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Independent Minds: Gertrud Schneider, Kristiania Lech

Originally built by Olympic ski champion Othmar Schneider as a private chalet to entertain his friends on their adventures in the Arlberg mountains, Kristiania Lech has retained its intimate feel thanks to Gertrud Schneider and her tailor-made team. Like father, like daughter, Gertrud continues to make international guests feel instantly at home in what feels more like staying at a relative’s eclectic residence from the sixties than a hotel.

The 29 bedrooms and suites at Kristiania Lech have all been individually decorated with antiques and original pieces of art, but it is not just the charming aesthetic which Gertrud has carefully styled – “we are all experience curators at Kristiania Lech.” From a contemporary art summer pop-up to picnics in the snow, fondue parties and personal ski guides, Kristiania Lech immerses guests in local experiences which celebrate the culture, history and heritage of Austria. Instilled with a strong sense of her grandparents’ slow travel – staying longer and looking deeper into destinations – Gertrud’s nostalgic yet forward-thinking approach epitomises both the considered host and the considerate traveller.

What does being ‘Independently Minded’ as an hotel owner mean to you?

Firstly, I did not know that I would love the hospitality industry. Selling beds and meals sounded quite boring to me. I got to love the hospitality industry during my first internship at hotel school. It was at a five-star hotel and I found that I could do whatever I wanted to orchestrate experiences for my guests. I fell in love with this world. I read HIP Hotels (Highly Individual Places) by photographer Herbert Ypma, one of the very first books about boutique hotels. In this book, I discovered, for example, Costes Hotel – one of the first boutique hotels in Paris that opened around 1995. It’s still an iconic destination for expert travellers, and I knew immediately that Kristiania Lech needed to be a boutique-style hotel full of personality, contemporary art, artists or writers in residence, creating the feeling of sense of place, of staying at a friend’s eclectic home from the 1960s, but with much better, bespoke service.

What was the inspiration behind the hotel, and where do you continue to find sources of inspiration?

We are a family affair – my father, Othmar Schneider, Austria’s first male ski Olympic champion, planned Kristiania Lech to be a private house to welcome his friends from around the world to enjoy wonderful ski adventures in the Arlberg mountains and to host many private parties. His vision was a private chalet full of personality, a private club with a sense of place. He was not a hotelier.

I compare Four Seasons, Dorchester Group or Oetker Collection hotels to designers like Gucci, Prada and Armani. While Kristiania Lech is more like the tailor you find in a little side street in Milan, who is specialised in making custom suits. This tailor is Kristiania Lech and the hotel team are the tailor’s assistants who are part of creating this bespoke suit.

This is why the bespoke Kristiania Lech experience is a different kind of experience. It is not like we are trying to be different, we are just trying to be ourselves in a way that matters to our guests. We do have personality. We want to interact and engage with guests in a sensible and meaningful way.

When visiting a tailor, you spend time picking out fabric and creating your own style. I want to create the same experience with guests when they engage with Kristiania Lech from the first telephone call to the thank you note they will find at home after their departure.

How do you think your hotel stands apart from other boutique hotels?

Guests staying at Kristiania Lech are looking for tailor-made service. We can’t necessarily offer them a hotel room nicer than what they have at home. Some have private jets, yachts and mansions bigger than Kristiania Lech.

The design of the hotel has to be beautiful, elegant and tasteful, however guests do experience the difference in service. It might still be a smaller room than their closet. They can still go somewhere else. Nevertheless, they would be missing the human part of it and that is where the people working here come in, the Kristiania Lech Family. These people make all the difference and they make the travel experience matter to our guests.

At Kristiania Lech, nothing comes as ‘standard.’ Kristiania Lech is about surpassing expectations. We do not want SOPs (‘standard operating procedures’). There are no standardised rooms, no standardised dimensions or designs. Everything is different, everything is unique.

If you only had 24 hours to get a taste for your hotel experience, what would you recommend a guest must do?

My preferred room is Number 45 ‘Puccini’, a little duplex suite with a magical view of Lech and a peaceful bedroom on the second floor. I sleep excellently in this room. All suites at Kristiania Lech are inspired by the ‘Grand Tour’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, influenced by our love of travel. My recommendation is to choose your room depending on your mood and individual preferences. Travel the world, while staying in the Alps.

For breakfast, I choose my everyday favorite: Darjeeling Tea, Curcuma shot, Greenlife juice, soft boiled egg from the hens of our former gardener, Sladjana’s famous muesli and a slice of Lech bread with homemade butter. For lunch, I love our chef’s ceviche of our locally sourced char from Zug, a paillard of veal with some homemade noodles is my all time favourite…or a risotto. Of course – a glass of Gruener Veltliner from Gobelsburg Vinery and an espresso is part of my lunch.

I would never miss a fondue party for dinner, and I love our chef’s Asian-inspired options. But my new recommendation is our Separée private dining – new for winter 2021, we will offer private dining in our travel inspired suites. I can’t wait to experience a dinner for two in our Turkish Suite with a private butler – tout privé. An aperitivo in the living room of the suite, followed by dinner including ‘Salzburger Nockerl’, one of our Austrian dessert specialties, in the newly set-up dining rooms of the suites and a little ‘powdering the nose’ in the privacy of the bedroom. To drink, I would opt for an Alpine Negroni while listening to the fine sound created by our DJ in Residence.

