When you live among mountains, the landscape gets fixed in your soul. But what if that landscape suddenly alters? What if an iconic mountaintop structure ceases to be what it has always been? Such was the case for Sami Lamaa in 2001 when the gondola station high above the hotel and restaurant he owned in the Crans-Montana resort area of the Swiss Alps closed. “When they announced the news, I thought, ‘Oh no!’” Lamaa remembers. “Then I got very quiet. The building’s location is amazing, so I began to look at it in a new way. In fact, I couldn’t stop looking at it. Finally, I bought it!”
For a man who grew up in hospitality, the question wasn’t if that gondola station would become a restaurant and a hotel, but rather how he would transform it into a game-changing hospitality statement in Switzerland.
Well, yes. I have lived in a hotel since I was born. We never had Christmas in a house. A lot of hotels promote their properties as being like a home, but for me it is not a concept; it is reality. Thus, the experiences here are very authentic. I welcome people not as guests but as friends.
Today, people travel the world for experiences. Chetzeron is a destination and an experience. The architecture alone is an experience—you are staying in an old gondola station! Just getting to the front door is an experience. The hotel is at 2,100 meters up. You cannot drive here. Either you take a gondola, or we pick you up in the snowcat or the Land Rover. Or you can walk up! Either way, it’s quite an experience. I often sit and just listen to people talking during the 20-minute drive to hotel. Everybody has a story to tell. About life. About the mountains. About past experiences in Land Rovers… As hoteliers, we try to tell a story. But we forget that customers also have stories to tell. We have to listen to them. They are happy and excited to share. Everybody has a story. That, too, is an experience!
When I bought the gondola station, I knew I wanted to first do a restaurant. But back then, skiers in Switzerland were used to either just eating hot dogs and chips on the slopes or skiing all the way to the bottom of the mountain, eating, and taking a gondola back up. I thought that this was crazy, and I said, “Why don’t we do a great restaurant on top of the mountain? Gourmet on the slopes!” We were pioneers in Switzerland.
After I attended hotel school, I worked as a chef for my father. He is from Lebanon, so I only worked with Lebanese food. But I quickly discovered that the memories associated with taste are very strong. Customers were saying things like, “Wow, that is the hummus I had as a kid! It’s the way my grandmother made it.” And they were returning again and again to the restaurant. So at Chetzeron I said to my chef, “Let’s do the same thing with Swiss Alpine food. Let’s tap into people’s memories.” But, really, other than cheese fondue, there were no obvious choices. So we searched for old recipes that are innate to the region. And then I hired an Argentinian chef who had a Swiss background. She was able to find recipes in German, but she didn’t speak the language. So I translated them! And from that, she was able to create authentic tastes that connected our guests to their childhoods. We work that way. To create something authentic, with personal meaning for the customer.
Ha! Well, after the restaurant was up and running and I had plans to add the hotel. I had a friend who knew these monks from China who were experts in feng shui and at sensing the vibe of a place. So I thought, “Let’s see what they have to say!” We flew them from China to Geneva and then brought them to Crans-Montana. It was off-season, so there was no gondola then and we had to walk. But they didn’t take the path. They just walked straight up the mountain—and with no shoes! We could hardly keep up. When we reached the top, they studied the building, the area. They said the energy was great, with the only concern coming from the northeast. So we took their advice and protected that area of the hotel using trees. And we put the hotel entrance where they suggested. Of course, if they had said the place had bad energy, I probably would have done the hotel anyway!