Interviewed by Michael Shapiro
You might say that Roberto Wirth was destined to lead the Hassler Roma. The fifth generation of a family of hoteliers, Wirth grew up watching his father manage the legendary hotel, which he himself has overseen since 1982 (he purchased it in 2001). An avid oenophile, Wirth founded the International Wine Academy of Roma, housed in Il Palazzetto, the Hassler’s sister property, which he also manages and owns.
Now 68, the charismatic and always stylishly dressed Wirth is a natural hotelier, with a knack for anticipating guests’ desires and making them feel at home. Though Wirth’s ability to connect with guests was not foreseen by his father, who didn’t believe his son would ascend to the hotel’s top job because he was born profoundly deaf, Wirth never doubted himself.
After moving to the U.S. to study at Gallaudet University, a highly regarded school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., Wirth earned his BS from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, New York. Later, after working in various positions in the U.S. and Europe, and earning his MBA at the University of Hawaii, he returned to his beloved Hotel Hassler in 1978, serving as the executive assistant manager before becoming its manager and owner.
Celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2018, the hotel is perched theatrically above Rome’s Spanish Steps, next to the sixteenth-century Trinità dei Monti church. Its view encompasses many of the Eternal City’s signature attractions, including the Pantheon and Piazza del Campidoglio. Earlier this year, the 91-room hotel refreshed its public spaces with black granite, gold accents, and brighter lighting, and also updated its rooms with technology to make it easier for guests to connect with staff. The hotel’s old-world elegance and charm, however, remain undimmed.
With its classical architecture and attentive service, the Hassler has hosted celebrities from Grace Kelly (on her honeymoon) and Princess Diana to Madonna, Mick Jagger, and George Clooney. In the 1950s, Audrey Hepburn made the hotel her home during the filming of Roman Holiday and befriended Wirth, who was then a child. She learned of her Oscar nomination for Best Actress for the film while residing here, Wirth told me during our recent interview in the lobby (he reads lips and can speak both Italian and English) – the ever-attentive hotelier signaling to staff to help a guest with her luggage while we spoke.
As our conversation concluded, Wirth emphasized how important it is that the Hassler remain an independent hotel, not subject to the dictates of a chain. “Here, I keep history alive,” he said. “I keep the soul of the hotel alive.”
Following are highlights of our discussion, including Wirth’s thoughts about serving as the guardian of a historic property, 125 years after it opened its doors.
What was your childhood like at the Hassler?
I lived in the hotel, I ate in the hotel, I grew up in the hotel. My entire life, as well as my family’s life, was synchronized with the hotel’s routine. In my heart I started to grow a strong and determined desire to become a hotelier.
How did your family react to your disability?
At first they were scared and very anxious. My father, a real perfectionist, was shocked when he realized I was deaf. When I was growing up, his prejudices were strong against my ability to do anything but be an artist. When I was 13, I asked my father if I could work in the hotel during the summer. After much insistence, he allowed me to, but never thought I could be a hotelier. He kept saying that working in a hotel meant having to talk to people, both guests and employees, and being deaf I could not communicate so easily. But I never gave up, and, against all odds, I now am the sole owner of the hotel, which I run with great passion.
You’ve called the Hassler “the woman of my life” – how so?
I need to look after the hotel as if it were a living being: treat it with velvet gloves and love it with all my heart. I need to maintain its appearance and its behavior too. It’s total devotion.
What distinguishes a good hotel experience from a great one?
When a hotel offers a great experience, all guests are treated equally. All guests should feel like royals when entering the Hassler. Our job is to anticipate their desires, learn in advance about their habits, give them something unique, and exceed their expectations.
The Hassler has hosted many celebrities over the years – could you share your recollections?
Audrey Hepburn seemed like a fairy-tale princess when she came down the Hassler’s stairs. She always had a smile for everyone. Princess Diana was one of our loyal guests. On one occasion, I asked her what she would like to drink, and, since she was often in Venice, she asked for a Bellini. Before departing, she told me that it was the best Bellini she had ever tasted. What makes the difference is the freshly squeezed peach juice, prepared right at the moment.
Why is wine such an integral aspect of travel and hospitality?
Wine brings people together and breaks down barriers between cultures. That is why, in 1999, I acquired a palace along the Spanish Steps, to unite my family’s hospitality skills with my love for good wine, establishing the International Wine Academy and Il Palazzetto.
PRO TIP: WHEN IN ROME …
A two-minute walk from the Hotel Hassler Roma, historic Il Palazzetto houses a cozy wine bar and an alfresco rooftop lounge where guests can sip a glass of amarone (an Italian red wine) or an espresso martini while watching the sun set over the Spanish Steps.
What have been the Hassler’s most significant innovations?
The Hassler has always been a pioneer: It was the first hotel to open a penthouse suite on the seventh floor, where, in other hotels, there used to be the staff residence. [Before elevators, hotel staff traditionally resided on the highest story and the VIP floor was located on the first.] In the 1950s, we also opened a restaurant [now called Imàgo, which has a Michelin star] on the sixth floor, while the trend was for restaurants to be at street level.
How did your hearing disability inspire you to advocate for the deaf in Italy?
In 1992, I created the Roberto Wirth Scholarship, today known as the Fulbright Roberto Wirth Scholarship, which every year gives a student the opportunity to study at Gallaudet University. In 2004, I founded a nonprofit organization that offers early-intervention programs to deaf and blind children under the age of 6.
Why does Rome, and the Hassler in particular, remain such an exemplary travel experience?
The Eternal City has always been, and will always be, a very special destination. Its art, culture, history, and sacredness will always attract tourists. And the Hassler, with its impeccable service and incomparable location, will always be there to welcome them.