Four-time World Champion, Olympic gold medallist, 40 World Cup victories, four-time winner of the overall World Cup title and 13 season titles in various disciplines: the kind of success most sportsmen and women can only dream of. Pirmin Zurbriggen has won every trophy and accolade an alpine skier can possibly win. And not only that: the 52-year-old became an idol to many, thanks to his politeness, discipline and professionalism. And it was these qualities that helped him take the most difficult step of all – the successful transition into life after sport. “It’s never an easy move for any sportsman to make, especially as you often have to do it all on your own without any help,” says Zurbriggen.
How did you manage to make the transition from successful sportsman to successful hotel owner and businessman?
PIRMIN ZURBIGGEN: It wasn’t easy and didn’t just happen overnight. I was only 27 when I retired from the sport. That’s still very young. At first, I needed some time just to think about what I wanted to do next. Plus, I wanted to learn and gather some experience. I started off working for Marc Biver in his marketing company, before gaining experience with Authier, the ski company. I didn’t return to Valais until four years later, when I took over my parents’ hotel.
And you were fortunate that your wife Moni was an expert?
PZ: Yes, she had studied hotel management. The fact that I grew up with my parents running the hotel also helped. In the end, it was the overall package that clinched the deal.
Today, you and Moni run the Suitenhotel Zurbriggen in Zermatt and are partners with your sister Esther and your brother-in-law in the Wellness and Spa Hotel Zurbriggen in Saas-Almagell. What’s the secret to running a hotel?
PZ: Running a hotel means making continuous investments. You can’t afford to stand still, you always need to keep a close eye on the market and be aware of your customers’ needs. But these investments first have to be earned. So you can only run a hotel by adopting a long-term outlook. For me, that also means building something that I can one day pass on to our children.
The two hotels each have a different focus and reflect the diversity and individuality of tourism today. Has the business become tougher than in your parents’ day?
PZ: We face different challenges. Today, you have to position yourself clearly. In Saas-Almagell, where we have a 1,100-square-metre spa, we emphasise the idyllic atmosphere and sense of well-being. At the Suitenhotel in Zermatt, which has up to 30 beds, we highlight design, comfort and the breathtaking views of the Matterhorn. But all hotels nowadays rely on destination marketing as well – we hotel owners can’t do it by ourselves. At the individual hotel level, word-of-mouth marketing works best – most of the guests who stay at our two hotels come to us on the basis of a personal recommendation.
What effect is the strength of the Swiss franc having?
PZ: The entire hotel industry has lost visitors from the eurozone and Switzerland. You need to have enough foresight and patience to just sit tight. The problem has not hit us quite so hard because many of our guests have been coming to us for years. In addition, lots of Asians, Americans and Australians come to Valais and especially to Zermatt. That helps.
You sometimes drive down to Zermatt railway station in your electric car to pick up guests on arrival. Are they not surprised to see the legendary Pirmin standing there?
PZ: Yes, of course, they’re sometimes amazed – yet delighted – to see it’s me. But that’s the way it is: in the hotel and restaurant trade it’s your business to serve. You have to be friendly and willing to help – that’s crucial. But I have to say that I’m happy to go and pick people up. I don’t feel it’s beneath me in any way. If that was the case, it would mean I looked down on the work done by our drivers and porters. There’s no question in my mind that I’m prepared to step in and do any of the jobs our employees do if need be. I think the staff appreciate it and the guests notice it too.
What distinguishes Valais hospitality?
PZ: What you could call the character of a mountain people. We are very down to earth and authentic. We can be very euphoric and you can see we enjoy life. And people like the sound of our lovely dialect. And then, of course, there is the natural landscape of Valais: the magnificent mountain setting has the ability to help people recharge their batteries. A lot of our guests tell us that they go home feeling refreshed and brand new – even if they only spend one or two days here.
Alongside your business, you are active in promoting young skiing talent. Why?
PZ: It’s very hard for children who are really interested in sport to combine that with school. I wanted to change that. After all, sport is really important. It really is part of the “school of life”. The aim is not necessarily to help as many of these kids as possible reach the top of their sport – it’s more about letting them fully enjoy it. In the last ten years, the Valais Ski Federation, of which I am president, has joined with schools, sponsors and the cantonal authorities to set up ten regional centres at which kids can train. You see, it’s important that youngsters up to the age of 15 or 16 can stay at home. They learn values in a family environment that are important in life: love, appreciation, togetherness. Our scheme lets them stay at home and, with the cooperation of their schools, attend proper training sessions that are worthy of the name.
The concept seems to be working…
PZ: Yes, we’ve now got a couple of young people from Valais in the World Cup. But as I said, it’s not about achieving top performances – that’s simply what most people notice. Even those who don’t make it to the World or European Cup still benefit. Because sport teaches us how to overcome difficulties, how to lose and how not to get carried away by winning.