How do two hoteliers who seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum manage to find a meeting point and create something extraordinary? Although they are both self-proclaimed men of the mountain, Günter Weilguni’s confession—“I knew I wanted to be an hotelier since I was a young boy”—sits at stark odds with that of his business partner Marwan Naja, who admits “I never thought I would be a hotelier.” Despite starting out on different footing, their convergence came about through a mutual love of a mountainous location and a shared interest in reanimating the legend of the Steigenberger Alpenhotel and Spa Gstaad-Saanen under a fresh and renewed identity—Huus Gstaad, in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland.
Beirut-born Naja credits the hotel’s look and feel to his business partner, Weilguni. “He came up with the concept,” he explains. “I think I had some good suggestions which he incorporated [Marwan modestly cites the hotel’s terrace, activity program, and high-tech services as examples], but my role is to build on his concept, to keep us focused, and to make sure that this ends up being a successful investment.”
Weilguni concurs, attributing his innately hospitable nature to his upbringing in Tyrol, Austria, which was cherry-topped by his education in business and hospitality in Zurich. “I grew up with tourism all around me. I have always had friends and colleagues who were in the hospitality or tourism sector, which has always had a positive influence on me and helped push me in the right direction.”
While Naja didn’t grow up in a world of hospitality, he did develop a skillset that was vital in transforming the Steigenberger Alpenhotel and Spa into the gleaming Huus Gstaad. “In my late teens, I received a scholarship and moved to the U.S. where I attended Indiana University then Dartmouth College. I then went to Wall Street and London, specializing in Latin American and Eastern European investments, respectively, before moving to Switzerland in 1999 to set up my own investment company, Manixer.” If that’s not enough to keep him busy, he also puts his heart and soul into education as chairman for Bellevue Education—which owns and operates 22 schools, mostly in the UK—and is a founding investor and board member of New College of the Humanities. He is also a keen mountaineer, regularly escaping to far-flung places such as Bhutan, Patagonia, and the highlands of Scotland. “I think Huus Gstaad is partly driven by my love of the mountains and partly as a way to show my love and appreciation for my adopted country of Switzerland and the opportunities it has given me,” he reflects.
While Marwan has the nose for investment, Weilguni has the eye for hospitality: Much like Shakespeare’s assertion that “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” Weilguni can “read the guests’ wishes from their eyes.” Perhaps that explains why the once-diametric duo have successfully created a luxurious, adventurous, and welcoming hotel in a setting that has captured both of their hearts.