel but a destination with multiple restaurants and bars, as well as shops, a wellness centre, fitness centre and garage. There’s even a rooftop! It’s located in the heart of Milan’s fashion district. I hope people from Milan will come for dinner and lunch and also for shopping, and that for internationals it will serve as a piazza and a concentration of the Milanese way of life.
How’s the hospitality industry recovering from the pandemic?
Our 2022 compared to 2019 is fantastic. 2019 was the best year ever, 2020 was the worst year ever, and 2022 is again the best year ever. Bear in mind that most of the hotels were closed until March, so we’re comparing seven months of 2022 with 10 months of 2019, and it’s still 20% more.
What are your recommendations to friends when they ask, What’s the one thing I simply have to do when I come to Florence?
Come to Spoon, for sure! Seriously, I recommend walking around the city and enjoying the moment because normally you have a guide showing you the most fantastic places, from Palazzo Vecchio to the museums. Look a little higher because people often only look at the face level. If you look four or five meters above the ground, you’ll see a different Florence. Dante signs and some sentences that explain why that beauty is there. Even via delle Belle Donne and piazza della Passera, both have historical reasons for their names! Florentines are very ironic and they have a fine sense of humor, which is sometimes reflected in signs and street names. Think of Clet, for example. Much of his art is a product of Florentine irony.
Valeriano Antonioli’s a Taekwondo black belt, an outdoor sports enthusiast and author of Passione e Cucina (Eating, Drinking and Flirting) and The Joy of Discovery. Fluent in Italian, English and German, Valeriano was honoured in the Italian Republic Legion of Honour as Cavaliere della Repubblica Italiana in 2007.
Find out more about Lungarno Collection.