How the queen of Positano created one of the Med’s best hotels

Positano, Italy CNN  — 

Before Positano had busloads of tourists, a Missoni store or a vaunted reputation as a must-visit destination on the global jet set circuit, there was the Cinque clan.

The Cinques are one of the most storied families in Positano, having cultivated and grown the hospitality industry in this picturesque Amalfi Coast hamlet of Italy since the 1930s.

The past several decades of history in Positano – often called the Gem of the Divine Coast because of its perch on a jagged cliff – is inextricably linked with Virginia Cinque, 82, the oldest living member of her branch of the family, and their 48-room hotel, Il San Pietro di Positano, arguably one of the best places to stay on the Mediterranean coast.

Virginia’s uncle Carlo founded Il San Pietro in 1970, and it rapidly became a travel institution among European royals and aristocrats, Hollywood stars and starlets and titans of industry. When Carlo passed away in 1984, 2,000 people, practically the entire town of Positano, came to the funeral.

Virginia herself is nothing short of a legend in Positano (there are tables at restaurants named after her). After Carlo’s death, Virginia, who is now the owner of Il San Pietro di Positano, began running the property along with her brother Salvatore, until he died in 1996. Then the next generation, Virginia’s sons, Carlo and Vito, were brought into the management fold.

In achieving a smooth family succession, the Cinques have created a milestone for Italian hospitality.

Virginia says she simply adheres to a simple principle to ensure the legendary service that brings guests back year after year: “You need to treat the staff as part of the family, ” she says. Il San Pietro is the largest employer in Positano and has an astonishingly low 2% staff turnover rate. “You have to help them [the staff] with their problems so they can work with serenity,” Virginia told CNN Travel.

An industry trailblazer

Virginia Cinque and her sons Vito, center, and Carlo run the hotel founded by Virginia's uncle in 1970.

While Virginia is low-key, to the point of practically nonchalant, about what she has both preserved and created with Il San Pietro di Positano, make no mistake that she has staked a place as one of the foremost female hoteliers in the country.

“Southern Italy is not the bulwark of the patriarchy that it was in, say, the 1960s, but jobs like this are still overwhelmingly filled by men. Along with Francesca Bortolotti Possati of the Bauer in Venice and Maie-Louise Sciò of Il Pellicano in Tuscany, Virginia must be Italy’s most famous female hotel owner,” says Lee Marshall, Italy specialist and destination editor for the Essentialist, a private travel club.

The Cinques, however, hardly blink at women in positions of power. “My family has always been run by women, and this is the first case of men running the show,” says Vito Cinque, Virginia’s youngest son, referring to the fact that he and his brother, Carlo, now handle the business side of Il San Pietro.

While Virginia’s official title is CEO, her role is often described by the hotel more in terms of overseeing the “hotel life,” meticulously looking after every detail that encompasses the effortless luxury of Il San Pietro’s lifestyle.

And it’s the life and feeling of the hotel that has cultivated such a devoted following. Andrea Zana, the general manager, says that Virginia is someone who defies categorization. “At the hotel, she is just Virginia,” he says.

Generations of hospitality

Il San Pietro di Positano makes the most of its jawdropping location.

As the oldest of six siblings, Virginia, who was born in 1935, was encouraged early to join the family enterprise.

When she was around 18, her father took her aside and suggested she come work at the Hotel Miramare, the hotel her father and uncle owned and which served as the training ground for the future Il San Pietro.

The Miramare, which opened in the village center of Positano in the 1930s, was a big risk at the time.

As Virginia recalls, there were hardly any tourists. (In contrast, Virginia says she can imagine her Uncle Carlo would be distressed with how crowded his beloved Positano has become. Today, Il San Pietro hardly has any vacancy all season from April to November, where rates start at 580 euros and can go up to 2,800 euros per night.)

Virginia had been studying French, but that language wasn’t particularly useful because most of the guests at the Miramare were British, so she went off to England to learn her third language. After six months Virginia spoke English and came back to Positano to assume her position at the Miramare’s reception desk answering phones and collecting telegrams.

There, Virginia was mentored by her Uncle Carlo and worked alongside her brother Salvatore, with whom she managed Il San Pietro until he died in 1996.

She married her husband, a doctor, at 26, which Virginia says was considered practically ancient for her era.

Virginia’s sons had more formal and academic training. Carlo studied economics and business and Vito is a graduate of the top-tier hotel school Ecole Hotelier in Geneva.

An extended family

The Cinque family treats their hotel like a home.

“My mother and my uncle Salvatore taught us to be fair, responsible. At our staff meal, the cooks eat the same ingredients as the guests,” says Vito, who often dines with his employees. The Cinque philosophy and approach to hotel management isn’t to speak exclusively in corporate terms like staff retention, profit and loss, or becoming a global brand. (They don’t even make t-shirts with the Il San Pietro di Positano logo.)

After all, this is their home – literally – not a place to shill merchandise. Virginia lives at Il San Pietro year round, even in the winter when it’s closed to guests.

