Life & Work

Kempinski GM on His Love For Cigars, Food, Shoes

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Roberto Simone Villa Rosa Kempinski General Manager. PHOTO | COURTESY

Beneath the professional in a pinstripe suit matched with an elegant tie and serious demeanour, Roberto Simone is a totally different man. The Italian hotelier is punny, if a little boisterous, an easy-going fellow with a soft spot for fun, food, fashion and anything in-between.

At 53, his charm and humour have only got better. One moment he will be tickling you with a witty remark, and the next he will be unpacking deep economics and the world of commerce, his forte.

The cluster general manager of Villa Rosa Kempinski and Olare Mara Kempinski describes food and cigars as his ‘‘main weaknesses.’’A refined foodie, he likes to eat everything everywhere.

From Coya to Nobu and Hakkasan and other such high places, Simone has tried out them all. Appealing to his taste buds, therefore, takes unquestionably great food, he notes. The only thing he can’t give up is espresso, and wherever he travels, he takes his coffee making machine with him.

In Kenya, Simone indulges in quality, classic fine dining, saying that he’s awed by the country’s expansively rich cuisine landscape. He notes that Kenya’s diversity make it complete ‘‘from a gastronomical point of view.’’

Lunch at Fat Duck in Berkshire, London and Arzak at St Sebastian in Basque, Spain, are his most memorable dining experiences, both which he describes as sublime.

The subject of cigars, particularly, lights up his countenance.

‘‘Putting me in a cigar shop is like putting kids in a candy shop,’’ he says with amusement, joking that he used to smokes ‘‘like hell’’ before.

His passion for cigars began in the 1990s when he worked as a bartender in Milan. Soon, he became a cigar sommelier. Famous Milano tycoons would hire him to do private cigar collections for them — he does so to date.

Simone stills loves to indulge a cigar, which he buys from limited editions of top brands.

‘‘Cigar is like wine. The type of tobacco used, how it’s rolled and the maturation period vary from cigar to cigar. By smoking different brands, you get the full experience.’’

I engage him in fashion talk, which is the right thing to do because, well, Signor Simone is a dandy.

‘‘Fashion runs in our DNA,’’ he says in reference to Italians. ‘‘I like fabrics, colour and bespoke tailored outfits.’’

His suits are made by a private tailor in Shanghai, using Italian fabrics. He buys all his shoes from St Jermyn Street in central London, an iconic thoroughfare near Piccadilly famed for designer footwear.

‘‘I buy about four pairs from different brands on every occasion. No one touches my shoes. I brush them myself using a special and fascinating English way,’’ he says.

So, what is this fascination with shoes?

‘‘Good shoes make you feel better about yourself,’’ he explains. ‘‘A good pair would last six or seven years. I work for 14 hours a day, which requires me to be in elegant, comfy and durable shoes,’’ he adds

Simone is a disciple of Hermès Paris brand of ties ‘‘which I buy in shops in the airport.’’ Every trip for him is an opportunity to add a new tie to his large and pricey collection, to which he is sentimentally attached.

It’s no wonder then that 20 per cent of his earnings go to his looks. ‘‘I believe in self-reward,’’ he says. ‘‘I love to look good.’’ And elegance is signor’s signature.

Simone is as adventurous as they come, and describes himself as ‘‘a typical Italian boy from a typical Italian background’’.

‘‘A mama’s boy, if you like,’’ he adds, giggling wryly. I’m jolted slightly when he says he is single. Questions flood my mind. Has he had someone before? What has taken him so long?

‘‘I had someone before, but things didn’t quite work out,’’ he reveals. So, is he dating now?

“I have somebody I like,” he responds with a chuckle, adding that ‘‘things aren’t defined yet’’.

For someone without a family, so where is home then?

‘‘When I meet my friends and homies in Bangkok, Dubai and Shanghai, I feel at home. When I’m in California for my studies, I feel at home. I also occasionally visit my mother in south of Italy.’’

