Claudia and Andreas Züllig – the dream team behind the success of the upscale yet down-to-earth hotel Schweizerhof Lenzerheide in the Swiss canton of Graubünden – are well known in hospitality circles in Switzerland. Not just because of their warmth and enthusiasm about anything to do with offering great guest experiences, but also because they have succeeded in implementing sustainability practices while maintaining a very high guest satisfaction rate – and high staff retention.
We had the fortune to stay at Schweizerhof Lenzerheide in July, as part of SLP on TOUR Switzerland. We left the hotel with a deep sense of appreciation and satisfaction, having seen how much is possible if hoteliers truly dedicate themselves to creating and maintaining something unique.
Claudia, together with your husband Andreas you are since 29 years the hosts and managers of the Hotel Schweizerhof Lenzerheide in Switzerland. Do you remember what brought you to working in hospitality?
My husband and I both took basic training courses in the hospitality sector. My husband originally qualified as a chef before going on to complete a course at the Ecole Hotelière de Lausanne, while I took a four-year course in Chur for secretaries working in the hospitality sector, graduating with a commercial diploma.
My husband and I met in a hotel in Geneva (where I was working) and so running a hotel together as hosts was the perfect move for us.
Sustainability is becoming more and more important – both in the luxury segment and with family hotels. How do you approach the topic at Schweizerhof Lenzerheide?
These days, sustainability on all three fronts (economic, environmental and social) is extremely important for any business.
In the hospitality sector, it is extremely important to have motivated, enthusiastic employees you can rely on. Employees can only achieve their full potential if they feel comfortable and there is a positive working atmosphere. This has a direct impact on our guests and I feel sure they notice it.
We make a point of investing a great deal of our personal time in training our employees. This covers such areas as our guiding principles, empathy (a course I run myself), service, excellence, etc. We also go on trips twice a year, exploring some exciting cities as yet unknown to us with our managers at the end of each season, and we hold birthday dinners together in our Scalottas restaurant every month.
All these measures and many more are important to us as a means of creating a good working atmosphere. This is the only way to ensure that our employees remain loyal to us over the years and provide us with key support.
From a business point of view, it is important for us to generate sufficient revenue and keep costs under control accordingly. This means keeping our accounts and key figures up-to-date at all times so that we can be quick to respond. We continuously invest our cash flow in our hotel in order to meet or anticipate the changing needs of our guests (identifying their needs before they express their wishes).
Our commitment to using our resources in an environmentally-friendly manner dates back many years. Using regional products and considering local producers are policies that go without saying for us. Each year we invest in energy-efficiency measures such as new pumps, control systems and heat recovery.
Over the medium term, however, investments always need to pay their way so that they have a positive impact on operating costs.
What feedback do you get from guests – is your commitment to sustainability strong enough a reason for guests to stay with you?
On the one hand, guests sense the good working atmosphere and feel very comfortable staying with us thanks to our staff. They also appreciate the wide range of regional products on offer, for example in our breakfast buffet.
For our guests, the products we offer in our bar and restaurant, where we only serve Swiss drinks, represent a mini voyage of discovery showcasing small but exquisite wares crafted by artisanal manufacturers from all over Switzerland.
In our Terroir restaurant we take this a step further and serve gourmet meals (15 GaultMillau points) based both on our own livestock (which live with farmers in the region) and on exclusively regional products from producers we know and who share and decisively support our philosophy of sustainability.
I don’t suppose any of these efforts loom large in guests’ minds when they decide to make a reservation, but they certainly are a very important factor for all guests who have already stayed with us once and are thinking of paying us a repeat visit.
To what extent does your commitment to sustainability influence your rates?
Wherever possible we do not compromise on prices. If the experience, the quality of the products and the services are right, guests will be willing to pay a higher price. So it is worthwhile offering very high quality (in all areas) and having the courage to charge higher prices.
In terms of guest ratings, we have been one of the best rated hotels in Graubünden for many years (95/100 points TrustYou/with Gold Award), value for money being one of the criteria rated.
How do competitors react to your sustainability profile – do they copy ideas, or look at your approach with some skepticism?
I believe our efforts are noticed in the market and that they are appreciated. We get invited to various events to explain how people can develop their own hotel on a sustainable basis. Good ideas always get copied – it is a matter of pride to us when competitors follow in our footsteps.
Cooperation between agriculture and tourism is something we care deeply about on a personal level. This interaction generates added value for the whole of Graubünden as region to live and do business in.
Two years ago, for example, we organised an event entitled “Farmer seeks Chef” which provided an opportunity for representatives of the farming and catering sectors to meet. There was a very good response to this event and it was also covered in the media.
People are welcome to imitate us. After all, there are 150 valleys in the canton of Graubünden, so it’s great if events like this are also popular in other regions.
Which aspects of sustainability do you find the most difficult to tackle?
Of course, in the hospitality sector you need to strike a balance between the needs and demands of your guests and a sustainable approach to your operations. We can’t tell our guests how many towels to use or only to take as many products as they can eat at breakfast so that we don’t have to throw away valuable food.
On the other hand, we do subtly draw their attention to the regional products and to the challenge of food waste (breakfast and evening menu).
The biggest challenge, we find, is striking a balance between fulfilling all our guests’ wishes and still placing the right emphasis on sustainability.
Do you observe a change within Swiss hospitality towards more commitment to sustainability?
The current climate debate is making more and more people realise that we are going to have to be more careful with our precious resources in the future. Reducing food miles is becoming increasingly important, as are regional and seasonal products. This awareness has even started to filter through to the gourmet guides.
Lobster tail from Brittany or foie gras are no longer seen as the epitome of high-end cuisine, but rather homemade pork sausage, wood-fired artisan bread made from regional grain and honey from our own bees. This trend is clearly apparent in innovative hotels in urban and mountain areas alike.
For 2019 you have already received the Gold award by HolidayCheck for an incredible guest valuation of 5,9 (out of 6, with over 1350 submitted reviews). How do you do this? What’s your recipe for success?
It is the above-mentioned sustainability factors in all three areas (social, economic and environmental) that lead to such a high level of guest satisfaction at our hotel. This is a great source of satisfaction and motivation for our team and fuels an extremely positive upward spiral.
Satisfied staff who are proud of their business and their employer automatically lead to positive guest feedback. Nothing beats receiving appreciation for work you put your heart into!
But let me say one more thing about the “recipe for success”: We are a member of Private Selection and benefit from the IRC guest survey tool. Each of our guests receives a guest questionnaire after they leave. All feedback is analysed individually and answered personally. Once a week we receive a summary of the previous week and this summary is sent to all managers so that they can make improvements straight away. At the end of each season, we analyse the “critical points” that crop up frequently and whenever possible we improve our services.
Therefore we systematically focus on the needs and wishes of our guests. This ultimately results in such a high level of guest satisfaction. So it’s not a question of having a recipe for success, but of systematically responding to guests’ needs.
What would be needed for the entire hospitality industry to gear towards sustainability in Switzerland? Do you think it will happen in the near future?
This is one of the tasks of the hotelleriesuisse trade association. The 2021 strategy of hotelleriesuisse has a clear leitmotif. “We are the association of innovative and sustainable hospitality businesses.”
Our business too should live up to this, showcase the beacons of the hospitality industry and in this way enable the entire industry to follow these good examples.
Your advice to fellow hoteliers, how to succeed with sustainability?
There is a simple “recipe” for this: Put your heart into what you want to achieve and do it with inner conviction. Your enthusiasm will automatically spread to your staff and hence to your guests.
Thank you, Claudia.