Tracey Ingram (TI): Today we’re talking about alpine hotels, but first off, I must admit I’m not a skier by any means . . .
Youri Sawerschel (YS): Funny you say that, because depending on the station, up to 30 per cent of visitors don’t even ski, so that’s very relevant.
TI: And there’s also the issue of places having less and less snow. In both cases, they need to be about more than skiing. There’s also the whole summer period, which is more about hiking.
YS: Indeed, I think the role of the alpine hotel is changing. The big topic is obviously global warming, which for alpine hotels is not a distant concept but already a reality. I think the seasonal model – where you make all your money over a few months during the ski season – is dead or dying, depending on the location. They’re starting to think, oh, we need to be an ‘all-year-round destination’ – that’s the key term. That will change their role, how they serve and connect with clients, their value offering and, obviously, their positioning.
“The big topic is obviously global warming, which for alpine hotels is not a distant concept but already a reality.”
TI: Becoming appealing as all-year-round destinations might be relatively easy nowadays, as mountains can offer an escape from increasingly hotter temperatures in cities. London recorded 40ºC for the first time this summer, for instance. It’s so much cooler in the mountains.
YS: If we connect that directly to branding, design or concept, to be attractive all year round, you can’t just tell people you have wooden walls and a place to put their skis. The idea of doing something different is triggering very interesting projects, both new builds and renovations.
TI: Some of the recent places I’ve seen that go above and beyond are focusing heavily on the wellness category. Many alpine hotels already had sauna facilities, but wellness can be pushed much further – especially if, as you say, many visitors aren’t there to ski. And the wellness economy is still booming. Alpine hotels can also position themselves as the antithesis of modern online life, becoming places for digital detoxes. Since business professionals make up a large portion of its clientele, Zallinger in the Alpe di Siusi mountain range uses its lack of Wi-Fi and televisions in the guest rooms as a USP, a retreat from busy working life, for example.
YS: And then there’s the outdoors, the additional outlet of alpine hotels. Most hotels aren’t tapping into that enough. How often do you see hotels that offer the best hiking routes from their location for beginners, intermediates or advanced? What’s the best running tour, or where can you go mountain biking? To appeal all year round, hotels need to increase their level of service and provide an experience that extends beyond their walls. In many cases, it’s beneficial for hotels to come together to offer services. After all, the outdoors is shared, so hotels surrounding one particular station can really gain from collaborating.
TI: Another thing about the outdoors is that it’s constantly changing. That’s a huge benefit because a guest will have a completely different experience if they come during summer or winter. This creates an opportunity for repeat clients.
YS: Yes, and I think alpine hotels already have a big opportunity for repeat custom, much more than cities do. People have their favourite winter skiing spots and might go there every year. But now, as you say, there’s an opportunity to build loyalty year-round.
“After all, the outdoors is shared, so hotels surrounding one particular station can really gain from collaborating.”
TI: How would you recommend doing that?
YS: There are different ways. Very simply, I’ve never been somewhere during the winter that invites you back for the summer – perhaps with the first night free. Or you could create a tradition – an annual race to the summit, ice-skating nights, medieval evenings. Things that justify people coming back. This offers the opportunity to connect with your community on different levels. Maybe you offer a summer race, and people can come earlier in the year to prepare for it with others. The hotel could provide preparation tips via email to stay connected to its audience.
TI: You mentioned tradition. To me, alpine hotels are often steeped in tradition, which can sometimes feel stale. Do you think they need to break away from tradition and appeal to younger people?
YS: A great example of this is La Folie Douce Hotel in Chamonix. Initially the brand had a party restaurant in the mountains, and now they opened a hotel. The interior design is edgy; it doesn’t look like your typical chalet. It’s all about partying and having a good time. Every day there’s a burlesque/circus show in the restaurant, there’s a huge nightclub, event rooms, a cool pool. People dance in the bar even on a Tuesday night. So it’s using its reputation as a place for people to party and have fun in the mountains to make a hotel destination. That is very, very different from anything else you can find.
Another different example is the Villars Alpine Resort, a very large project developed by Jérome de Meyer and Marco Dunand. Interestingly, it brings together hospitality and education: there’s a hospitality academy for vocational training within the hotel, as well as a non-profit foundation called Villars Institute, which wants to accelerate the transition to a net-zero economy. The role of the place goes far beyond skiing. As it should, because otherwise what separates it from any other ski town? The slopes are the same, whether you stay in a motel or a five-star hotel.
TI: I also think in some cases – if it’s part of a hotel’s DNA – it might not be necessary to break away from tradition. Instead, it could become a drawcard. And some traditions – like wellness, local cuisine, nature – are all popular with younger generations as well. What can help is to have contemporary designers update the look and feel of a place without losing that tradition – or to even use that tradition as the starting point for the design. A recent project by Snøhetta in Finse, Norway, comes to mind. The designers bridged the past and present of the place through storytelling, starting their process by going through the site’s historical material. What this project also does is remain in the background and allow nature itself to shine as the wow factor – I think it’s important alpine hotels enhance, not detract from, their surroundings whether it’s through framing the views through big windows or, like Forestis in the Dolomites, by orienting seating booths in the restaurant towards the outdoors and creating spots for sleeping under the stars.
YS: It’s true that tradition is not a bad thing. I’m thinking about Les Airelles, for instance, an ultra-luxury group that has hotels in the likes of Courchevel and offers over-the-top – but classy and elegant – traditional alpine experiences. The tradition provides the charm, but too many hotels – those without the legacy of grand hotels – are simply bland.
Funnily enough, the most famous mountain hotel doesn’t exist, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It pushes tradition to the top, with a degree of sarcasm, but aesthetically it’s the most famous hotel in the world. It shows you the lost opportunity that all those hotels had.
TI: And if you tried to do it now, it would look ironic.
YS: Exactly, and it would be inauthentic. If you don’t have a clear story, brief, angle or positioning early on, you end up doing the decoration. And people can’t connect to it. Because it’s authentically in their DNA, I also see a chance for sports brands like Rossignol or Völkl to open a hotel, alone or in partnership. It would be very exciting to see a known brand launch an exciting concept that raises the bar for everyone else.
“Because it’s authentically in their DNA, I also see a chance for sports brands like Rossignol or Völkl to open a hotel, alone or in partnership.”
TI: Speaking about authenticity, alpine hotels can become super localized, whether through intention or necessity. After all, the materials have to get to the mountain somehow. Or maybe they’re already on the mountain, like wood sourced from surrounding forests. Forestis also extended this to the hyper-local forest cuisine and cocktails it serves.
YS: If you can then tell a story that explains why everything is so local, you can take an active, positive role within the region and its development – that’s attractive for locals, employees and customers. In general, it should be about telling the story that the mountain can be for everyone, all the time.