From Zurich to Zermatt

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In the late 1800s, Swiss engineers built the world’s most advanced railway network to navigate the rooftop of the Alps. In the tricky high mountain passes, they designed a single rail line with pull-offs where oncoming trains could meet and pass. This required exact schedules and new advances in timekeeping, which is why the Swiss eventually became such exalted watchmakers.

That story defines Switzerland for the visiting business traveler: Ambition, intelligence, creativity and innovation among some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery.

Having such an advanced rail system has its advantages for planners. It lessens vehicle traffic in Geneva and Zurich so the streets are calm and pedestrian-friendly. Plus, you can easily and quickly combine the cosmopolitan cities with the dreamy lakeside resort towns of Lausanne and Lucerne, or the adventurous mountain outposts tucked away between Interlaken and Zermatt.

We put together such a trip to see if Swiss programs really do come off like clockwork.

ZURICH: EINSTEIN + RETRO RECYCLING

When you visit Zurich you feel like you’re at the very epicenter of Western Europe due to Switzerland’s location bordered by France, Germany and Italy, among others. Since the Reformation, Zurich has long been an incubator for progressive ideas as a peaceful axis of European cross-cultural academic, artistic and economic collaboration.

All that comes to bear in the historic city center where the Limmat River empties into Lake Zurich. Below Gothic church spires and Romanesque buildings, the twisting streets are spotless with little boutiques and cafes arranged so perfectly it seems Zurich had a florist for an urban designer.

Standing below one 18th century townhouse, my guide Monika from the Zurich Office of Tourism stops at the apartment where Lenin lived in 1917.

“He was working as a journalist and lawyer here while preparing the Russian Revolution,” she says. As we walk, Monika points to hotels and cafes where Casanova, Mozart, Brahms, Liszt and Goethe lived and studied. She tells me, “People don’t realize just how progressive the Swiss are.” We stop for coffee near the University of Zurich—the first in Europe to admit female students. Nearby, the Federal Institute of Tech has 21 Nobel-awarded alumnae. Einstein is one.

The #1 stop in town, with good reason, is Fraumünster Abbey built in 853, unique because Chagall created and painted five of the stain glass windows. Beautiful beyond description. We end our day at the cute Conditorei Schober patisserie built in 1850 with a boudoir and secret garden suitable for 50 people for coffee and croissants.

About 15 minutes away on the #4 tram, the $100 million Zurich West ex-warehouse community is an incredible example of adaptive re-use urban planning.

Old steel foundries have been converted into conference space for 2,000, with sustainable wine bars and restaurants. The Schiffbau venue is an ex-shipbuilding factory with Murano glass chandeliers. Viadukt is a preserved stone viaduct from 1880 with 33 arches that now house fashionable shops and restaurants. Definitely take the group to FRIETAG. Housed inside 17 stacked, recycled shipping containers, the company sells hip fashion accessories like messenger bags constructed out of recycled industrial tarps and inner tubes.

“We have over 200 art galleries,” says Monika. “People in Europe think Zurich is the most trendy city in Europe.”

Situated on the most enviable piece of real estate in Zurich facing the lake, the 120-room Baur au Lac completed a $45 million renovation last year. The exterior of the palatial hotel built in 1844 champions its Neoclassical brilliance with pretty gardens perfect for small receptions. Inside, the rotunda-style Pavilion dining room is redolent with violet floral arrangements designed by the two full-time, in-house florists.

The rooms meanwhile feel like the loft of a Park Avenue art dealer mixing contemporary, Art Deco and Louis XVI design motifs. So, lots of B&W prints with taupe and ebony furnishings, a big 500-channel TV and gold inlaid French repro desks. The largest of seven elegant salons seats 150 pax, but Baur au Lac typically hosts overnight groups up to 40. Over that, they partner with the nearby Park Hyatt Zurich.

LAUSANNE + LAKE GENEVA

Lausanne is about 30 mins by train from Geneva and 2.5 hours from Zurich. From the station, you’re five minutes to the elegant lobby of the 168-room Beau-Rivage Palace, amid 10 acres of gardens fronting Lake Geneva. After more than $100 million invested in renovations over the last decade, this remains Switzerland’s grandest grand dame.

Two dozen red roses and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot on ice add a nice touch to one of the 34 suites with double glass doors framing a balcony with a panoramic view of the Alps, the lake and the French town of Evian on the other side. The decor is classic French Revival with marble fireplaces, gold-leaf paintings, mammoth marble bathrooms, Bulgari bath products, and enough Louis XIV chairs to make a boardroom.

Downstairs, the grand verandah above the lake is a postcard venue for 250 people. Inside, a series of Belle-Epoque ballrooms—like the Sandoz Room built in 1908 with seating for 400—are literally works of art with sculptural friezes of Greek angels and cherubs capping 50-ft high walls.

For fine dining, the 65-seat, Michelin 2-star Anne-Sophie Pic is a modern interpretation of Southern French dishes with a modish yet soothing decor to match. For more relaxed dining, the Café Beau-Rivage brasserie just stepped out of Vogue Paris, brimming with energy while patrons enjoy the fresh lake air and pan-fried deer. Afterwards, everyone can segue into The BaR next door for live jazz and aperitifs.

