Travelling through the Swiss Alps on a chilly winter’s night, the “Kleine Rote” (small red one) train slowly weaving its way over ancient viaducts, and through snow-capped pine forests and twisting stone tunnels on the panoramic UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rhaetian Railway (RhB) – the very beginning of my trip to the historic Suvretta House could well have been taken from the pages of a storybook.
But though the inbound journey is enchanting in itself, it’s on arrival to this châteauesque estate that the magic really ensues, as I set out to discover the lasting appeal of this winter wonderland which has become a St. Mortiz institution.
Turning up in the middle of a snowstorm, the first thing I’m immediately struck by – albeit the poor visibility as the private car pulls into the driveway – is the absolute grandiosity that is Suvretta House, and its aura of stoic prestige.
Nestled some 2km outside St. Mortiz town, within the whimsical alpine landscape of the Upper Engadine, the white-tipped spires of the resort rising majestically in unison with the mountain crests around it, it’s clear that Suvretta’s structure alone is an architectural feat, and – despite the fact that it was designed over a century ago – the years haven't phased her ability to impact visitors on sight.
But Suvretta’s panache extends far beyond its distinctive silhouette – impressive though it is.
Built in 1911 by Swiss hotel pioneer Anton Bon and member of the British Parliament Charles Sydney Goldman, Suvretta is more than just another five-star hotel – it is one of the world’s oldest ski resorts; one which, throughout the years, has not only hosted a variety of distinguished guests – including royalty, politicians and celebrities – but has managed to retain its roster of loyal patrons and hold its own in the midst of an increasingly saturated luxury travel market.
Today, it remains a beacon of old-world charm and traditional luxury, and – save for some subtle modern alterations made by its new custodians – it has astonishingly managed to preserve the elegance of a bygone Belle Époque era that has all but vanished.
Peter & Esther Egli, General Managers
Housed within its historic walls are over 181 spacious luxury rooms and suites, in addition to two in-house restaurants – including the Grand Restaurant, which still requires its guests to adhere to a formal evening-wear dress code – the stylish, art deco and den-like Anton’s Bar, named after its founder, and a 1,700-m² wellness and spa area, complete with a 25-metre swimming pool, outdoor whirlpool, sauna worlds, steam bath and more.
Also adjoined to the hotel is a ski centre which offers ski school classes as well as private lessons, a modern ski room with 380 heated lockers and a ski shop, which leads straight out to Suvretta’s own private lift, offering direct access to the slopes. Once outside – guests have a trio of scenic mountain restaurants dotted about the grounds of the Corviglia ski area to choose from for a meal, also managed by the house.
However – vast estate, varied amenities and rich history aside – the second thing that stuns me about Suvretta House from the outset is surprisingly inconspicuous and a finer detail that reveals a competitive edge to the establishment I might have missed had I not been there to experience it myself.
As I make my way to reception – the porter graciously whisking my bags and coat up to my suite without a word – I notice the discreet welcoming party that awaits.
Standing against the backdrop of the opulent, grand lobby to greet me, are the General Managers Peter & Esther Egli, immaculately dressed, all beaming smiles and expert professionalism. Hardly an imposition, the exchange is over after a quick introduction and a brief chat, but the gesture stays with me – it’s not every day you meet the managers of such a large hotel on arrival, and so late in the evening at that.
The hospitable act to warmly receive every guest on arrival is a personal touch which has become a tradition over the years, Peter later explains. The two greet every single person who stays at the Suvretta House – no exceptions, and no matter the hour, it seems. As a result, “we don't manage to get much time to ski,” he admits, but - where some might have sounded wistful uttering this statement in a place lauded for its pristine slopes - in Peter's voice I get the sense that although there's plenty of truth to it, it's a sacrifice he's genuinely happy to make.
Such is the dearth of his passion for this establishment, and his role in keeping it alive. Of course, it's what you would expect most directors to say, but his honest tone purports his candour, and – somewhere in the depths of our two-hour long interview – I unearth the origins of his heartfelt affection for the location.
Years ago, when his son was still young, he tells me - the Egli's would make the trip to stay at Suvretta House as guests, in drastically different circumstances.
