Bill Gates bid to buy Venice hotel stalled after outcry
Jhe Danieli Hotel on Venice’s Grand Canal is emblematic of the elegant but troubled city. The floors and marble exterior of Venice’s oldest hotel are damaged by frequent high water, or high water floods that rush through the focus several times a year. There are water marks on the legs of the grand piano in the downstairs bar and scuff marks on the shiny top from where staff quickly pile furniture as the salty floodwaters rush in.
This hotel, in operation for over 200 years, has been the setting for countless films, including two James Bond films (moonraker and Casino Royale) and countless high-stakes cases. The paparazzi always seem to know who’s hiding in the luxury private suites. It’s a typical Venetian place in a city where locals are fed up with foreigners buying monuments. Over 70% of residential properties are now owned by foreigners, which has repelled many true Venetians. Although operated by Marriott Luxury Collection, the Danieli is owned by the Giuseppe Statuto group. (Giuseppe unfortunately spent some time under house arrest after a legal snafus related to what appeared to be a fake bankruptcy filing, which has since been expunged.)
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So when news broke last week that Bill Gates and Saudi Prince Al-Walid bin Talal would soon be spearheading much-needed renovations thanks to a 30 million euro deal to relocate the historic Marriott-branded hotel. Luxury Collection to their Four Seasons by 2024, eyebrows were raised. They weren’t even hiring an Italian to lead the work, instead bringing in French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon who had already begun sketching out the glitzy renovation’s new look.
Last week, rumors that one of Venice’s most prestigious landmarks would soon be in American, Saudi and French hands were met with scorn. The city’s tourism division has asked Made in Italy companies to save the waterfront hotel, which is one of the first things most tourists see when their water taxi pulls up on the St. Mark’s Square.
Then, suddenly, an announcement was made that the Giuseppe Statuto Group would retain ownership after a sudden bond loan worth 330 million euros was concluded. Statuto confirmed the deal to The Daily Beast, boasting that it has also earmarked 30 million euros for the renovations, but the upgrade will be carried out by an Italian designer.
A Statuto Group representative told The Daily Beast that Gates’ Four Seasons manages the prestigious Mandarin de Statuto in Milan and San Domenico Palace in Taormina, which remain firmly in the Italian property developer’s wheelhouse. But after the negative reaction, the Danieli will not be managed by the Four Seasons group. Four Seasons did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Venice, which before the pandemic suffered from over-tourism fueled by cruise ships and budget airlines, experienced a renaissance during the pandemic when many wealthy Venetians who had moved away to escape the crowds are income to enjoy the city under lockdown. Many of them are now helping to save the city by supporting initiatives to bring Venetians back to Venice. Jane da Mosto, who heads the NGO “We Are Venice”, which has worked to convince Venetian tourist entities to integrate sustainable tourism into their post-pandemic plans, had hoped for the drop in tourism due to the draconian lockdown at the start of the pandemic would have brought about a profound change. “We needed to rebalance the economy within the limits of ecology and rediscover what Venice really is,” she told The Daily Beast. “Instead, we may be losing the chance to reinvent this city.”
The face of Venice has changed dramatically in the two years since legendary Carnival celebrations were canceled as COVID-19 swept through Italy as the first epicenter outside of China. Small trinket shops have all largely closed and Airbnb owners are now renting to students and families as tourism is still slow. Adding to the agony – and ecstasy for those who appreciate the quieter Venice – huge cruise ships have been banned from docking in the city and must dock on the mainland, prompting some businesses to bypass completely Venice.
To be fair, the Danieli has never responded to fast-paced tourism with rooms starting at $550 and reaching over $2,000 for the Grand Canal View Executive Suite. But Venice’s declining population feels ownership of all its monuments and has managed to keep a number of historic buildings in Italian hands. Italy is the only European country with more than one million hotel rooms, of which less than 5% are owned by large companies. The rest are usually family businesses passed down from generation to generation. Even the big luxury hotels tend to be upscale and, for the most part, Italian-owned.
When the pandemic hit, many political parties scrambled to pump money into the luxury tourism sector, especially hotels, lest foreign investors come in and grab important hotel assets, which are rare. “Many institutional investors are looking for hotels in Italy, but there is more demand than availability,” Bernabò Bocca, president of the national association of hotel owners, Federalberghi, told The Daily Beast.
Following fiery petitions, the government launched a state-backed €2 billion fund to save properties if their Italian owners went bankrupt and possibly resell them to their owners when times improve. But Bocca doesn’t think outsiders like Gates should be excluded if the alternative is shut down. “I don’t think it’s a tragedy if international investors buy hotels in Italy, as long as the jobs stay here, which they do in the hotels,” Bocca said. As for Gates owning the Danieli, Bocca seemed content not to speculate. “It’s not happening, so what can I say?”