In her mind, Il San Pietro, which Virginia helped elevate into the exclusive Relais and Chateaux circle of properties, isn’t a hotel. “I remember I was traveling in Sardinia, and I saw some fabrics and I thought they were too beautiful and expensive for a hotel. My uncle Carlo said to me, ‘We don’t have a hotel, we have a home.’”

To be sure, the Cinques’ approach is a model that works for a small, single boutique property that is independently managed by a group of relatives who all share the same vision of retaining its character and roots.

“One of the reasons Il San Pietro is so famous is the family passion and tradition that has been passed down. The problem with many family businesses is that the new generation has different ideas [from the founders],” says Zana, who manages the day-to-day operations.

“For Virginia, this is her life, not only a business. She never stops thinking about the property. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Zana, who has worked for the Lungaro in Florence and the Park Hyatt in Milan.

A fading tradition?

Il San Pietro may in fact be the last of its kind – that is, a family run hotel where there’s a kitchen staff of 35 for a 48-room hotel and practically everything is made from scratch.

“People are not building hotels like in this in Italy any more,” Vito said.

Marshall, of the Essentialist, who has visited the property six times since the mid-1990s, says what sets Il San Pietro apart from most other great hotels in Italy is the passion and willingness to take the long view that comes with the southern Italy family bedrock it’s founded on. “No corporation could deliver that,” he says.

Despite all the obstacles – high taxes, logistical bottlenecks and red tape, to name a few – of operating a hotel on the Amalfi Coast, there is no indication that any of the Cinques are abandoning this labor of love.

Virginia says she hopes to recruit the fourth generation: her 12-year-old granddaughter and namesake.

Personal attention to detail

The hotel opened in 1970.

In passing down the sacred Cinque hospitality tradition, Virginia says she was adamant about not spoiling her sons. “When we were young, we had to know how to do everything. I worked in the kitchen. My mother also knows how to do everything around the hotel,” says Carlos.

The mantra they live by is that is no task is beneath any of them. It’s not uncommon to find any of the Cinques on their hands and knees weeding their famous gardens or pulling wilting flowers from pots.

Virginia’s daily routine begins with a stint manning the front desk early in the morning, often before 8 a.m. At night, she arranges informal cocktail parties with different groups of guests out on the hotel’s Instagram-famous terrace.

Her fingerprints are everywhere in Positano, far beyond the exclusive walls of Il San Pietro. Along with her brother Salvatore, Virginia started the Mare Sole E Cultura festival as a way to bring visitors to Positano during a time when tourism hit a serious lull.

Since 1993, The Sea, Sun and Culture festival has been bringing esteemed authors to Positano and has forged partnerships with major Italian publishing houses. “The most famous writers in Italy come,” says Virginia.

In her ninth decade and with so many achievements – like running a world-class hotel that guests talk about coming to like making a spiritual pilgrimage – Virginia brushes off what she’s accomplished.

“I just organize cocktail parties,” she said.

Yet her approach to guest relations could easily be the subject of a Harvard Business School case study on retaining customers. (Il San Pietro’s statistics on returning guests – around half book for the next year the day they check out – are in a league of their own.)

Georganne Vartorella, a doctor from Cleveland who has been coming to the hotel every year for the last three decades, says it’s the matriarch of the Cinque family that gives the Positano property its warmth, spirit and total singularity

“It wouldn’t be San Pietro without Virginia,” says Vartorella.

Virginia’s favorite spots

Positano’s Cinque family circuit – stores, restaurants and shops owned and operated by various relatives – is extensive. Here are some of the highlights, as well as a few other of Virginia’s favorite Positano haunts:

Mena Cinque Boutique. Owned by Virginia’s sister-in-law Mena Cinque and opened in 1972, the shop is known for its beautifully made patchwork and garment-dyed collections.

La Bottega di Brunella. A family-run business – but not by the Cinques – this store carries high-end linen, the official fabric of Positano, and is where Virginia purchases many of her iconic colorful caftans.

Marilu Moda. Owned by Virginia’s sister, Marilu Attanasio, Marilu Moda carries a well-priced selection of unique clothes and jewelry, such as irresistible chunky necklaces.

Hotel Miramare Positano. The famous burnt red building in the heart of Positano is where it all began for Virginia; the property is now run by two of Virginia’s siblings. With great views, this four star hotel offers can offer rates as low as 260 euros per night in the high season.

Hotel Palazzo Murat. Owned and operated by Virginia’s sister, Rosa Attanasio, this elegant property was created from a restored 18th-century palazzo. This oasis in the center of town has serene gardens and a tranquil swimming pool. And their restaurant serves some of the best linguine vongole in town.

Casa Mele. Less than a five-minute drive from Il San Pietro, Casa Mele is one of Virginia’s favorite restaurants – a modern take on Italian cuisine in a relaxed, contemporary atmosphere with an open kitchen.

Il Fornillo. Another one of Virginia’s go-to spots, Il Fornillo restaurant, which has an outdoor patio, doesn’t have a website. They serve dishes like stuffed calamari and local pumpkin flowers.

Next2. Owned by Virginia’s niece Carmella Attansio, Next2 is a hip culinary destination with inventive dishes such as blue lobster fettuccine and swordfish carpaccio – and it boasts one of the nicest, and largest, patios in Positano.