Defining Luxury with Hotel Il Pellicano’s Marie-Louise Sciò

24 May, 2018

Since its dolce vita days in the ‘60s, Hotel Il Pellicano has been the retreat of choice for a legendary crew of jet setters, movie stars, and royalty. It sits on a sun-soaked, terraced cliff in Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast, where it’s hosted the likes of the Pucci family, Charlie Chaplin, and Slim Aarons.

Marie-Louise Sciò, creative director of her family’s iconic hotel, sat with us to discuss what it means to create a truly luxurious destination.

Can you tell us about the hotel’s beginnings?

It's a love story with an English-American couple, Michael and Patricia Graham. He was an aviator and she was a socialite. She read in a newspaper clipping that there was a plane crash in Syria, and the only survivor was this very handsome Michael Graham. She cut out the article, kept it in her journal, and two years later, she met him by chance at a party.

They got married, and to celebrate their love, they looked for a place all over Europe where they could build something that reminded them of how they’d met. They looked in France, Portugal, Spain, and everywhere, and they couldn't find the right place until they came to Monte Argentario, which is where the Pellicano was born.

What was it like then?

It was like the dolce vita jet setters of the ‘60s. It was very art-loaded. Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks had houses there. I mean, it was always like going to someone's home - because it was the home of Patty and Michael. And Chaplin had many holidays there. I remember being a child and seeing my parents live in this fabulous world. They had all of these incredibly elegant friends and men in seersucker suits and women with turbans.

When I renovated one of the oldest rooms, I tried to keep as much of the old stuff as possible. They’re part of the story. Those sconces, those walls, those doors, those handles, have lived a life as well. Everything emanates from that. The walls do talk, and one needs to let them speak.

It's about respecting what it had been and actually bringing that out. That was fundamental in keeping it going. You can’t change the nature of it. That’s what happens in so many hotels. They go in and just kill it, and it's about the ego of the architect or the owner. It's great that they own a place, but maybe they don't know how to run or operate it. You have to be respectful of places and their stories.

A Magnum motorboat arrives at Hotel Il Pellicano, August 1973. Photography by Slim Aarons.

Do you think jet setting has changed?

It's much flashier, I think. Before, people were more subtle and elegant about their money. People tend to want to show their power and show their wealth and show their success. That’s something that doesn't happen at the Pellicano, which is great. No one cares about who's sitting next to you. It's just great because you meet really interesting people, but no one's there to show off. That makes it a great living room to be sitting at.

We have very high repeat clients. And other people expect something really glitzy and glamorous and wild parties at night... and we've had the same barman playing music. I know every song by heart. It's a very simple luxury. It's clean. There's no da-di-da-di around it. And it's always been like that.

What is your definition of luxury?

Luxury is about quality. And quality has many different variations to it. It’s the food, the place, what you drink, what you smell - it's everything. When you put that much love in everything, and everything is curated, it's like a good recipe, no? A good tomato sauce needs good basil; you get the right salt, the right pepper, the right everything. It's an orchestration of the senses.

And natural relationships. Real friendships and real respect for one another have made, in our case, all of the things that we've done so far happen. We've done the books and many collaborations, but it was really out of mutual respect, enjoying time together, and coming up with ideas over many, many cocktails, and that is really productive. It’s also about being honest about who you are and not trying to be something else.

When people talk about luxurious places, we tend to think of places that are perfect or especially proper. But that’s not what it’s really about.

It’s all about personality. It’s also about having owners who let the people who work there have space to express who they are. That's what makes a difference. Because if they're all robots, they can't bring something to the table. It's all of these people in the hotel world who make that enormous difference.

So leave room for imperfection.

I think so. And for humanity.

“It's an orchestration of the senses.” – Marie-Louise Sciò.

What's your mindset when you’re at Il Pellicano?

To make sure everything is really properly taken care of to make people happy. We have the most precious thing of every guest, which is their time. So I want to surprise them with little things. I don't want to buy books by the meter that many hotels buy. Maybe only ten people a year will read the books that we put in the library, but with those ten people, we hit their heart. And that’s what makes me happy.

It's so enriching because I can travel the world by staying home. I’m constantly meeting people with such different backgrounds. I'm there all the time, and there's amazing photographers, amazing writers, amazing humans.

How do you curate the books and films in the library?

I have a friend who's an incredibly good author. He’s a super intellectual and really funny. He's actually doing something with Springsteen right now. I just asked him one night, “What are the fifty books that one should read in life?" So he put together these books that you read at the beach. And our DVDs are all curated by friends who are in cinema. I just ask, "What are the films that one should see?" So Antonioni and Rossellini and Fellini… things that give you something.

Can you tell us about the cookbook, Eating at Hotel Il Pellicano?

It's one of my favorite projects. I saw it as an opportunity to do something that spoke about the hotel as a place that does things timelessly. I also wanted to do a book that has three different shelf lives: as a cookbook, photography, and travel.

