Helen and Vic Jacob (Suvretta House)

“Clients often come back year after year, bringing two or three generations of their entire families”

Switzerland is renowned the world over for its luxury hotels, many of which are located in stunning alpine locations offering fabulous skiing in winter and idyllic mountain walking in summer. One of the grandest is the stylish Suvretta House, high in the Upper Engadine valley above St Moritz in the south-eastern canton of Graubünden. Opened just over a century ago, it is still owned by the same family—the reason for its legendary reputation for service, according to Helen and Vic Jacob who have managed the hotel since 1989.

‘There is something special about Swiss hospitality,’ says Vic. ‘But we are now one of the few hotels in Switzerland which is still owner-managed and has been from the beginning. The long relationship between the founding Candrian-Bon family and the hotel makes a big difference, and is very attractive to the many guests who have come here for many years. They want to see everything the same—that nothing has changed in the hotel, the nature of its clientele or its management. They often come back year after year, bringing two or three generations of their entire families, so these values are very important.’

Suvretta House, built in just 18 months, opened in December 1912—one of the last grand hotels built in Switzerland. The founder, Anton Bon, kept the hotel open when the First World War broke out, but it was forced to close during the Second World War. When it reopened in 1946, it had no guests, no money and needed to be restored. But in the following decades, it was modernised by the family, who brought in the first outsiders to run the hotel in 1968.

Located at 1,850 metres above sea level on a plateau 2km from the alpine resort of St Moritz, Suvretta House has uninterrupted views of mountains and lakes. Even the journey there can be magical, travelling in panorama cars on the world-famous Rhaetian railway which winds through rugged mountainous terrain and across deep gorges on vertiginous viaducts. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has always attracted famous guests, such as the ballet dancer Nijinsky, Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Emperor Akihito of Japan, Evita Perón and Gregory Peck.

The Candrian-Bon family—which has other interests in the hospitality industry—remains the hotel’s owner, and fifth and sixth generation family members sit on its board. Most of the investments required over the years have been funded from cash flow, although there has been one capital increase and there are other big shareholders, including Urs Schwarzenbach, the wealthy Swiss investor.

But, says Vic, the family commitment to Suvretta House means that it still keeps control and is prepared to invest for the very long term through constant refurbishment.

Today, the hotel has 181 rooms and suites, and a wellness and spa area with a 25-metre swimming pool. It owns three mountain restaurants, as well as its own Grand Restaurant and the more rustic Suvretta Stube with a sun terrace. The Grand and the nearby Restaurant Chasselas have both been awarded 15 out of the maximum 20 points by France’s prestigious Gault-Millau restaurant guide. With as many as 45 chefs in high season, the kitchens make everything, including all the hotel’s bread and the chocolates served with coffee.

The Jacobs are only the second outsiders to run Suvretta House, having arrived with solid experience from jointly managing two other Swiss hotels. They are proud that the hotel is called a house, because it aims to make guests feel at home—Helen and Vic personally greet every arrival and bid farewell to every departure. Traditions are carefully preserved: dark suits and ties are de rigueur for gentlemen guests at dinner in the Grand Restaurant, while some choose to wear dinner jackets for big occasions.

With their three children also in the hotel business, Helen and Vic feel that the industry is deeply in their hearts. ‘It is a 24-hour-a-day, seven days a week job,’ says Vic. ‘You have to be in good health in this business, and you have to love the job. And you must be disciplined and able to decide what is really important and what can be calmly neglected. I contrast our job with that of a conductor, who can always say “play it again”. We do not have that option.

‘There are a lot of very good hotels so there is more competition than ever,’ he adds. ‘But while many of them are very beautiful, they lack soul and spirit. It was not easy to step into the footprints of our predecessors, but in our 24 years here, we have tried to give Suvretta House soul.’

The hotel’s most important markets have always been Switzerland, Germany and the UK, along with other European countries such as France, Austria, Italy and The Netherlands. Word of mouth is now bringing visitors from further afield—from countries such as Brazil, Israel and Australia—and from Eastern European countries from Estonia to Armenia. Meanwhile, North American guests continue to return to Suvretta House year after year.

‘Two days ago,’ says Vic, ‘an American family came back after a 15-year gap. They wanted to visit the Kiddy Club [the in-house kindergarten] and the Teddy Club children’s restaurant, to revisit the places of their memories.’

After so long in the business, nothing that guests request surprises Vic any more. But he admits to being impressed with the personal contacts and long-term friendships that develop over time. ‘People come with personal stories and challenges, approaching you as a friend rather than a hotelier. That is why Switzerland’s tradition of discretion is so important when dealing with families.’ Helen and Vic stress other traditional values of Swiss hospitality: precision, security and long-term thinking.

But they are also acutely aware that while staying within their traditions, they must be open to new ideas and ways of working as the market changes. Suvretta House is now on internet hotel sites such as Booking.com, for example, because that is where customers expect it to be.

‘If you don’t do these things, potential guests see you as not modern and open for bookings. However our business model is still firmly focused on personal service, which has been lost in a lot of the industry. Nobody wants to be treated as a number, but the trend today is to turn customers into numbers. When our guests call, we recognise their voices. And we also look for long-term relationships in our suppliers: we still use the builder who built the hotel.’

Suvretta House opens for two seasons each year: ten weeks in summer and a 17-week winter season. The hotel has its own ski school, the first in Switzerland in the 20th century, with 200 instructors, a ski shop and storage facilities for regular guests to leave their equipment from one season to the next. In summer, it offers windsurfing, sailing, horse-riding, tennis, golf and other mountain pursuits, though inevitably revenues fall below those of the winter season.

Vic jokes that he does not show the much weaker summer figures to the bank: ‘They would just say “Close the hotel”!’ Winter has more to offer, he adds, but at least Swiss mountain hotels have two seasons: ‘Italy and St Tropez have just one.’ And although Europe’s financial crisis has had an impact on business, with the economies of Switzerland’s neighbours suffering, the hotel is surviving without subventions. ‘Because we are now more global, we are very well connected to other markets,’ he points out.

The seasonal nature of the business presents people management challenges for the hotel. ‘It is like a cruise boat which has to hire part of the crew for one season at a time. All of our important positions are full-time contracts, but we cannot guarantee that to all of our employees. For many young people, however, a season at Suvretta House is a step in their career—and an important one. We have to manage that.’

He adds that there is also a challenge in motivating permanent staff. ‘We have people who have been with us for 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years, and we do not want them to become just numbers.’ Long-serving staff are awarded a star for each decade of service, which they wear on their jackets. The maître d’hotel, for example, sports four stars.

Due to retire in 2014, Helen and Vic Jacob see their role as ensuring that the next generation of managers have the same opportunities that they enjoyed.

‘It is like a ship that moves in one direction, and you hope it continues in that direction rather than becoming just another hotel. In our 25 years of managing Suvretta House, we have seen it as the Patek Philippe of the hospitality industry: we never own it, but hold it for future generations.

‘The challenge has been to decide which trends to follow, and which are just fads or fashions. A guest wrote to us that Suvretta House is a rock in a sea of short-lived trends. That is what I hope: what I know is that the mountains outside will still be there when I have left, and that is very reassuring.’

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