"Back then, we couldn't afford to stay very long, but we loved coming here," he says. “We stayed here when our son was four and six – only a night each time – and we remembered it.”
"Even my son remembers it from a young age and that speaks to the magic of the place," he adds. “That’s part of why we took up this challenge – it’s an honour to be part of this legacy that keeps people coming back because of those good vibes.”
However – as Peter attests –it’s not just the warm, friendly atmosphere, heritage, tranquil ambience, five-star luxury pampering and unspoiled natural surroundings that set Suvretta House apart from the rest, but perhaps something else, altogether more intrinsic – that in this tumultuous day and age is truly priceless. Security.
“I think the main challenge ahead [for the travel and luxury sectors] will be, and already is – security,” he says. “I think we've seen in recent years now how volatile the world can be. I think anywhere we go; we all want to feel secure. I feel safe here, and I’ve noticed that with people coming from crisis locations – they come to us to find their sanctum,” he says.
Indeed, in the course of its lifespan to date, Suvretta House has witnessed its fair share of upheavals, but through the ages, it has remained, and still remains, a peaceful haven. Even when World War I erupted on August 1, shortly after its inauguration in 1912, as most guests and employees fled the Engadine, Suvretta House stayed open and accommodated the remaining guests for the rest of the year.
This long-standing reputation as an alpine hideaway and a place of refuge and tranquillity, synonymous with style and elegance, and seeped in culture, nature and tradition, is what really raises Suvretta House above the rest, because – as is becoming glaringly obvious as the world spins around us – those are invaluable elements which cannot be bought, but are increasingly becoming a rarity. Yet those are the pillars upon which Suvretta House has been built – attributes it has maintained, continues to protect – and are the very reasons it stands tall ‘til this day.
Here, its resident guardians take Luxury Society on a tour behind its walls and into the heart of what makes this grand dame tick.
Looking at the size of Suvretta House, it must be quite an undertaking to manage it all – it’s such a vast property. How many staff do you have working here across the seasons?
In terms of staff, in the winter season we have more staff. We have about 224 around February within the hotel, but then we also have three mountain restaurants we operate in the winter, so it means we have 300 working when the hotel is at full capacity. With all of the outlets together we have 300 staff members.
In the summer it will be less, because in the summer we have only two outside operations, plus the hotel, so we have about 175 staff total in the summer, accordingly.
Who are your key clientele?
In terms of the guests, we have mainly regular guests — loyal customers who come back year after year. We also have a fair amount of newcomers, like everywhere else within the hospitality industry. You have to make sure you are open to unlocking new markets, although the majority of our guests come from Switzerland and the UK and also, Germany. So those are our three top markets. Although, funnily enough, in the summer we have an increase on US guests coming over.
We also receive quite a few families from Australia and New Zealand. They come mainly for the skiing, for the ski package we offer. It's another world for them, the European slopes and they were absolutely amazed, so they want to come back.
Do you see Asia as a rising market for Suvretta House?
It is and it will be for the future an important market. Because they’ve started traveling more and more and to more far away places, which includes Switzerland and more remote places, like St. Moritz.
So I think there clearly are signs that they will continue to come. I went to Shanghai for the ILTM to showcase Suvretta House and I will go back this year, and Switzerland was in their top five countries. I think Australia, too.
On that note of experience – how long have you and your wife managed Suvretta House?
Well, we have been managing this hotel for the past two and a half years, but – as you’ll see from some of the older paintings hung around the hotel, which belong to the original founders – the establishment itself has been around for much longer than us and has a lot of history, including past management.
But we personally took over in May 2014. Obviously taking a hotel on after 25 years of our predecessors running it gives enough of a challenge, but we embraced that challenge because we knew the place from a guest's perspective. When we came to stay, we remembered our feeling, so we kind of had in our minds what the place is about and we certainly remembered the location. So it was a nice challenge to take it on.
The greeting of every single guest is certainly a lovely personal touch, but it must be a challenge when you also have general management issues to tend to simultaneously. How do you juggle it all and stay focused?