It was a very new way of photographing food at that point. Juergen Teller’s style was right up in the food close-up, so the risotti become landscapes and the salads are like forests. We published it with Violette Editions and it was a real success. You can't cook from it unless you're a real professional and you have all those fancy things in the kitchen. But it's a beautiful book that doesn't live in the kitchen. It lives in the dining room and in the living room. It’s beautiful, it really brings you into the world of food.

“The walls do talk, and one needs to let them speak.” – Marie-Louise Sciò.

Did you see it change the aura of the hotel?

There was a huge change, I think. This book actually did a lot for the repositioning of it. I think it was also an unusual combination of Slim and Juergen. Photography has also been part of the DNA. There's so much to get from the Pellicano in terms of stories.

Compared to Slim, Juergen had a totally different approach on the Pellicano.

Completely, absolutely. Slim also styled those pictures more. He'd ask people to pose in a natural way. But Juergen is just in your face. The worse you look, the happier he is!

Are there Pellicanos throughout the world?

Nope, we want to manage them in the way we do Pellicano. I wouldn't want to do a hotel that's called Pellicano that's not and just slap the name on it. But I'd love to get hotels in Italy, like old grande dames that need a bit of new life in them, and find a way to preserve them. And like what we were saying before. Being respectful to what they were. Dusting them off a bit and giving them a second life.

Can you tell us about the staff training you do for emotional intelligence?

The more connected you are with yourself, the more connected you can be to other people. All of these courses we have them do are exercises and games with team building, role-playing, and giving them the skills to understand who’s in front of them. Some guests don't want to talk. Some people are in a bad mood and you just have to learn how to read that. Some clients really want to chit chat. But as a waiter, if you bring a coffee to someone who doesn't want to chit chat, but you're trying to be the nicest person in the world and explaining the story of coffee, you're gonna ruin his day.

What makes a good guest? Do they have to be intriguing or have a passion or mystery to them?

Some guests are really curious. There's one person who comes alone for a month and a half. And I'm curious! I want to know his story, but I learned to not go and ask him. There's a lot of really interesting people, and when you put interesting people together, the energy is great. And then they all become friends. There are people who come and meet at the same time every year, so it really is like a big, fun, cultured living room, but without anyone taking themselves too seriously.

Marie-Louise Scio talking to a packed house that evening.

There's such a blend of business and leisure travel destinations. Does Il Pellicano think about business travel at all?

Everyone is connected, but no. We have one guest who plays tennis and he's on his headset, and he’s: "Buy! Sell! Buy! Sell!" So there's some people who do work. But it’s definitely not a business traveler’s destination.

Do you feel that Airbnb has changed certain aspects of the hotel world, in terms of showing what people look for in a destination?

It says a lot to the hotel world that people look for something that really reverberates with them. You can go to your exact specific style of place that you want, and you're in the middle of the local community. Hotels are bubbles, and I think it's good to be a bubble, it's a world where things happen in. But it's also very closed. I think just recently, hotels have started bringing in a bit more local culture or dialogue with other media as well. Because it was always just about a good night's sleep, but it's not about that, it's about creating that world.

Inez Lamsweerde and Dennis Freedman were among the guests that night

Where do you send guests who want to go out and explore the area?

We are trying to send people out a lot, but they don't want to leave! And the hotel is in a wild part of Tuscany. You have to be a bit more of an explorer, I think, to go in the immediate vicinities. But a friend of mine from South Africa lives on Monte Amiata, which is a beautiful mountain in Tuscany, and his profession is walking. He's walked up and down Italy twice. He knows every single nook and cranny. I asked him, "Will you find some amazing walks that are not the obvious ones that we can send our guests?" So he's done three walks, just three little jewels of walks in incredible places, that came from a South African-Italian walking dude who lives on Monte Amiata, and I love that.

What is your favorite hotel that’s not yours?

Deetjen's Inn on the PCH, in Big Sur. It’s got soul. It’s got a story. And it’s got personality. And the floors crackle. I love the sound of those floors! It's fabulous, and it's not a five star hotel, which I generally find boring, because they don't really talk to you. At Deetjen's Inn, the ladies were not particularly sweet either when I checked in, but I liked that. I liked everything about them. The food was delicious, the bathrooms are shared... I absolutely love that place.

Is there a book that you’re recommending to all your friends right now?

Gli amori difficili by Italo Calvino. Difficult loves, I guess it's called? It's a beautiful little book about encounters that don't happen. You sit across someone on the train and you feel that there's something cooking between you, and you have this whole film in your head and then this person gets off of the train. It's all about not really touching each other. It's a beautiful, beautiful little book.

Words by Marie-Louise Sciò and The Editors. All photos: Guillaume Ziccarelli except the Magnum motorboard by Slim Aarons.

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