Kenya’s trajectory

He swears by travel, and in 2018 alone, Simone flew to 20 countries, both for work and recreation. A few days ago, he was in Abu Dhabi for the Formula One grand finale race.

Simone’s best illustrates global citizenry. The Italian was born in Switzerland, went to school in the UK and has worked in 12 different countries, visiting more than 50 others in the process.

He speaks Italian and English and fluent Portuguese. He regrets having not ‘‘bothered to learn French when he had the time’’. Learning ‘‘this beautiful language’’ is one of the items in his bucket list.

‘‘By travelling, I meet key people in the professional world from whom I draw inspiration for our business,’’ he says.

Driving to Naivasha and Maasai Mara are his favourite pastimes. Lamu though tops his list of local destinations ‘‘because of its authenticity’’. Here, he swims and savours a quiet time.

Only three months into the job, which he says he loves to bits, Simone appears to have gelled perfectly. After all, he has worked ‘‘in four different continents and one ocean’’.

So, how unique is his Kenyan challenge?

‘‘Delivering experience as an hotelier in Kenya is exciting and quite easy,’’ he says. How so, I ask him.

‘‘Fifty per cent of the skills required in this and any other job are people skills,’’ he explains. ‘‘Kenya has plenty of human capital in terms of talent, skills and motivation. When I walk around the hotel in the morning, I meet enthusiastic staff who are constantly striving to meet their personal career goals.’’

Before his appointment in August, Simone had first visited Kenya in 2011. Having grown up partly in south of Italy, he admits that his perception of the world was limited. Did that affect how he viewed Kenya?

‘‘I came to Africa from India where I had been exposed to multiple cultures,’’ he recounts. ‘‘Over the years, I’ve leant to avoid any preconceptions about a country I haven’t travelled to. This makes it easier for me to adapt.’’

Wherever he works, Simone says he builds human relations for a seamless stay.

‘‘My experience in one country prepares me for the subsequent duty,’’ he adds.

The hardest part of his job? To motivate every member of the team to deliver to the expected standards, he says.

‘‘The drive to deliver the hotel’s objectives differs among the staff. It’s my job to motivate them,’’ he adds.

At his age, does he think his life has changed? If so, in what ways?

‘‘In my 20s, I was a bit conservative. I didn’t take risks then. In my 30s, I became bolder and took risks. In my 40s, I became a heavy risk-taker. I am almost crazy in my 50s,’’ he adds, exploding into hilarity.

He goes on: ‘‘I like to plan like an 18-year-old professional. This helps me to set new goals and to take on challenges from a different standpoint.’’

Who does he look up to? Three people buoy him.

In hospitality, Ali Kasicki former general manager of Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles, and Michelle Obama ‘‘for her fearlessness and oratory’’.

Indian tycoon and former chairman of Tata Group Ratan Tata too is a huge influence on him ‘‘for his contribution to make India an industrial country it is today’’.

He believes Kenya’s trajectory as a preferred hotel business destination is rising, enhanced by relative stability, good weather and the convergence of global brands ‘‘which has given Kenya a lot of visibility globally’’.

A lot of marketing still needs to be done to cement Kenya’s position, he observes.

‘‘Ten years ago, many hotels in Dubai and UAE had more Filipino and Asian staff. Today, the best hotels in these countries are managed by Kenyans,’’ he notes.

Does he fear that his contribution to the Kempinski brand may not stand out owing to its sheer size? Not at all, he says.

‘‘Kempinski as a hotel brand is run by a collection of individuals. Their individual efforts contribute to the overall success of the business,’’ he argues.

His legacy? To invest in the right talent for continuity of the business, he says.

He may come from a football-mad country, but the sport doesn’t have any effect on his adrenalin.

‘‘If I had an hour and a half to spare, I’d rather read my favourite books, swim or watch a tennis match,’’ he notes.

His favourite tennis player?

‘‘Roger Federer. Period.’’