I agree that the greeting tradition is most definitely time consuming and quite a task to take on, but the advantage is that the length of stay in general for our customers is for a long period. So you don't have every day a full hotel which goes and comes, and comes and goes. The thing is, once you've managed to welcome the guests at the beginning, you roughly know the person and you can then interact whilst the guest/s are staying in the hotel. This is an advantage. If you miss it, you never quite know who is who.
But in order to do that, we do have to adapt our other work as well. There’s not much time or room for projects during the season, but then we are off-season, and that’s when we focus on other projects. So we do the core, daily business duties during the day and then spend time occasionally on other projects like the room renovations we are working on, and the new spa we will create. There is a way. But we don't manage to get much time to ski whilst in the winter season, that’s true!
Suvretta’s exclusive heritage is surely a valuable draw card – but some guests also seek modernity these days. How do you balance the two harmoniously?
Well, within our approach, we also see that we need to reinvent the tradition. You've got to modernize in certain elements and you’ve got to keep some of it traditional.
But, for example, we used to have dress code in this lobby area – from 7pm it was jacket and tie for the men. We then came forward and thought: ‘If a guest from our goes out to a local restaurant, comes back to the hotel and wants to have a nightcap here, he doesn't want to have to go to the bedroom to get his jacket and his tie on to come sit in the bar’. So we changed that and made the dress code here more informal. However – we’ve kept the dress code formal in the Grand Restaurant because, that’s a different experience altogether, it’s more of an event. And it’s almost like: ‘You don't go to the Ascot races without your proper attire’. So I think with those two examples, that's where we show that we can be modern, but we also stand by our traditions in some senses where it suits.
That's also the reason why we went for a Tesla. We were looking into a Bentley. We were looking into an Audi. But we thought: ‘No. We do it different than the others’. And it was very well received by the guests.
You have to find a balance.
What about sustainability – being in such a beautiful spot, surrounded by nature, and that being one of your core assets – I assume that is top of mind for Suvretta House?
I think we are certainly playing our part with that. First of all, we did select an electric car for our hotel – a Tesla. We also have power which is generated by water, which we use our hotel and for the restaurant. My wife also uses a dosage system in the washing, and by doing so, we were able to stop 100% chloride use. Again, which is a big contribution to the nature. We also managed to reduce the heat so we don't have to wash it at high temperature anymore, and n about a year's time we will have 100% bio clean detergent for the washings. We will have no chemical residue.
Also, we are playing a part with a regional project called ‘Lighthouse’, which has assessed our untapped energy and usage and we’ve made changes accordingly to save energy where we can, and we have a certificate to prove that we are contributing to reduce the CO2 level.
We also believe in prime sourcing and making things in-house where and when we can. For example, we have our own bakery here, so we make about 51 or 52 different breads and pastries and things every single day, and we also we have our gardens.
We are located in a really beautiful area, so we really aim to contribute something back, because at the end of the day, if we help it might last longer.
What does your marketing mix look like?
We have local PRs, and we’ve started to advertise not only in magazines, but also in online and we use social media. But as well as all those external marketing things, I think it's still very important to do the marketing and the invest when you have the guest on the premises. It's easier to keep the guest happy whilst he's in your place, than to find a new guest. If we all do a good job, we've already done half of our work, because then they'll come back. Because also, word of mouth is a great marketing tool. A lot of people focus on digital, social media, advertising, but all this is mixed and I think people forget that sometimes, especially places that are fairly remote, like Suvretta House, that it's also word of mouth that has a huge impact on sales.
In terms of competition – are companies like Airbnb and other luxury apartment and housing providers like that on your radar?
It is a competition, but it’s also a different market. This is Suvretta – one of the most expensive and exclusive spaces in Europe. We've had 103 years of history and survived it, and if we want to continue, we have to embrace that there is competition and try to do the best we can to look after our loyal guests and keep them happy. This way, they realize that it is nicer to come to a place where you'll be looked after and not to have to do the work. They don't have to do the washing up. They don't have to engage with the room, they don't have to hire a chef. They can do what they want.
I think there will be a day where some people have stayed at so many houses around the world, they’ll eventually will be fed up with it and will come back to our hotel. So I'm not concerned about the Airbnb, but I do keep an eye on it. Just to be informed about what's going on in the space.