Also look into creating a fun cocktail event aboard a historic steamwheeler or two down Lake Geneva to the medieval Chillon Castle in neighboring Montreaux for dinner and dancing.

Right next to Beau-Rivage, The Olympic Museum showcases memorabilia from various Games dating back to the classic era. However, the recorded commentary and artifacts relating to the political and economic times during each Games is what makes this such a comprehensive and moving experience. This is a fantastic venue for networking and inspiring teamwork because everyone has their favorite Olympic memories from Nadia Comenici’s perfect 10 to the USA hockey team’s Miracle on Ice. Conference rooms seat up to 170, or you can congregate outside among the sculpture garden and Peloponnesian architecture.

THE LAVAUX WINE FIELDS

The train travels 20 minutes east along Lake Geneva’s shore to the World UNESCO Site at Lavaux. Rising dramatically up from the water, these stepped wine fields have been producing small batch Swiss varietals since the Middle Ages.

The new Lavaux Vinorama museum opened last May detailing the history of the region with a fun 20-minute film and bottles from every vineyard. Tanja Dubas, Director of Sales with Lausanne Tourisme, and I sip some of the 200 “crus” in the main room that can host 75. Then it’s a short walk into the village of Rivaz past plump fuchsia roses in flower boxes placed in every window in every 19th century home.

“Lavaux is special, it’s dear to our hearts,” says Tanja. “We don’t produce enough to ship overseas so you have to come here. Actually, we just want to keep it all for ourselves,” she jokes. We stop at a little wine shop to open a bottle of lively, delicious 2008 Dézalay white on a courtyard peeking over the wine fields and rustic village.

Whatever you do, offer this to your group. Take up to 150 pax to the lakeside Auberge de Rivas restaurant. Order les filets de perche meuniére and the amaretto vanilla ice cream doused with fresh cherries. Lots of Dézalay too. Flower-strewn branches overhead cut the sun, sailboats drift quietly by and everyone’s eyes are smiling. This is a lunch for the ages.

Gornergrat Peak

ZERMATT: THE MATTERHORN

Amadé Perrig is yodeling at the table during our first dinner together. For real. The ex-President of Zermatt Tourism is showing me how yodeling can be quite melodic, versus the Toblerone commercial version. He now splits his time between Scottsdale in winter and here in summer where he creates bespoke incentive programs for corporate groups.

Located in a sylvan valley at the base of the Matterhorn, Zermatt is a 3-hour train ride from Zurich with a change in Visp to catch the cog-wheel train up the steep pass. The alpine air is crisp and you sense the spirit of adventure the second you arrive. This is one of the prettiest ski towns in Europe, revolving around a few pedestrian-only streets bordered by mountaineer outfitters, luxurious historic hotels, Swiss chalet pied-a-terres, funky ski bars and, yes, chocolate shops.

Amadé and I take the train up to Gornergrat Peak, a mountain summit capped with a small hotel, astronomy observatory and the highest restaurant in the Swiss Alps. This is the #1 tourist destination in Switzerland because sometimes just being in a certain location is a memory of a lifetime. Petra, Bora Bora, Victoria Falls, etc. This is one of those.

Everyone is here simply to enjoy the incredible panorama of the Matterhorn and a long lunch of zesty zanderfilet, a pike filet with mushrooms and sauerkraut. Bring the group around at night for a private fondue dinner and visit inside the observatory to look at the nearby stars.

Or helicopter everyone into the space-age, aluminum-clad Monte Rosa Hut within eyesight of Gornergrat at the base of Europe’s second highest mountain. Opened in 2009, this research lab/meeting venue for Zurich Institute of Tech is 90% solar self-sustaining, seats 120 pax for lunch and represents the zenith of clean tech bravado.

Midway down the mountain, the luxurious 65-room Riffelalp Resort originally built in 1884 directly faces the Matterhorn. Because you’re rather secluded here, daily activities are pretty much: eat, read, spa, sleep and eat again. Or you can book the curling rink for private day events. This June afternoon, the wild alp roses are blooming and the marmot are flitting about the rocky precipice. Amadé has cooked marmot for groups here before, washed down with a healthy dose of glühwein—German mulled red wine.

“Marmot must be marinated in red wine overnight; good with polenta,” he muses. “That’s a Sunday meal right there.”

Back in town, US groups lean toward luxe old lodges like the 165-room Mont Cervin Palace, opened in 1852, and its sister property, the 41-room Hotel Monte Rosa. Both have ranked among the top 10 hotels in Europe. Mont Cervin’s design is understated elegance with natural wood walls and a lack of frilliness, and it caters especially well to groups.

There’s a handful of meeting rooms and a bright 4,000-sf conference room. All-inclusive pricing includes ski rentals, and a bunch of in-house incentive programs range from heli-skiing in winter to climbing the 13,000-ft Breithorn peak in summer.

I tell Amadé that a week here up among the clouds must feel like a dream. It all seems rather perfect.

“Sometimes when I’m in Arizona,” he says, “I wake up and tell my wife I dreamed about Switzerland.

“She says, ‘I know, you were yodeling.’”

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