Good news never come alone. After Andrea Scherz was nominated as Hotelier of the Year, the Gstaad Palace also received the award as Best Holiday Hotel of the Year in the prestigious Bilanz rating. The old lady of the Gstaad hotel business is far from getting fusty.
Congratulations on your prestigious nomination as Hotelier of the Year for 2019. Can you tell us more about this award?
It’s an award that is given each year by the Swiss publicist Karl Wild in partnership with the newspaper SonntagsZeitung. I received it four days after my 50th birthday so it was like a slightly belated birthday present. The Palace is one of the few family-owned five-star hotels still operating in Switzerland – of which there are only two or three – so I think we were given some credit for this.
As a family-owned and family-managed luxury hotel, how are you able to compete so successfully against the other luxury hotel chains, which have very deep pockets?
I think we do it with charm. If you look around, the Palace is not the most luxurious hotel you’ve ever seen. There’s no gold, no marble. We compete with the charm of our employees and the management, in combination with the continuity that has developed over the past three generations under my family’s ownership. People like to know what they will get when they go on a holiday. Returning to the Palace, they know what they get here because it has been like this for three generations. Despite having done a good deal of modernization over the years, we try to keep up with the times and strike the right balance between continuity and modernity.
The Gstaad Palace has a long history – you can feel that it’s rooted, like a tree that has been growing for a hundred years. It has authentic character and charm with no artificiality. A client once said to me, “You know, Mr Scherz, the world is spinning faster and faster. We love coming back to your hotel because it’s like a solid rock in a wild sea. It’s an oasis of calm away from the craziness of the outside world.”
How do you maintain this continuity for existing clients while also trying to attract new clients? Is it a difficult balancing act for you?
I think our product has a great future. Most people have had enough of the stress of the digital age, where everyone is hyper-connected. This is an aspect of life, which is increasingly reflected in the trend towards globalization and homogeneity of many modern hotels. By contrast, our kind of product offers a certain sense of stability together with high standards and an authentic charm that, I think, is moving back into fashion. People want to return to the roots of hospitality, which is good old-fashioned inn-keeping.
Don’t get me wrong, I do try to keep up with the times: the Palace was the first five-star hotel in Switzerland to offer free wifi to its guests; it was also one of the first hotels to install LED lighting to reduce energy costs. I am, however, quite selective in adopting innovations. For instance, we prefer to provide guests with keys for their rooms rather than key cards. Wherever possible, I want to encourage interaction and conversation between our staff and our guests. The traditional concierge key service provides such an opportunity.
After dinner, when guests ask for the key to their room, the concierge will enquire about their day, how they enjoyed their dinner and perhaps follow up to see if the hotel can arrange anything for them for the following day like, say, a private ski instructor. This personal interaction provides feedback and a channel for me to gauge how well we are performing. If a guest tells the concierge that the dinner wasn’t good you can be sure that I will find a note to this effect on my desk the next morning. At the end of the day a hotel is about caring for people, treating them with respect and as individuals.
One of the attractions of Gstaad in 1913, when the hotel was opened, was the abundance of winter snow. Nowadays the skiing season is considerably shorter and snow less certain. How are these changes affecting your business strategy?
Well, they do indeed affect us, mainly during Christmas and New Year. If there is no snow we obviously lose revenue. However, people still want to go for a Christmas holiday somewhere and many are prepared to gamble on the availability of snow. I don’t think it is that dramatic; my estimate is that, during a poor-snow period, we probably have 80 to 90% of the usual business over Christmas and New Year.
Fortunately, summer is becoming more popular so this improves the situation. You can see from the Summer Highlights, our publicity for the season, that we are working very hard on our summer programme and try to make it very attractive and enticing for different ages and interests. We particularly aim to encourage families and to ensure that children feel welcome. This is a definite change from the old days when children were “to be seen and not heard”. Nowadays, hard-working parents bring their children on holiday with them and they really appreciate the programme of children’s entertainment and animation that we offer.
In terms of innovation the Palace was one of the first hotels to implement dynamic rates. Like the airlines, if you book a room in the hotel today for a few days in a couple of months’ time, you will get one rate. If you do the same booking a few days later, the rate might be different.
How has the luxury tourist market for the Palace and the region changed over the past 20 or 30 years?
I think that digitalisation has had a big impact. Bookings come in with much shorter notice nowadays. When I started as a manager I could more or less tell you how the season would turn out and budget accordingly. However, these days I will only be able to provide an answer at the end of the season! Stays are usually shorter than in the past and people tend to have less time for holidays in general.
In terms of the evolution of the region, we can see that the popularity of Saanenland has exploded. The Palace runs an extensive marketing campaign and attracts many new clients. Once they are here, they fall in love with the region and the next thing that happens is that they want to buy a chalet of their own. In this respect, Gstaad really is a love story. I sometimes wish I received a commission for every chalet that has been built by my clients!
This purchase of private chalets has obviously had an impact on the occupancy of our rooms and particularly on our restaurants. The new chalets usually have big kitchens and many have their own private chefs. I was informed that last winter there were 104 private chefs in Gstaad over Christmas and New Year. Our former customers spend millions on building or renovating their chalets and naturally they want to invite and entertain their friends.
The Gstaad Palace was an important champion of the Saanen district-heating project. What has been your experience with this and some of the other sustainable initiatives?
The district-heating scheme supplies some of the hotels in Gstaad and has definitely been a success. Initially my board was a bit nervous about outsourcing our heating. However, over the last 10 years we have only had two or three interruptions of service and these have never been for longer than a few hours. As a precaution, however, we still maintain one oil burner for backup. There is no economic advantage to the outsourcing scheme as it costs slightly more than oil heating, but we are happy to be making a contribution to protecting the environment of the beautiful Saanenland.
We also support the joint initiative where hotels in the region centralise procurement and delivery of goods in an effort to reduce the number of trucks bringing supplies to each hotel. We all pool our orders and the goods are delivered to a central depot, Schmid in Saanen.
With respect to the airport, I helped in the extension of the new airport and I am still on the board. The Gstaad Airport is a great asset to the region and also for the Gstaad Palace. We have many guests who travel here in their private planes. With the addition of several new hangars, planes can now stay overnight without having to take off again to go to park in another airport. We are still working towards the financing and installation of a GPS approach and departure system so that planes can arrive and take off even despite cloud cover. Some of our largest taxpayers are located in Gstaad, specifically because it has an airport.
Thank you very much for meeting with Gstaadlife. We wish you continued success in your projects and in the challenge of managing this wonderful treasure of the region.