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Wirth the LireROBERTO WIRTH INTERVIEW

Few people can enjoy lives that seem to come from the pages of a best selling romantic novel...living in the heart of Rome and having dignitaries and celebrities seeking your company... taking part in daily activities that excite the imagination and the senses.

Magnificently positioned on the top of one of the Seven Hills of Rome and looking down on the famous Spanish Steps, the small but sumptuous Hotel Hassler enjoys an unequaled view of the city. For many decades an international cast of the powerful and well heeled have made the Hassler their first choice when visiting Rome. Its guest list has included such luminaries as U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Bush and Reagan; British Prime Ministers Thatcher and Major; Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy; Henry Kissinger; Nelson Rockefeller; King Hussein of Jordan; Princess Diana; Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco (who honeymooned there); Bill Gates; Elizabeth Taylor; Clint Eastwood; Oprah Winfrey; Kirk Douglas; Audrey Hepburn, Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Lopez, to name just a few.

Purchased by Swiss hotelier Albert Hassler from the Marquis Salviucci in 1885, the hotel's managerial duties were handed over in 1916 to Oscar Wirth, who became sole owner in 1964. During World War II, Mussolini changed the name of the hotel to "Villa Medici" to give it a more Italian identity. After the Allies liberated Rome the Villa Medici served as American Command Headquarters. It reopened for clients in 1947. Today, both names are used, although Hotel Hassler is given prominence.

The 100-room, five star hotel is now run by owner and general manager Roberto Wirth, Oscar's eldest son. Wirth comes from a long line of hoteliers on both sides of his family, and looks as if he were cast for the part. Tall and distinguished, his handsome features enhance the appeal and elegance of the Hassler. The same is true of his wife and family. Born deaf, Wirth received much of his higher education and training in the U.S., and both lip-reads and speaks several languages fluently.

ABILITY's Chet Cooper had an opportunity to visit the Hotel Hassler and Signore Wirth during the annual ThinkQuest National Partners meeting earlier this year in Terni, Italy. Cooper found his gracious host to be a perfectionist and this shows in the finest of details throughout the hotel. Renovation of guest rooms and other facilities seems to be going on constantly. Wirth balances the stress of the job with exercise. One evening he invited Cooper to join him at the Roma Spa for a workout that emphasized cardiovascular machines. The visitor found the atmosphere at the upscale gym very similar to what he has experienced at such facilities in the U.S. Italians, it seems, want to stay healthy and youthful as much as Americans do.

Devito and PearlmanCooper's conversations with Wirth took place over a period of several days at various locations in and around the hotel, including the manager's office where the hotelier keeps an impressive collection of carved and ceramic turtles. Especially unforgettable to Cooper was the view from the Hassler's spacious penthouse terrace, where one could take in the beauty of the great historical sites and architecture of La Citt^ Eterna.

Chet Cooper: How long have you been managing the Hotel Hassler?

Roberto Wirth: Since 1982. This hotel has belonged to my family since 1916, and my family has a tradition in the hotel business that dates back five generations. It all started in Switzerland...always in five star hotels.

CC: What obstacles did you face in trying to achieve your goal of managing the hotel?

RW: When I was five years old, I did not realize that I was deaf because I went to a school for the deaf in Milan. They were all deaf, so it was easy to communicate with everyone. When I was 12, I moved to a hearing school and I found difficulties, especially with hearing students. I did not realize how difficult that is, but I did not give up. When I was about 13 years old I asked my father to let me work in the hotel. But he didn't think I could be a hotel man like him. He told me that to be a hotel man you need to talk with people, and also to use the telephone and be able to communicate with employees. So, I was scared. I was afraid that it would be a waste of time to go to hotel school. So, I started with a summer job.

CC: So, your father thought your lack of communication skills would hold you back.

RW: Yes, he thought of my younger brother (instead). He's one year, nine months younger. He is a very communicative person -- speaks a lot of languages -- so my father told my brother he could keep the family tradition and I should try something else. But, I loved the hotel business, so I kept going to summer jobs to see if I could do it or not. I went to hotel school in northern Italy but had a big problem because of communication. So, I (learned) to read lips because I had no interpreter. Then I went to America to learn English, because I thought it was important to learn English as a second language. English is the most widely used language in the hotel business. I worked in Boston, San Francisco and Honolulu, Hawaii. And, I went to Gallaudet University.

CC: Didn't they teach you to read lips at Gallaudet?

RW: No, I learned that in Europe. Gallaudet teachs you to communicate with the deaf. Gallaudet is a very good school. I am on its board of associates. I also go there two times a year. Anyway, from Gallaudet I transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology where I studied for a year in the college of business. From there I went to Cornell for hotel management. I got job experience at that time.

CC: Through an internship at Cornell?

RW: Yes. It was a work-study program in San Francisco and then Hawaii. When I was in Hawaii I learned about hotel engineering and maintenance. When I finished Cornell, I worked in Honolulu. I was president of Silent Aloha Magazine for the Deaf.

CC: Did you write for the publication?

RW: No, I was president-editor. There were other people that wrote for the magazine. We brought out information on what was happening there and on the mainland, like San Francisco and New York, every month. I cam back to Italy in December 1977. (The last) 23 years have gone by so fast.

CC: Did you have to go back to your father to apply to be the general manager?

RW: No, my father had passed away (and) my mother took over the hotel. When I came back in 1978, I was assistant manager. I didn't get along with the manager who worked for my mother. I found many things wrong. When I took over, I made a big difference because I knew the hotel business. At that time, I was the youngest and -- the Italians newspapers said -- the hottest hotel manager in Italy. It got a lot of publicity.

CC: What do you like least about running the hotel?

RW: The hotel is very small -- 100 rooms. Most people think it is a big hotel with many rooms. This hotel is not part of a chain. It's private. The most difficult thing is the unions.

CC: How many employees do you have?

RW: We have 150 employees represented by three different unions. So, it is a challenge to make everyone happy and have things run smoothly.

CC: What do like most about the hotel?

RW: Meeting a lot of great people. A lot of famous people come here, and I get to interact with a lot of VIPs. So, I have the opportunity to meet actors and political people and learn from them. It helps balance out the hard work I have to put in running the hotel.

CC: So, the world comes to you.

RW: We have been able to provide the highest quality environment. I have tried my best to....

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