What constitutes luxury, however, is always changing I suppose, and everyone has a different opinion. As the manager of such a luxurious establishment – what for you is the true definition of luxury?
I think for me personally – and I've been in the luxury hotel business now for almost 30 years – it's always having room, space. A beautiful building for me is also luxury, and being creative in a wonderful location. That to me, only when you are in your bedroom and you see what you see – the beauty in nature. This is to me luxury. Also, it's the peace – which if you stay in London in a hotel or in Sydney or in Paris, you will always have other noises, police cars, etc – that gives you a sense of anxiety.
Here, you come, you arrive, you walk in and you see this beautiful window in the main lobby, with the most amazing view of the mountains, the pines, that sky. You walk towards it and you look out and it's security, in my opinion. You can rest, we look after you, pamper you. This is all, to me this is the definition of luxury. It's not about the money, it's not about the gold. It's the natural beauty and peace.
It certainly has the sense of old world luxury and charm to it which is hard to find these days and a fine line to balance while still remaining relevant in the modern era – so you feel like you've bridged that gap in a sense?
Absolutely. And that’s why I’m very keen to preserve this house. Because it's not something you can get everywhere. I also believe that it's part of your relaxation and experience when you come to our place – that this is different to home. But it’s also not your average hotel. It has its own charms and so in a sense, it can remind you of your office and home. This is unique. I think this adds to it. And if you love it, you want to come back to it. So you come back with your children.
We used to come here that same way. Back then, we couldn't afford to stay very long, but we loved coming here," he says. “We stayed here when our son was four and six – only a night each time – and we remembered it. Even my son remembers it from a young age and that speaks to the magic of the place. That’s part of why we took up this challenge – it’s an honour to be part of this legacy that keeps people coming back because of those good vibes. So it's a generational thing that is also a draw. The guests will remember and they'll want their children to experience the same kind of feeling that they did.
I imagine that it's almost a dream come true in a sense – because as you said, you used to stay just one night years ago, and now here you are managing this huge hotel with hundreds of staff and a crew.
It is very nice, yeah. It's a good feeling and it's nice to see how it’s evolved as well, into the new way of living. It's a constant challenge, but a good challenge. We love working with people and love people in general, and I can say we do have wonderful guests.
On that topic of challenges, right now we are at a time where there are many shifts occurring at once – changing generations, changing landscapes, economic fluctuations, digital, all of this – but what are the main challenges that you foresee for travel and luxury within these?
I think the main challenge will be, and already is – security. I think we've seen it in recent years now how volatile the world can be. I think anywhere, we all want to feel secure. I feel safe here, and I’ve noticed that with people coming from crisis locations – they come to us to find their sanctum. I see our location as a real opportunity, because I think that the luxury market is also going towards the experience to experience something really outstanding, and nature has become more and more important in that. So, I see a chance for us where we are, because we can offer our guests an amazing experience in terms of natural beauty.
The challenge which we have is to fight like everybody else, because everything has become readily available. People still travel, but not as before where people would come for three weeks and longer stays. Now, the new generations and younger guests, they come for a couple of nights, but also make those decisions at much shorter notice. They look on their apps and check the weather in whatever location, then book the flight and come. Before, they used to book a year ahead, for a three week stay. So that has changed, and we have to change with it. So that bears a challenge for us, definitely.
Of course, there's still a certain type of client who stays for three weeks, but that will decrease. Then again, I believe that some of our young clients and guests, once they reach a certain age, will change and begin to come back to places they’ve truly loved – like my wife and I do now.
You have your favourites. Especially in these times when grim things are happening in the world – we can't know what's going to happen in 10 years. No one knows. But I know, people will want to go to somewhere where they feel safe.
This place really does have that. It’s a sanctuary, with that warm feeling to it and the history behind it, which adds a level of security, as well as, obviously, the location itself. You're in the mountains. It's peaceful and it's safe.
I also believe that maybe keeping a dress code in this restaurant might also help us to keep the style and that attraction to this place. You sometimes go to other five star hotels and you wonder why people would dress up and go to a dining hall. It doesn’t have to be like that everywhere or all the time, but certainly having that ‘old world’ elegance aspect to it adds a certain something – it's not a barrier – but you kind of keep a certain clientele through that.
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