Two hotel brands with grand ambitions—Capella and Rocco Forte—are building European empires. In the first column of his new series, Christopher Petkanas sizes them up.

Courtesy of Capella Hotels and Resorts Capella Hotels and Resorts
| Credit: Capella Hotels and Resorts

Before leaving New York for Schloss Velden, in southern Austria, and Capella Castlemartyr, in County Cork, Ireland, just as I was choosing which ties to pack and about to oven-dry some tomatoes, Benjamin and Iona called, identifying themselves as my private assistants. Was there anything they could do for me or needed to know about me before my arrival—dietary don’ts, transfers, reservations, specific things I wanted to see or do?

Wow, I thought. Lots of hotels send “thank you for staying with us!” notes after you check out, but such exhaustive “pre-calls” are rare. I was impressed, even if I failed the keen, bright voices on the other end because I couldn’t think of anything for them to do. Both Schloss Velden and Castlemartyr are part of Capella Hotels and Resorts, the upstart luxury hospitality group based in Atlanta and headed by Horst Schulze. Do you know Ritz-Carlton?If so, it is thanks to Mr. Schulze, who left the company as vice chairman in 2002 and whose name is synonymous with visionary hotel-building. The idea is that he will do for Capella what he did for Ritz-Carlton, minus the cobalt goblets.

Nobody phoned me from Le Richemond, in Geneva, or the Charles Hotel, in Munich, where I would also be staying, which is not to say these places don’t have their knives sharpened: They are, after all, urban hotels that do big business with business travelers, not country resorts focused on the leisure market. Warm and fuzzy is not their style, which is fine. As outposts of an empire built on a different model, they have other attributes.

Slick, sleek, and possibly impossible to trip up no matter how many traps you lay for them, Le Richemond and the Charles belong to the Rocco Forte Collection, which by July will also have the Augustine, in Prague. Looking onto the Wallenstein Garden, a geometric masterpiece of the early Baroque, the Augustine is set to inhabit a historic complex of five buildings, including a portion of a working 13th-century monastery. Spying monks on their way to vespers isn’t normally part of the five-star hotel experience. But it will be here, and you won’t even have to pay extra.

Using some creative math, Forte has lately taken to calling itself the largest luxury hotel operator in Europe. Oh really?Tell that to the Four Seasons, whose Hotel Istanbul at Bosphorus bows in June, followed the next month by the Hotel Firenze, in Florence. While the Istanbul is folded into a romantic 19th-century Ottoman mansion with views across the strait to the Asian side of the city, the Firenze claims a ravishing Renaissance palazzo steps from the Duomo.

Capella is too wet behind the ears for the established big guns to really care about it. Richard Power, Forte’s brand managing director, calls Four Seasons his “most admired competitor,” but insists he’s never even heard of Capella. Forte and Capella are not head-to-head rivals, but Power’s ignorance is still a little odd when you consider that both are luxury brands vying for consumer mind-share. When Schulze told me he did not know the Forte product well enough to comment on it, I started to think maybe I was the paranoid one. I always assume these guys read each other’s moves like tea leaves. But beyond a preoccupation with size, maybe they really do live in a bubble.

Richard Power may finally hear about capella when its third property, the Breidenbacher Hof in Düsseldorf, opens this month. Not that it will be an easy sell. Much is being made of the hotel’s location on the “glamorous” Königsallee, the city’s principal boulevard, but for many, glamour and Düsseldorf will never make it down the aisle.

There will be a lot more to get your teeth into at Capella Dunboy Castle, in Castletownbere, Ireland, launching this summer. Dunboy was built around 1400 by ancestors of Donal O’Sullivan Beara, the last Irish chieftain to forswear allegiance to England. Guest rooms (as at all Capellas, the number hovers around 100) overlook grounds where in 1602 Beara and his army clashed bloodily with English troops.

