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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Jean-Marc Droulers

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-27

Jean-Marc Droulers says that when he looks at Lake Como these days, not only does he see reflections of his Villa d'Este, the lakeside hotel that's generally considered one of the most luxurious resorts in the world - he also sees images of New York.

New York images in an Italian lake?

A vexatious moment passes before Mr. Droulers, CEO of the Villa d'Este Corporation, parses that one.

"I have my eyes on New York," he said. "Of course I have my eyes on New York. Who doesn't? But it's got to be done just right. There's a certain European style and tradition in hotels that must be maintained. You have to be discerning and consistent. There's the question of getting right partners."

He missed his chance some years ago, Mr. Droulers said, without elaborating but with just enough savoir faire to suggest that the loss may not have been entirely his.

"There's also the question of location, location, location," he said.

The location of Villa d'Este, about 50 miles from Milan, is irreproachable. It sits astride one of Europe's most beautiful lakes. The Alps form a backdrop. There are fountains on the property, a botanical garden, and a long disused nunnery.

On some evenings, the ghosts of celebrities who've been guests at Villa d'Este can be heard holding forth on the 154-room hotel's architecture - Napoleon, Churchill, the Shah of Iran, William Randolph Hearst, Aristotle Onassis, Mark Twain, Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, among others.

Their chatter doesn't bother Mr. Droulers. After all, he did not build Villa d'Este; he inherited it from his father, Marc Droulers, a well-known French-born entrepreneur who made a fortune in textiles.

The older Droulers did not commission the structure either.

The privilege went to Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, who built it as a summer residence. That was in 1568.

"Let's put it this way - there's history here," Mr. Droulers said.

As a holder of a doctorate in economics from the University of Milan, Mr. Droulers isn't professionally a student of history.

"But as a European, I most certainly am," he said. "It's hard to live in Europe and not be conscious of history."

It's also hard to be an hotelier at a luxury facility such as Villa d'Este - which has a staff of 250 - and not have to cater to every caprice of guests who can sometimes trace their lineage to Cardinal Gallio's time.

Mr. Droulers is far too discreet to list the kind of demands that his guests may make, not only at Villa d'Este in Cernobbio, but also at the three other hotels that he runs: Villa la Massa in Candeli, near Florence; and Hotel Palace and Hotel Barchetta in Como.

He would only say: "Luxury also means a lot of personalization."

One is tempted to ask what kind of personalization might guests such as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe have required.

But Mr. Droulers's mien hints that it might be considered too gauche to ask.

It would have been almost as gauche as asking him which of the many diners at the restaurant had asked for special preferences at Villa d'Este.

"So many of our guests are American," Mr. Droulers said, looking around the room and exchanging friendly glances with various CEO's and press mavens.

But before the reporter could indulge himself with questions about the people whom Mr. Droulers recognized, a nearby celebrity volunteered information, albeit somewhat off the path that had been speculated.

"This is the best hotel in the world, bar none," said Don Zacharia, chairman of Zachys Wines. "And you cannot beat its bathroom."

Bathroom? What sort of bathroom?

"The sort that made my wife and I decide we would replicate in our own home," Mr. Zacharia said.

Really?

"Absolutely," the vintner said. "No question about it. We've replicated it down to the last detail."

It was apparent that Mr. Droulers was caught off guard by Mr. Zacharia's fulsome praise - but only for a split second. His method of recovery was to switch to Italian.

This time Mr. Droulers was addressing Judy Beardsall, a bilingual New Yorker who owns a vineyard near Florence, and whose wine, "Ananda di Toscana," is well known in both Italy and America.

Since the reporter's Italian matched that of Mr. Zacharia - which is to say, it was nonexistent - it was impossible to understand Mr. Droulers' words.

But judging from Ms. Beardsall's reactions, they certainly sounded charming.

"You see, Italians are very kind people," Mr. Droulers said. "That's why our hotels and hospitality are attractive. In this business, one has to understand that a guest is not a client but a guest."

His companion, Antonella Chiesa, director of public relations at Villa d'Este, nodded in agreement.

"You have only one opportunity to make an impression on your guest," she said.

And what was her impression of New York hotels?

She smiled and started to answer, but her boss broke in.

"They say that American hotels are not very good," Mr. Droulers said. "And I say, 'Absolutely untrue!' I have slept in all kinds of hotels in America, and even the motels I've been at are just fine. The traveler realizes that one must have different expectations when one goes to different kinds of facilities. But the most important expectation is basic comfort and cleanliness. And here I have no reason to complain about hotels in this country."

So, the reporter asked, when would Villa d'Este make its move west to New York?

"It's a question of re-creating the right atmosphere," Mr. Droulers said. "For that you will need to have Italians here. In my view, Italians are respectful but friendly. They know how to do the hotel business well - they aren't arrogant like the French. An Italian is nice because he is nice. The Italian hotelier doesn't try to be something he isn't. For him, running a hotel and treating guests well isn't a matter of policy - it's a feeling from deep within."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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