Every year, the Mercer consulting firm in New York publishes its list of the world’s most livable cities. And every year Geneva, Zurich and Bern rank in the top 10, based on a host of quality indicators ranging from city infrastructure to economics and the natural environment.
On top of that, Switzerland has a land mass 1/10th the size of California with borders shared by France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. This has contributed to a globally sophisticated attitude among the Swiss that’s highly cultured and the paragon of hospitality, with English spoken everywhere.
That overriding sense of well-being and cross-border community found everywhere in the country is inspiring for US-based groups in these transformational times.
“Switzerland is Europe in a nutshell,” says Caroline Pidroni, director of sales/marketing for the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau. “No other country so small has as much to offer with regards to its variety of languages, food, wine, culture and outdoor activities.”
Pidroni explains that including outdoor activities is how planners can create a more authentic Swiss experience to recreate that pervasive sense of healthy well-being.
“What we try to do is create a balance. A group might stay in a 5-star hotel, but instead of a gala dinner in a ballroom, we try to bring people into the outdoors, more back to our roots.”
The Swiss Alps are the birthplace of ecotourism and adventure travel first developed by mountaineers in places like Zermatt, Interlaken and The Jungfrau. Then, chic little ski towns like Gstaad and St. Moritz ushered in the fashionista après-ski scene, bringing high glamour and winter hot-tubbin’ to these postcard-perfect outposts.
FYI, the celeb hotspot now is Verbier after the 2008 opening of The Lodge, Sir Richard Branson’s ultra luxe 9-bedroom chalet, and the minimalist 35-suite hotel, Nevaï. The rail transfer from Geneva is just over two hours through some of Europe’s most staggering scenery.
“We’ve had FAM trips where lots of times the meeting planners were actually sad to get off the train,” giggles Pidroni. “I’m like, ‘Okay, we have to get off now!’….
“I think sometimes we take the natural beauty for granted because we grew up with that, but we always respect it. As children we recycled all the time. I remember composting with my mom, it was a part of daily living.… [And] we have the best train system in the world. You don’t really need a car in Switzerland unless you live on top of a mountain.”
Planners can easily take advantage of all this by seamlessly combining elegant cosmopolitan events with spirited outdoor activities, because the cities are so well connected to the magisterial alpine drama.
“That’s the beauty of Switzerland, you can travel from palm trees to glaciers in an afternoon,” says Renato Grieco, director of sales for Ovation Switzerland DMC. “We’re proud of this because everything works so well and you can go everywhere by train and boat. Well, sometimes you need a cable car too.”
Grieco says, for example, on the same day you can brunch aboard a steamer yacht on Lake Geneva near Lausanne, followed by an igloo building lesson and sunset fondue high above Montreux around a mountaintop yurt (a semi-permanent tent invented by Mongolian nomads).
Renato, what’s some of the most popular feedback you hear from US groups when they’re standing on top of Europe?
“People always say everything is cleaner and greener than they expected, first. And the air is so fresh it almost hurts their lungs at the beginning.… Or, someone will say, ‘I don’t believe it, I took a train to the largest glacier in Europe!’ I had one man tell me that we have happy cows (laughing). He said, ‘In Switzerland, even your cows look happy.’”
Well, all that clean air goes to our heads sometimes.
“The green factor is in the genes of the Swiss. We recycle more than 95% of our glass, paper and plastic.”
In a country with so many different ways for groups to enjoy the outdoors, Grieco’s favorite teambuilding activity is spending a day on a Swiss farm. Groups up to 25 people will milk goats, plant potatoes and/or cook with the family while learning about everything from cheese and chocolate to wood carving. Then, Grieco says everyone sets a “huge farmer’s table” for lunch on a mountainside next to deep valleys and verdant meadows.
“The people get to see and take part in the Swiss old-fashioned lifestyle,” he says. “They will go away saying I have a better understanding of farming. They will say I have a better understanding of Switzerland.”
Nigel Millar, vp of Docherty Incentives & Meetings in Minneapolis, says his groups always crave a variety of experiences in close-knit, “incredibly safe” destinations. For programs based at the 146-room, 5-star Hotel Royal Plaza in Montreux, he’s booked a Wagner concert inside the Miles Davis Jazz Hall, and a steamer boat ride across the lake to the French town of Evian. One of the reasons he says he wants to retire in Montreux is because of daytrips like those to Zermatt with a mountaintop lunch facing the famous Matterhorn.
“For those of us who are never going to climb the Matterhorn, that’s about the closest you’re going to get,” says Millar. He’s referring to the Rothorn restaurant perched cliffside at 10,000 feet, “where we bathed in sunshine while just enjoying the moment. That was one of the best afternoons in my life.”
Lunch might include crusty bread filled with thinly sliced, air-dried cured beef and grated parmesan, followed by a freshly baked pear tart. The house specialties are porcini mushroom fondue and cremeschnitten—a cream-filled puff pastry.
THE SWISS RIVIERA
About 30 minutes east of Geneva International, the Medieval city of Lausanne wraps around three gently sloping hills overlooking Lake Geneva—Europe’s largest freshwater lake—with a little metro train servicing the 5-star hotels. Look into booking orchestral concerts in one of Lausanne’s 13th century cathedrals.
