ROME – After a lengthy negotiation process, and in spite of public backlash, the Catholic Church’s Order of the Holy Sepulcher has decided to award Bill Gates’s Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts chain a contract for a new luxury hotel a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica.
In a statement, the order said that on March 10, an agreement was signed with the Fort Partners Group leasing the Palazzo di Domenico della Rovere in Borgo “for hotel use under the management of the Four Seasons group.”
Simply called “Palazzo della Rovere,” the property is located along the Via della Conciliazione, the main street leading up to Bernini’s famed colonnades in St. Peter’s Square.
Previously owned by the Jesuit order, the building now belongs to the Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, made up of roughly 30,000 Knights and Dames throughout the world dedicated to providing financial support to the church in the Holy Land.
The funds are given to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which operates pastoral, educational, and social works throughout Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Cyprus.
The building dates from the Renaissance and contains a turret, a large courtyard, and ancient frescoes by Italian artist Pinturicchio, and is the only property owned by the Order of the Holy Sepulcher. It currently serves as the order’s global headquarters.
Until recently, the building was occupied by the family-run Hotel Columbus, which closed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the order’s administrative offices remained open.
In their statement, the order said that after the property was released in 2020 by its former tenants, they launched “an investigation into expressions of interest of Italian or international economic operators, to select the one to whom to entrust the renovation and management of the hotel.”
The Order of the Holy Sepulcher’s Grand Master, Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, created an international commission to evaluate the dozens of offers, and “among the many offers received, with a strict transparency procedure, the most convenient offer for the order is the one presented by Fort Partners.”
Based in Miami, the Fort Partners group is a leading privately held real estate and hospitality development firm owned by Liberian entrepreneur Nadim Ashi.
“Since this is an act of extraordinary administration, the Order…requested and obtained from the competent Authorities of the Holy See, the authorization to start negotiations with the aforementioned group,” the order said.
These negotiations ended with an agreement, “under which the chosen company will fully bear the costs of the renovation of the [property], allowing the Order to donate in full to the Holy Land the voluntary contributions received from its members.”
Once the public tender for the property was issued in 2020, the Four Seasons chain emerged as a frontrunner, with a 27-year, roughly $52.4 million contract to create a luxury hotel complete with a spa, gym, and restaurants staffed by world-renowned chefs.
The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is headquartered in Toronto and operates more than 100 hotels and resorts worldwide. It was founded by Canadian hotelier Isadore Sharp, but since 2007 Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been a majority stakeholder in the chain, owning around 71 percent through his Cascade Investment holding company.
The new contract with the Order of the Holy Sepulcher cements Gates’s growing prominence in the European luxury hotel market.
Last year, his Four Seasons chain through the Fort Partners firm also obtained another multi-million-dollar contract for the Palazzo Marini, a large property in the historic center of Rome often used for political purposes. Renovations for that property are expected to cost around €165 million, or just under $179 million.
Upon signing the contract for the Palazzo Marini, Ashi said that “A project in Rome has been a dream of mine for many years.”
“We have a clear vision and can already see this magnificent place come to life. As with our other properties, Fort Partners’ commitment to delivering top quality, excellence and elegance will be ever present in the execution of this project in the heart of Rome,” he said.
With two properties in Rome now, it appears that ambitious vision is set not only on strategic acquisition, but also expansion.
Several luxury hotels have popped up throughout Rome and Italy generally post-COVID, as many middle-class chains and locally run properties were forced to close their doors amid travel bans and the resulting tourism crisis.
Luxury chains are now taking over the Eternal City, with several major chains, including Mandarin, Hilton, Radisson and the Four Seasons, ready to invest, as former political and banking properties are quickly being bought up amid pent-up tourist demand.
Gates himself is also in the process of establishing a new luxury hotel in Venice and has other properties throughout Italy.
According to an article published in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera last year, the multi-million-dollar contract would stipulate an annual rent of just over $1 million and would include the reconstruction of the property and restoration of the frescoes.
A business plan for the hotel Corriere said it had obtained included 64 rooms plus 11 executive suites and two super suites, with a starting cost of around $514 a night. It also included an underground parking area already under construction.
The goal was to have the contract signed and renovations completed in time to host pilgrims and tourists, albeit wealthier ones, for the 2025 Jubilee of Hope.
When news that the order was negotiating with the Four Seasons chain became public, it ignited controversy, with critics arguing that having such a luxurious hotel in a property owned by the Vatican could send the wrong message and was potentially embarrassing given Pope Francis’s repeated calls for a “poor church for the poor.”
Notably, the hotel would be located near where many homeless people sleep at night, taking refuge under the cover of several buildings just outside St. Peter’s Square, adding to critics’ discomfort with the idea.
Some of the other competitors also took issue with the fact that the original tender called for hotels four stars and under, while the Four Seasons is a five-star chain, and they joined the bidding process late.
Last year the Order of the Holy Sepulcher issued several statements defending its decision to negotiate with Four Seasons, arguing that they have a duty “to take care of everything that has been entrusted” to them.
They said the decision was being made in discussion with the Vatican and they opted for the best fit given current market trends, insisting that the funds would cover the administrative costs of the order so that all donations received would go straight to projects in the Holy Land.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen