The Prisoner

Recommendations to an Italian Small Business – 16 September 2013
Ernesto is known as The Prisoner. He has grown up in the hotel he owns and manages and it dominates his life as it always has, ever since his teenage years. Ernesto is married to Mirabella and they run the hotel together. A suitable wife was lined up for Ernesto some years ago and everyone who met her says she was delightful, but she decided that a life trapped in a country hotel was too much to contemplate so she found a future elsewhere, which gave Ernesto’s parents a problem in lining up another one – Ernesto could not really go and find a wife himself as aside from errands and attending meetings he can seldom leave the hotel.
And so was found for him the venomous Mirabella. To be fair to Mirabella, she found herself as trapped by parental demands as Ernesto is, and at first this caused her to be manifestly angry. But she has learned to smile at the guests and be superficially friendly as a matter of expediency, though the smile always looks like it’s been stitched on. Ernesto, by contrast, doesn’t smile all that much, he is just naturally a host, he has been brought up to the life.
The hotel is in a good position, at the top of the hill with fine views of the mountains from all the rooms, and in its own grounds. It’s quite a big hotel, on four floors.
When we arrived this month I asked Ernesto how business was and he replied up and down. Sounded like it might be more down than up.
We were needing to leave at about 9 a.m. on the final morning we were there, so I suggested to Ernesto that I settled up with him after dinner the night before. Normally in a hotel 9 a.m. shouldn’t be too much problem but at this one anything can happen, and in fact on the Wednesday morning Ernesto wasn’t there, only Mirabella was, so paying the night before turned out to be a good move. €100 per night, dinner, bed and breakfast for two people, including all drinks, can’t be bad, for us at least, not so sure about Ernesto; I think he more-or-less made that figure up when he saw I was prepared to pay in cash.
On the evening that we were to pay we got chatting to two French Canadians in the dining room, and what with there being a large jug of red wine on the table – all included in the price – I had had quite a lot to drink when I came to pay. Not so much that I couldn’t handle the payment or the general chat, but then Ernesto wanted to discuss the economic state of Italy in comparison with the UK. That’s hard enough in a foreign language at the best of times, but with your head a bit befuddled by a late hour and getting on for a litre of red wine, more than doubly so. At times during this conversation my head literally felt like it was too full, I wondered if I could get another idea in or another word out.
Oddly, Ernesto gave no indication of being aware of my predicament, and would have been happy to continue the conversation all night so far as I could ascertain, it was just before midnight when I got back to our bedroom and Hilary said, ‘That transaction took a long time!’
And poor Ernesto, what could I tell him? He wanted to know what the economic situation in the UK is like, to which I replied largely positively, and why is it that Italy is not comparable? In particular, he was concerned that 70 per cent of his hotel customers these days are from outside of Italy. Why can the Italians no longer afford to come there? That’s a big question to cope with, in a foreign language late at night with a belly fulla wine.
I said that Britain has 45 per cent of GDP overseas investment compared to 15 per cent in Italy; he was surprised to hear that the UK is a significant manufacturer of motor cars, surprised to hear that Jaguar cars, which he’d heard of, is owned by an Indian company, and puzzled by my assertion that over the past thirty or more years there has been significant change taking place in the UK, with a widespread attitude of mind, a mindset, now, that is entrepreneurial and keen to embrace new ideas. Of course, I said, there is poverty in places, and there are people who resist new ideas, there is poverty and there is fear of the new in every country, in Germany and in the USA included, but there is nonetheless plenty of dynamism, people who start new businesses, or are encouraged to bring ideas to their work.
Italy’s problem, by contrast, is that it is too insular. It needs more input of ideas from outside; a willingness to try the new in every aspect and to dispense with that which, though always done that way, does not work well. But that means change. Big change with social outcomes that are in part unpredictable.
But what can this mean to Ernesto? He has no experience of much of what I was talking about. It would be hard enough to explain in your own language to anyone who had no experience of what you were describing.
I told Ernesto that I thought that the current Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, has the right ideas for the development of Italy but does not really have the support to push them through. Also he does not have electoral support, he is Prime Minister because the leader of the centre-left, Bersani, could not bring himself to form a coalition with the centre-right, led by Berlusconi, though the centre-left won marginally more seats in the lower house at the last election. Enrico Letta was an acceptable compromise as PM because, though a member of the centre-left, his uncle is an adviser to Berlusconi. Letta will not have enough support to stand as leader in the next election, and Ernesto said with despair that the next PM might be Matteo Renzi, who being from the left would be anathema to him. But if the centre-right led by Berlusconi gets elected there is absolute certainty that the change that Italy so badly needs will not happen. You try doing that little speech in wine-sodden Italian!
I went to bed and lay awake wondering what is to become of Ernesto and the hotel. He badly, badly, needs some marketing advice. Hilary and I talked about it next day. We both know what is needed to turn his hotel into a successful business, or think we do, we probably do. It definitely has potential, but Ernesto’s parents are still alive, his dad is totally gaga, gets pushed around in a wheelchair talking to the fairies or making growling and gurgling noises, but his mum is still compos, and we can imagine her saying, if Ernesto started trying to make major changes, ‘It’s not what your father would have wanted’. Ernesto’s father built this hotel in the 1960s. There are photos on the stairs of the building work taking place, and of Ernesto’s father sitting proudly at his desk when the work was complete.
So Ernesto stays as the prisoner. He is a prisoner of his family, his circumstance, and of his upbringing and mindset. And since he seems to trust what I say, or listen to it at least, I feel a kind of duty to go and spend some time there helping him out. Is that too presumptuous? But anyway I’m getting too old to be working, or that’s my excuse to myself. So I’ll put my feelings of duty aside.
All over Europe there are of course businesses that are struggling with their reluctance to incorporate current ideas, not least many hotels. Many are going bust, or have done already, and for some maybe that’s no bad thing, there is no point in struggling on with a product that decreasing numbers of people want.
But it will be a shame if that were to happen to Ernesto and Mirabella, for their product, once they have clearly identified what it is and got a plan for its promotion, is essentially sound. The place is big enough and is in a terrific setting. But they are prisoners, prisoners to passive circumstance. And they have no idea what they can do about it. I do. I have those ideas, but I am a prisoner to hedonism and fatigue.

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