Meet the owners: Federico Bianconi of Palazzo Seneca, Umbria, Italy

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Federico Bianconi is the sales director and a family member of the Bianconi Hospitality Group, together his father Carlo and brother Vincenzo. Based in the town of Norcia in the region of Umbria, Italy, the family business that began in 1850 with a small inn, now consists of a portfolio including three hotels and residences, two restaurants, a cooking school and an inbound tour operator agency specialising in gastronomic and authentic experiences within Italy.

Its newest addition is Palazzo Seneca, a 24-room luxury boutique hotel situated in the historical centre of Norcia.  A member of Relais & Chateaux and Smith Hotels, it opened to the public in 2008 following a renovation period of seven years, at a cost of €8 million.

When was the idea of Palazzo Seneca formed and how long did it take to realise it?
"The palazzo was previously a hotel under different ownership but the business went bankrupt in the mid 90s.  For several years, many auctions were undertaken by the administrators, but with no takers. In 2002, we decided to take the plunge and buy the property but we were instantly faced with two dilemmas.  Either we renovated the hotel as quickly as possible in order to achieve a quicker pay-back, or spent more time to create something extra special, with an unforgettable and unique experience difficult to replicate.  We opted for the latter and immediately took every opportunity to visit hotels and restaurants in locations where there was something interesting and unique to talk about.   From our tour of cities including London, New York, Amsterdam, Moscow, Berlin, Rome, Milan and Florence we created a 'dream hotel' book listing all the elements that we would want for our hotel. And most importantly, all the things we didn't want also."

Which hotels and restaurants inspired you the most?
"In London, the St Martins Lane Hotel, especially for the vibe and atmosphere of its restaurant.  We particularly liked the swimming pool at One Aldwych with its under water music system. In Moscow, we were inspired by the Prado Cafè  and Novikov Group Restaurants, which includes the Vogue Café and the Tatler Club."

How have you measured your success up until now? 
"Bearing in mind that we opened in 2008 at the beginning of the economic downturn, our revenues have constantly remained healthy and positive.  We have just celebrated our fourth birthday and we are hoping that we can truly celebrate as we are hoping to gain a Michelin star for the hotel's restaurant, Vespasia, very soon."

Looking back, would you have made some different decisions?
"Overall, we're really happy with the final outcome. In hindsight, we would have preferred a faster renovation, but it's always complicated when trying to restore a historic building, and there are always unexpected surprises along the way. More importantly, we wanted to make sure that the quality was to the highest standard by using locally produced materials, and this thorough process of due diligence took time.  Working with Umbrian artisans, we also wanted to create many items from scratch to create a more authentic design."

Italy is experiencing a difficult period economically and politically, but has that stopped people coming to stay at Palazzo Seneca?
"On a domestic level, we have definitely seen a change in booking patterns. The constant uncertainty of tax hikes has made Italians afraid to commit to higher-end hotel stays. The situation hasn't come to a stand-still but the attention to price has become important than the quality."

How do you think a family-run hotel differs to a hotel chain?
"It's been said many times before, but you can't replicate the personal touch and warm welcome that you can receive from a family-owned hotel. Our loyal guests love the fact that every time they return, they find the same friendly faces. The bond deepens and for them, it's like visiting the house of an old friend."

Luxury travel today is about the experience and authenticity.  What type of experiences do you provide to your guests? 
"This is very true. For example, we link our restaurant menu with local suppliers and we offer our guests a special tour so that they can meet and talk directly with them. Our guests want to feel like a local, to visit places where the locals go and meet local people.  Authenticity is truly a philosophy that runs through the blood of our business."

"In general, our mission is to offer only unique experiences available in the area. Norcia is a small town but its attractions are very exclusive and distinctive, which can only be found here. We apply the Norcian gastronomy tradition by offering cooking classes and truffle hunting trips. The Sibillini National Park close by gives you many opportunities to appreciate the Umbrian natural landscape, such as trekking, mountain biking, and horse riding."

Your family has been in the business since the late 19th century. In your opinion, have the fundamentals in hospitality changed?
"A warm welcome, personal touch, clean, comfortable beds, fine sheets, good and healthy food we believe have always been the minimum needs of a hotel guest.  What has changed now is the way in which travellers choose a destination and a hotel property. The momentum has become very fast-paced and the need to have an integrated approach to the web and social networks is imperative.  Currently, only 10 to 12 per cent of our  bookings derive from online channels, but we certainly see this changing in the near future."

Nathalie Salas is a writer for Perfect Boutique Hotel, a website dedicated to readers who have a passion for boutique and lifestyle hotels. She is a also a freelance consultant specialising in hospitality and tourism, helping small businesses improve their marketing and branding on an international level. Nathalie is British and lives in Asolo, Italy.

Follow her on Twitter: @perfectboutique


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