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  1. Wealth
March 1, 2007

The Fairytale Palace

By Spear's

Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz really is a place where dreams come true, especially for its lucky general manager Hans Wiedemann, discovers Sophia Money-Coutts

Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz really is a place where dreams come true, especially for its lucky general manager Hans Wiedemann, discovers Sophia Money-Coutts

In most fairy tales I can remember, the victors had to face some kind of implausible ordeal before living happily ever after. Kissing frogs, slaying dragons and overcoming dubious step-parents all presented stumbling blocks. By comparison, Hans Wiedemann’s fairytale has been far less fraught. Having arrived in St Moritz in April 2004 to assume the position of managing director of the Palace, last autumn he suddenly found himself as the no-strings heir to the world-revered hotel. ‘Hans Badrutt came to my office, closed my door and said “we want you to carry on,”’ Wiedemann says. ‘I thought I was in a film, I nearly fell off my chair. There are no financial conditions attached. It is a fairy-tale story and he deserves a monument.’

Well quite. Europe’s swankiest hotel has been family-owned from its incarnation in 1896; perched 6,000 feet atop of St Moritz it has acted as a glittering holiday beacon for the seriously wealthy ever since. Jet-set tongues exploded into gossip the moment the news broke and, unsurprisingly, Wiedemann himself is still fairly incredulous. ‘I have been with Mr Badrutt many times when people have asked how much he would sell it for, from Europeans to Russians to Arabs. He could have had anything. But he always said no, his parents put this hotel on the map.’

Wiedemann clearly has an exceptionally close relationship with the Badrutts: ‘We understand each other without words, and we laugh everyday; sometimes we kill each other laughing.’ Though surely there must have been more to this stupendous decision than simply sharing a joke with one’s boss over truculent guests? Actually, Wiedemann reveals, this extreme display of magnanimity was prompted largely when rumours surfaced of an impending Italian takeover after the Badrutts’ nephew Johannes, their sole direct descendant, sold his share of the hotel to an Italian property magnate (a law suit is rumoured to be pending from the Italian mogul). By handing the hotel over to Wiedemann, the Badrutts could thereby rest happy in the knowledge that the majority share would remain in Swiss hands. ‘What is so important for Mr and Mrs Badrutt and myself is to be able to tell people “Don’t worry, the future is secured’’.’

In fact, Wiedemann insists that he is a ‘citizen of the world’. Swiss-born, he grew up in Basle with parents who were intent on seeing their son become a doctor. Somewhat contrarily, after school he set out for a hotel in Germany’s Black Forest to start a ‘sniff’ apprenticeship. ‘You sniff every department to see where you want to work’, Wiedemann explains. His ambition within the industry whetted, he next went to Australia; a country with which he now shares his Swiss citizenship. There he met his Indian wife, had two children and ended up as the frenetic manager of five hotels and 2,000 employees.

Prophetically, during their time in Australia, Wiedemann and his wife spoke of St Moritz. ‘She told me that if I ever took her to Europe, I must show her the Badrutt Palace. She said she had seen it in movies and would love to be there one day.’ During a holiday in Europe in 1989, the Wiedemann family motored past the hotel, but did not stop. ‘I knew that one night there would cost the same amount as the petrol that we needed to get to Venice,’ he laughs.

Thirteen years later, in 1995, Wiedemann returned to Switzerland following his appointment as general manager of the Le Montreux Palace Hotel overlooking Lake Geneva. That Christmas, he happily escaped the occupational hazard of having to work over the festivities. ‘So we stayed at Badrutt’s Palace and I have a film of our daughter Rebecca skating on the ice rink in front of the hotel.’ After several years at Le Montreux, Wiedemann was approached by the Badrutt family to come and manage their hotel in St Moritz, an offer that was initially rejected because the Palace was being managed by the American company Rosewood Hotels. ‘Times were tough in Switzerland during the recession, and the family thought they should get the experience of an international hotel company to help them adapt to today’s times,’ explains Wiedemann. ‘They had a 20-year contract but realised after two years that it didn’t work. It’s impossible to have American management in a tiny Swiss village of five thousand people, the culture changed and people started to boycott it.’ Once the hotel was entirely back under Badrutt family auspices, he made his move to St Moritz.