The 169-room, Belle Epoque Beau-Rivage Palace is the most revered group hotel on the lake due to its classic finery, with delicately manicured lawns facing the water. A private champagne event for 150 aboard the hotel’s 1904 steamer ship Le Montreux on the placid water rimmed by the Swiss and French Alps is one of Switzerland’s most in-demand group experiences, as is dinner at the new Anne-Sophie Pic restaurant. Think: John Dory fish in a “foamy milk” infused with Martinique rum. Chef Pic is the only French female chef with three Michelin stars under her toque.
That said, we find ourselves seriously attracted to the 75-suite sister property next door, Hotel Angleterre & Residence. The villa complex of historic buildings is countered with strikingly modern interiors and meeting spaces spread around a pretty garden and pool next to the lake.
HQ for the International Olympic Committee, Lausanne is home to The Olympic Museum celebrating “2,000 years of the history of humanity.” Organize a reception replete with Greek torches for up to 600 delegates who can wander among memorabilia from past Games. But the facility is about much more than sport. Exhibits also examine how the Olympics have effected changes in politics, technology, architecture, art and fashion globally. Planners can also book medal-winning Olympians for group lessons and discussions about how elite athletes condition themselves mentally and physically.
“It’s a fantastic event venue because everyone can relate to watching the Olympics, so it’s very good for networking,” says Tanja Dubas, director of sales/marketing for Lausanne Tourisme & Convention Bureau, which acts as its own DMC.
For decades Lausanne has existed as sort of a European ideal on the Swiss Riviera, in a mild micro-climate where “there’s always flowers on the balconies and in the parks,” she says. Corporate executives will leave their offices at lunch for a quick dip in Lake Geneva, or simply walk along the water among the palm trees. And due to the hilly streets and bevy of charming restaurants, Dubas says, “We’re often referred to as ‘little San Francisco,’ but people walk everywhere, which is why the women of Lausanne have very nice legs.”
We always like to ask the locals for their fave restaurants. For 80 persons, Dubas suggests the modern resto/vinotheque, Nomade. For group dining for 50, the traditional Le Café du Grütli serves “mostly Swiss food and fantastic fish from the lake. At the end of the evening, everyone sings together!”
MONTREUX, VEVEY + GRUYÈRES
The sister towns of Montreux and Vevey about 20 minutes east of Lausanne are the jumping off point into the Alps. Both communities are poised over the eastern shores of Lake Geneva where the pace is more relaxed, the French-inflected accents are a little more sing song-y, and the Swiss propensity for life outdoors comes crisply into focus.
A popular group outing is a trip to the terraced vineyards of Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage site encompassing more than 400 wine growers. Groups of up to 100 people can visit a series of family-owned vineyards and dine with family members for an organized winearound. “It’s really not done for the tourists,” says Dubas. “The beautiful geraniums in the windows (Dubas has a thing for flowerboxes) and the very proud people in traditional clothes—that’s how life is like in the vineyards.”
Another signature event is a theme dinner with mandolin music and dancing for up to 240 diners at the 11th century Chillon Castle, capping a rocky islet just outside Montreux. It also makes for a nice early morning turnaround point for the 45-minute walk along the seashore.
The most well-known property for US attendees is the 234-room Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, originally unveiled for Europe’s royalty in 1906. The collection of historic ballrooms including the Salle des Congrès that seats 340 for banquets are dripping with ornate Beaux Arts flourishes. For smaller groups, the 71-room Hotel des Trois Couronnes elicits a fair bit of swooning from the locals.
“In all of the hotels, when you wake up in the morning and look out at the lake, you go ‘Wow!’… and you’re inspired right away,” says Isaline Corlet, marketing director for Montreux-Vevey Tourisme. “But at Trois Couronnes, you feel like you’re at home. It’s very cozy.”
Everyone we talked to raves about the day trip to the fortified town of Gruyères, famous for the hard, nutty-flavored cheese. Groups typically enjoy breakfast during the 70-minute train ride to town, a tour through the cheese factory, and shopping for local handmade crafts before a fondue lunch. The 13th century Castle of Gruyères is a Swiss fairytale perched atop a stoic promontory redolent with wild edelweiss.
“It feels really Swiss in Gruyères,” says Corlet. “This is the heart of Switzerland.”
ST. MORITZ: THE SPORTING LIFE
Back in the 16th century, people started sliding on their bellies over ice while holding a semi-flattened granite bowling ball. We can’t think of another team sport better than curling that will have your group pitching over in good natured laughter as much as this, especially with spiced rum hot toddies.
In St. Moritz, the legendary Badrutt’s Palace Hotel is considered the forefather of winter alpine tourism, ever since it opened in 1856 with private curling rinks and the world’s first official toboggan and bobsled runs. To this day, the tradition-minded Badrutt’s is home to high-society polo and horse racing events on the frozen, snow-covered Lake St. Moritz. We should also mention that the globally famous Palace Wellness Spa, with heated indoor and outdoor pools overlooking the lake, just wrapped up a $50 million renovation in January.
Karen Newberry, a travel buyer with Maritz, books Badrutt’s for her Fortune 500 incentives. Last year, numerous groups from 100-140 persons visited for curling lessons, horse carriage rides in the Roseg Valley, and train rides to Tirano in northern Italy and Guarda on the German border. A big hit was dinner at the traditional restaurant Dorta, housed inside a 500 year-old timber chalet about 30 minutes down the valley in the town of Zuoz.
“Switzerland evokes images of beautiful mountain landscapes, quaint villages and warm, friendly people,” says Newberry. “When you have an ideal image of what a European country is like, Switzerland is the one that comes closest to that image.”