Nobody ever thought Horst Schulze would father a dud. Not that Velden and Castlemartyr are flawless. But he’s onto something with service. He believes the guest should determine his own experience, and that no one should be made to feel crazy for asking for something a little out of the ordinary. Macrobiotic food and pillows stuffed with fresh mint leaves are not empty promises. Capella’s teams of private assistants, defined as “proactive concierges,” have imbibed gallons of this Kool-Aid. Design is another story. While unimpeachably comfortable, the hotels are clunky, unsubtle, and lumpy.

Schloss Velden is poised on the edge of Lake Woerth, in a pocket of the Carinthia region known to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as “the Austrian Riviera.” Based on a 1603 manor house that stood on the same site, it was constructed as a hotel in 1890. Schloss means castle, but there is nothing castle-like about a stay at Velden, not if by that word you understand “grand” and “Old World.” This is true whether you book a room in the earlier, turreted wing or the new annex, which wraps around the back in austere, unfriendly cubes. No attempt has been made to reconcile the two styles of architecture. Of course, confrontation is the point. But there are no sparks.

I visited Velden in January. I don’t recommend it. The place was dead. After Christmas, the fancy jewelry stores empty their vitrines, lower the shades, and hang out signs that say see you at easter. What would it be like in season?With some effort, I could picture myself pawing through cheesy European celebrity magazines in one of the lakeside cabanas at the hotel’s beach club, a little fly-fishing here, a little schnitzel there.

Castlemartyr’s challenges are weirdly similar to Velden’s. It sells itself as a country-house hotel, but only 11 rooms are in the original 17th-century block; a lumbering addition has 98. And apart from a fluffy Rococo buttercream ceiling, the old section is not even very distinguished. It feels too much like the Carmelite boys’ school it previously was. The person I was traveling with says I’m too hard. Okay, the boys didn’t have a chef standing by to cook their catch, Waterford tumblers on the night tables, carriage rides, Lady Primrose bath gel, Pratesi linens, Wedgwood china.…

Le Richemond takes the high road: no baiting and switching. Forte and the Bank of Scotland are only the second-ever owners in the property’s 133 years. A check for $102 million bought them the hotel plus several adjoining buildings, allowing expansion. The choice of John Stefanidis to steer the makeover was a shocker, in a good way. Stefanidis is a blue-chip talent, and he had the advantage of never having done an entire hotel before (high-end residential decorators who make a sideline of hospitality have their bag of tricks and quickly become hacky). The look Stefanidis evolved for Le Richemond is tailored and manly but not butch: red lacquer cabinets, walls that reference straw-marquetry screens by Jean-Michel Frank, gray flannel curtains edged in striped ribbon-belt grosgrain.

Munich native Christoph Sattler had zero hotel background when he was tapped to be the Charles’s architect. He is famous, with Heinz Hilmer, for his redevelopment plan for the Potsdamer Platz, the Times Square of prewar Berlin. Sattler’s inspiration for the Charles, a gently curving essay in limestone adjacent to the old botanical gardens, was the grand Belle Époque hotels of the Côte d’Azur. It certainly feels prosperous. Placed end to end, crescent-shaped banquettes in velvet and faux snakeskin rumba their way down the middle of the rotunda lobby, watched by aristocratic portraits by the 19th-century Munich painter Franz von Lenbach. It’s an exciting, powerful space.

On second thought, it turns out that what Forte really meant is that it’s the largest operator of luxury city properties in Europe. It is this week. By next month, Forte and the Four Seasons will be locked in a dead heat, with 11 each. What both never say is why you should care in the first place. All most travelers want to know about is the best place to stay, spare them the figures. The whole numbers war between big hotel companies is like a department store that gives “consolidation” as the reason for running a sale. You can practically hear the end user cry, “Show me the money!”

Schloss Velden, a Capella Hotel

1 Schlosspark, Velden, Austria; 43-4274/520-000;; doubles from $761.

Capella Castlemartyr

County Cork, Ireland; 353-21/464-4050;; doubles from $647.

Le Richemond

Jardin Brunswick, Geneva, Switzerland; 41-22/715-7000;; doubles from $697.

Charles Hotel

28 Sophienstrasse, Munich, Germany; 49-89/544-5550;; doubles from $597.