My go-to spa treatment is a facial with Susanne Kaufmann’s organic products to help my skin to adjust to the dry mountain air. It is all about ‘me time’ and über-relaxation. Do not miss out on the cross-country skiing along the river Lech, it is a pure winter wonderland experience and time for meditation. Pristine nature at its best – forget about a gym, this is far better for the body and soul.

In terms of art, my must-see is the Skyspace Lech by the world-famous American artist James Turrell. I love to combine it with snowshoeing. The best time of the day is either during sunrise or sunset. James Turrell has designed a ‘lightroom of the mountain’ where the sky and earth seem to encounter one another from a new point of view in the high alpine landscape of Lech.

Do you have a vision for the future of the hotel?

People nowadays are really looking for experiences that matter – not just a hotel room, a spa treatment or a restaurant meal. They also need to trust you as a hotel and destination in these very challenging times, with a renewed focus on health and safety. I believe luxury is a question of space and privacy as well as a meaningful experience, and this experience is essential. It is about private luxury moments and definitely sustainability and considered travel.

Everything we do and offer at Kristiania Lech is part of the meaningful and magical guest experience we like to create. We will limit our availability to offer more privacy and support the local community as well as contemporary art. And of course, people like to experience. Therefore, we need to be very strong in delivering experiences, and we need to organise very special things as well as little meaningful moments for our guests. So, everyone at Kristiania Lech (no matter what department) needs to be very well prepared to suggest and create experiences that matter to our guests. We are all experience curators at Kristiania Lech.

A great example is our focus on contemporary art. We created a summer-pop-up to support art and culture, and our guests supported with their summer stay artists, dancers and musicians. They had the opportunity to mingle with the artists, interact with contemporary art, including performances in a mountain meadow and an art gallery pop-up in our garage. The three salon dinners for 12 with a curator, a gallerist and an artist attracted like-minded locals and guests, who enjoyed discussing contemporary art and culture. A project close to my heart, my grandmother’s family have been art enthusiasts for generations, making the experience one which cannot be found anywhere else – that’s what makes an experience spectacular and unique.

My newest vision is to start an art week for galleries similar to Frieze London, but hosted in Lech – much more intimate with an Alpine feel, but sophisticated and low-key including a symposium for curators and collectors. For this upcoming winter at the hotel, I am planning another gallery-pop-up, involving an outdoor art installation alongside installations in five of our guest rooms. As we will limit our inventory to be able to offer even more space and privacy, we are happy to offer these rooms to artists.

How would you describe your own perfect luxury experience?

At Kristiania Lech, I like to have a hotel that is a hotel I dream to find everywhere I travel. The people working at Kristiania Lech are “the bones of the hotel”. I call them the Kristiania Lech Family. You can have a beautiful face but if the “bones” – the people that run it – are not right, you immediately feel and see it.

The way I judge a hotel is on what the experience is like, before I get there and until I am back home. It just has to be perfect all the way down the line – very bespoke, very tailor-made. And finally, this experience has to matter to me and tell me something important that is good for the world. The only problem should be that I don’t want to leave.

Do you see any new trends emerging for 2021 in luxury hotels?

For me, the new trend emerging is a ‘considered’ versus ‘consumptive’ approach to travel and within luxury hotels. While Covid-19 is still with us and we are navigating new protocols and assessing the safest way to run a hotel and the safest opportunities for travel in the months ahead, I feel certain that how you travel will matter more than ever.

These very extraordinary times without travelling and re-thinking the Kristiania Lech experience have made me think a lot about past travels, about the way we used to travel. A potent combination of access, ease, familiarity and habit had gradually accelerated the pace of travel, pushing us into a frenetic, consumptive frame of mind. London for a long weekend? Hamburg for a concert? St. Tropez for a party? Why not? The tickets weren’t too expensive, so we jumped on planes, with less fanfare or anticipation than my grandparents devoted to going out to dine in a restaurant. Looking back on that makes me wonder how – in the excessive casualness of the way we approached these incredible opportunities to cross borders and could be plunged into new cultures and communities in mere hours – we so often lost something.

Back when it was harder to get places, you stayed longer, you looked deeper, you expected fewer habitual comforts and you brought less of your routine with you – instead you surrendered to the foreign. My grandparents knew they weren’t likely to be in the places they visited again. They understood that each trip was a rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience, so they savoured each moment and tried to slow down time. The word – considered – comes to mind. And if this slower, more thoughtful approach is considered travel, then what we were all doing, before Covid-19 grounded us, can only be described as consumptive.

I love the idea of looking at hotels as sacred spaces that bring residents and guests together to give and to receive and to honour something greater than the living. This is why I created the ‘experience curators’ at Kristiania Lech. Travel, to me, has always been about communion, the exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, and reverence for beauty and the unknown that makes us all more human and aware of what connects or binds us. But the first step in that vision involves the traveller adopting a different, more considered and considerate attitude. That would certainly kill the consumptive approach at the core and replace it with compassion.

We regard each other across the decades and generations of an utterly changed world, but I know that I carry the understanding of travel of my grandparents and that it has never been as important as it is now. My grandparents weren’t looking for the comforts of home when they left home; rather, they were thrilled to settle into a place and fall into its rhythms. I believe there is hope in that approach. A future where we all think of ourselves as people joining a community for a time, offering gratitude and appreciation, mingling meaningfully with local residents, contributing something of benefit and taking only memories and a broader view to share when we reach home.