Saturday, January 3, 2015

Alpine Authenticity

Hotel de Verbier (Courtesy of Inghams)
The Hotel de Verbier is the quintessential, authentic Alpine hotel in Switzerland’s trendiest ski resort. Set on the main square just 400 meters from the slopes, it is at the epicenter of après ski, commerce, retail and, on Dec 31, one of the wildest New Year’s celebrations in the Alps.

Known for its Royal chalet girl (Sarah Ferguson worked in Verbier in her youth), for its celebrated hotelier (Richard Branson owns the 18-bed, mega expensive Verbier Lodge) and also for its focus on all-night partying (at the 40-year-old Farm Club, for example), Verbier has always been hip. Nearby Zermatt appeals to the more mature, affluent crowd, but "Verbs" has always attracted a young, trendy mix of ski bums, jetsetters, well-heeled holidaymakers and edgy entrepreneurs. Every March the world holds its breath watching top freeriders plummet from vertiginous cliffs on the Mont Fort glacier during the Swatch Xtreme Verbier competition. 

Patrick Bruchez inherited what is now Verbier’s oldest hotel from his father who built it back in 1948. With family flair and inimitable humour, Bruchez has owned and managed the 31-room, boutique operation since 1981. Due to the size of the hotel, I am involved in all fields of the operation, he says. Human resources, marketing, finance, maintenance, front desk, back office, general manager, housekeeping manager etc.

The Hotel de Verbier is the hub for New Year's Eve midnight celebrations in Verbier's Place Centrale
(Courtesy: HoteldeVerbier© VERBIER St-Bernard)

Simon Hudson (right) in Ski Club of
Great Britain rep's uniform coaching
Rupert Hudson in Verbier
The hotel was headquarters for the Ski Club of Great Britain, a unique organization which provides free on and off-piste ski guiding for members, with reps stationed around the Alps. Bruchez hosted the Ski Club reps all season and combined daily “office hours” with happy hour in the Hotel de Verbier bar.

The hotel has relied heavily on the British ski market during winter and for many seasons Bruchez was the smiling face at the front desk, ensuring customer satisfaction in the après ski bar and restaurant. “The perks of the job include being your own boss,” he says. But at the same time it is often trying and heavy duty. There is a direct return from both dissatisfied customers and good clients.

Fergus Hudson, aged 18 months, on
baby skis loaned by the Hotel
de Verbier
Service can often mean a shoulder to cry on, according to Bruchez. “One lady came in crying, telling me that it was the third time that day that she was losing her husband and she was sure he wanted to get rid of her.” With its extensive network of around 90 interlinked lifts spanning four resorts (Verbier, Veysonnaz, Thyon and Nendaz) and 412km of skiable terrain, it is not surprising that many guests get lost while skiing. “So, I have the long story of people skiing the Four Valleys and missing the return lift, explaining their adventure getting back by bus, train, taxi, etc,” says Bruchez. His powers of diplomacy, however, were more severely tested by the guest who told him that the last time he was in Switzerland there were no mountains. “He must have traveled in the Swiss plains on a foggy day,” Bruchez quips.

In order to stay current, Bruchez has traveled extensively, observing trends in other ski resorts and hotels and avidly reading papers and magazines dedicated to the trade. This, however, has revealed an inequity in pricing between Switzerland and other Alpine ski areas which is always a challenge to address: “There are less and less hotels in Verbier, and the new hotels built are of much higher rating, so not really direct competition. My competition comes more from other resorts such as Zermatt, St Moritz, and Austria, where the standards of the same category of hotel are higher, and people who come to Verbier are surprised to have to pay more here than there for the same product but of less quality.” 

Verbier - Photo by Céline Ribordy
(Courtesy Verbier / Val de Bagnes – La Tzoumaz 
In recent years Bruchez has noticed a trend towards faster pace operations. “Last minute booking, shorter stays, more competition, and the difficulty of maintaining your property up to the standards that change rapidly,” he says. Daily work involves interaction with his own staff, local authorities and the Verbier tourist office as well as ski tour operators and others specializing in hiking, music and the arts.

Customer turnover has also changed, meaning fewer regular returnees. This has led to Bruchez reaching out to British tour operator, Inghams to help fill rooms. The 80-year-old company, part of the Swiss travel organization, Hotelplan, now runs the hotel during the winter season, November - April: “You need to be more and more aggressive when it comes to marketing your product; with Inghams, for instance, the hotel is full from day one to the last.” Inghams provides its own ski guides, so the Ski Club of Great Britain is no longer based at the hotel but continues to operate the same service from the T-Bar, also in Verbier’s Place Centrale.

Verbier / Val de Bagnes – La Tzoumaz 
Other trends emerging during Bruchez’s career include technological changes which have significantly enhanced the sport: “Carving skis, free ride, more fun skiing, cheap flights, better groomed slopes which makes skiing more accessible to everyone,” says Bruchez. He feels snowboarding has enhanced the industry, with its spirit of fun and freedom infusing the whole world of alpine skiing.

Over the years the Hotel de Verbier has attracted many ski celebs including the late British journalist Alistair Scott, who dubbed Verbier ‘the Aspen of the Alps’ - and particularly praised the Hotel de Verbier’s famous homemade happy hour chips. Top skiers, such as Pirmin Zurbriggen, musical stars including Youssou N’Dour and British racing driver, Damon Hill have all stayed at the Hotel de Verbier. But, like many service-centric hoteliers, Bruchez has always been reluctant to make mileage out of celebrities who value their privacy.

Yours truly rocking the neon, while helping Rupert Hudson learn
to ski in Verbier (check out those long, thin skis!!)

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