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Wiedemann himself says that he has made no major changes. ‘I haven’t tried to alter the atmosphere of the hotel because that would be a disaster.’ So, ironically for a hotel that has consistently remained a byword for Alpine-chic, the Palace retains certain stringent traditions. ‘If you go to the restaurant you have to wait ten or fifteen years before you can sit close to the entrance. People like to have their table close so that they can see everybody coming in. It’s a sort of parade’.’ Similarly, should you wish for a room overlooking the lake, don’t try palming off a few Swiss francs with a wink to the concierge. Wiedemann insists that you need to be a Palace regular and to have visited them three or four times before attaining that sought-after upgrade.

And it’s certainly not surprising that the hotel has been able to retain such unswervingly loyal guests, for both the up-coming summer season and the traditional winter season, for the service is thoroughly indulging. ‘Everyday we discuss every room and every guest. We have 520 people to serve 160 rooms. We look at every room from the night before and check that everybody is happy. We discuss their likes and their dislikes. Their newspapers, their flowers and particular things in their bathrooms.’ Each room has its own butler service, and there are no charges for the mini-bar, in-house films and station transfers. ‘You go to another hotel and the staff run after you for a coke from the mini-bar when you’ve just paid a half-million bill.’ Wiedmann says. ‘We don’t like that way of thinking.’ Exactly the kind of devoted attention that might explain why some of those who have bought apartments in St Moritz now peer ruefully back up at the Palace. Wiedemann says that he just bumped into one such property owner. ‘He hates it. He just came in and said, “I’m fed up. I leave my apartment, come home and the bed is not made. If I want a coffee I have to buy some coffee. At the Palace it is better – what will you offer me if I come back?’’’

With this constant supply of international guests streaming off the tarmac and into his entrance hall, Wiedemann has developed grand plans for the future. ‘We want to open a second hotel to keep the staff,’ he says. ‘In winter I need 520, but in the summer 250.’ Though surely the problem is finding somewhere that can match up to the Palace? ‘Absolutely, we cannot put our name on a concrete square box. It must be on the seaside and then our guests can join us in their yachts.’ He reveals that it will probably be a hotel somewhere in Italy – ‘most of our staff are Italian and it would be easier’ – but that the south of France is another hallowed possibility. ‘I have never worked with such a strong brand name,’ he says proudly. ‘We can bring the know-how and, of course, all our clientele.’

A clientele, however, which is becoming increasingly controversial for its burgeoning number of Russians. Though while there have been dark mutterings about the Cristal-swilling oligarchs among the more traditional St Moritz patrons, Wiedemann is quick to jump to their defence. He mentions the ‘January hole’ that used to blight St Moritz when the Europeans packed up and flew home after Christmas and New Year, and the Palace was relatively empty for a month. Yet because Russians celebrate Christmas on 7th January, and since they’ve started arriving en masse in European ski resorts with cash searing a hole in their ski suits, January is now the best month for the hotel.

The lucrative Russian market has become so significant to the hotel that Wiedemann travels to Moscow twice a year to visit the hotel’s representative there. ‘At the moment I only go there to apologise because we have to turn people away and have a 200-hundred family waiting list. We hand pick the good ones through our agents and through guest recommendations based on where they stand in Russian society.’ And despite those grumbling about Russian dominance of the resort, Wiedemann remains mindful of preserving the correct ‘quota’ of guests at his hotel, and says, “I have never seen such a good mix of guests as we have now”.’

With such a constant hum of well-heeled activity since the Badrutts made their offer last year, Wiedemann has not yet had much time to wipe his brow and mull things over. He is evidently still staggered by the decision, though keenly aware of his extreme luck. ‘I have a great sense of thanks for this, for that trust in me and my abilities,’ adding graciously ‘maybe if I did something stupid tomorrow he would change his mind.’ And it’s just that kind of considerate attitude which perhaps explains why a flourishing legacy has been entrusted to a Harley-Davidson riding chatelaine. However, Wiedemann will need to be on his toes if he is to come into his legacy. As a St Moritz insider told me: ‘I’ve heard that the Badrutt family have made similar offers before to other managers – it’s their way of making sure the managers work hard!’.

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