A chat with Antonella Merli, Senior Sales Manager, Italy & Spain, Belmond

Belmond Management Limited is a leading company based in the UK that operates luxury hotels, train services, and river cruises worldwide. It has been active since the 1970s.

Its original name, Orient Express Hotels, is reminiscent of the golden age of travel, and, still today, its stunning properties across the globe inspire dreamlike travel experiences.

Our focus is Italy and the hotels where we frequently organize weddings and special events, namely Villa San Michele in Fiesole, Castello di Casole in the Tuscan countryside, Hotel Splendido in Portofino and its sister hotel Splendido Mare, Hotel Caruso in Ravello, and Hotel Cipriani in Venice and, of course, Sicily with Villa Sant’Andrea and Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina.

We were honored to interview Antonella Merli, Senior Sales Manager,  Italy & Spain, Belmond Italy.

Good morning, Antonella. Thank you for accepting our invitation for an interview! Can you tell us a bit more about you and your role in the company?

I began working in the hospitality sector in Milan as an Events & Banqueting Manager in a business hotel; I made the move to Belmond in 2012. After working for six years in our Special Events Sales Office, I set off on a new journey, taking on a more strategic and proactive commercial position.

The Belmond Group was established several decades ago with its first acquisition of the iconic Hotel Cipriani in Venice, followed by a successful period and several other acquisitions. How has tourism changed in Italy over the years?

Without a doubt, the way we travel and spend our vacation changes constantly. We head for farther destinations, we travel more often and for shorter periods… Recently, experiential tourism has become increasingly important, because travelers want to connect with a place on an emotional level and appreciate the unique features and activities that a specific destination offers. Sustainability will also be increasingly important and, with it, keywords such as “slow down” and “disconnect”.

Let’s talk about “Destination Weddings”: we have established a solid collaboration with Belmond properties, in particular Hotel Splendido in Portofino, Castello di Casole and Villa San Michele in Tuscany, and Hotel Caruso in Ravello. In your opinion, what is it that makes your properties so sought-after as destinations for weddings?

We boast a significant experience of the highest level in the hospitality sector. We pivot on excellence in the attention to detail and the needs of our guests. Our hotels are nestled in fabulous locations renowned worldwide, but in an isolated context, far from the “hustle and bustle”, which allows for an unrivaled level of privacy and exclusivity. Large open spaces, an extraordinary culinary offer, and unparalleled views add the final, special touch!

Let’s give some information to our couples: on average, how many weddings do you organize every year at your properties?

It varies from hotel to hotel. But, just to give you some figures: in 2019, Belmond Hotel Caruso on the Amalfi Coast hosted more than 80 weddings, and Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina over 50.

What are the nationalities of the couples that most often choose your hotels to tie the knot?

We have hosted couples from India, Lebanon, Japan… without a doubt, American and English couples are very much in love with Italy and our hotels. I must say, though, that many Italians choose our properties to celebrate their wedding day, too: we are deeply connected to Italy and we will be addressing the Italian market with increasing attention.

Which of the Belmond properties can accommodate the greatest number of guests?

Here, again, it depends. All of our hotels are available for a buyout: the fact that you can have the entire hotel at your disposal offers significant flexibility not only in terms of space capacity but also in terms of possible settings. In general terms, we can host romantic elopements of just the bride and groom traveling by themselves, up to grand-scale events catering to 250 guests. The trend at the moment seems to be that of “micro-events”, which are masterfully organized at our properties thanks to the variety and flexibility of our indoor and outdoor spaces.

We know that you also host intimate weddings and elopements without the need to book all of the rooms. How do you make sure that these couples enjoy the most important day of their life at its best and in total privacy?

We are fortunate to have, as I mentioned, large outdoor spaces and, so, we can create elegant and romantic settings in corners of our gardens offering absolute privacy (for instance, the Lovers’ Corner at Villa San Michele in Fiesole, or the wonderful Enchanted Table at Castello di Casole). Let’s not forget that many of our rooms have beautiful terraces and private gardens, which can become the perfect location for private events in complete safety (for instance, the beautiful rooftop terrace at Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice).

Knowing our spouses well, we know that excellent food is always among their top priorities. Let’s tantalize our brides and grooms: what does your cuisine foresee for a wedding menu?

Gastronomy is essential for us, it’s part of the unique and authentic flair that every guest wants to experience in Italy and at our hotels. Our menus vary with the seasons and are strongly linked to the territory; they can be customized, though, based on the specific needs of our guests. Banquets are personally supervised by the Executive Chef to guarantee particular care and attention. This means, for example, that in Venice and Taormina, the wedding menu is designed by a Michelin-starred chef.

Our clients often decide to spend their honeymoon at your hotels. Do you have specific packages for this special occasion?

We are honored to welcome “our newlyweds” for their honeymoon and happy to suggest tailor-made proposals. There is no doubt that the feather in the cap of our packages is the Grand Tour, which includes a stay in several Belmond properties in Italy at a special rate. But above all, there are truly unique travel experiences that will make their stay special and romantic that we are happy to organize on request, or even create just for a specific occasion: for instance, the Star Gazing at Castello di Casole, where the starry Tuscan sky is the stage for an unforgettable evening.

In this very particular moment, brides and grooms are certainly looking for reassurance. The year 2020 has been quite unusual, to say the least, and will certainly introduce changes in the way we travel. How are you getting ready for events scheduled for 2021 in total safety?

Belmond has always been steadfast in its commitment to provide every guest with the highest standards of safety and wellbeing. All of our  hotels have implemented an enhanced rigorous protocol in compliance with government  regulations, which is available on our website.