The Omnia – An Alpine Sanctuary

 

 

Understated design. Unobtrusive luxury. Despite these virtues, the Mountain Lodge got off to a rocky start. So, after overcoming a few initial obstacles, owner Alexander Schärer, fourth-generation offspring of Swiss modular furniture business USM U. Schärer Sons Ltd, placed the responsibility for The Omnia’s welfare in the capable hands of hotelier Philippe Clarinval. Clarinval cultivates the hotel brand by putting strong emphasis on what at first sight may not appear to be one of the fundamental values of a design hotel: Its team.

Menacing gray clouds slowly circle around the mighty angular peak of the Matterhorn. After enclosing the crest in a huddle, the clouds break free and ponderously sail on to the valley, where they regroup to spread more gloom. Occasionally a silver sunray manages to break through and illuminate the small mountain village of Zermatt. The landscape’s mottled earthen colors are otherwise only broken by tourists whose windbreakers provide bright counterpoints of color.

Inside THE OMNIA – safe from an apparent uprising of the elements against a stronghold of goretex and all-weather gear – it is snug and cozy, and the balance of nature appears reinstated. Brown and gray hues blend in with warm wood colors, an open fire flickers in the hearth. Candles are lit, some in their everyday guise, others hidden in fireproof lampshades on the tables in the hotel restaurant which offers its guests a variety of culinary delights. The interior design blends in harmoniously and rounds off the ambience to perfection. Objects by Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe stand unobtrusively next to Risom, Weeks, or Kagan. A number of tables, lamps, and beds were designed specially for THE OMNIA by New York designer Ali Tayar. In addition to the actual design of the objects, great importance is also placed on eco-friendly production and sustainable management of energy and resources. A credo that roots in the USM brand philosophy and, while not referred to explicitly, can be sensed upon entering the premises.

Warmhearted hospitality

The first three encounters with the staff take place at the train station, in the elevator, and at the reception desk; each time we are met by three open faces and receive three genial welcomes. Not the slick, automatic, photoshopped version of friendliness: This is the other kind – freckled with a slightly crooked tooth – that makes you feel welcome because it's genuine. The greetings, each individual, all triggered an identical response in us. The fourth greeting is uttered by Philippe Clarinval, a large, yet lively man. Our first impression of him is that of a smart fraternity brother as he comes down the stairs to greet us. Nondescript blond hair, bright eyes – and teeth – and a smile that makes a frequent appearance on his youthful features during our meeting. The absence of wrinkles seems to indicate the absence of a forced professional bonhomie, the kind that ordinarily leaves its marks over time.

As a child I wanted to be a tourist.

"Tu seras dentiste, mon fils," Clarinval's father told him. And so, the dutiful son began his studies to become a dentist. "After studying dentistry, you know how to learn," Clarinval imparts the main thing he feels he learned during his first studies. Subsequently, studying hotel management "was a cinch." What wasn't so easy was justifying his new career choice to his father. In the end they made a pact: Philippe Clarinval had to make a written pledge to his father that, as a hotelier, he would strive to be one of the best of his profession. If not, he would go back to the field of dentistry.

A hotel should not just be beautiful, it has to have a soul. I do not want to be the curator of a museum. I am a hotelier.

With pride and enthusiasm, Clarinval gives us a tour of the premises. In the hallways we discover a number of large framed images by Swiss photographers Balthasar Burkhard and Bruno Augsburger, and encounter several more of the hotel’s extremely friendly staff. On the basement floor, Clarinval takes us into The Cavern which functions as a bar/lounge area. Its glass and metal construction allows an unrestricted view of the subterranean rock that the space was hewn out of. "We need music to really experience this room," Clarinval exclaims with an expansive sweep of his arm and chooses "Simple Man" by Lynyrd Skynyrd on his iPod. Enthusiastically, he starts telling us about his years in Asia, where he worked in the hotel industry for several years." That was a very important experience for me," he recalls. "It was absolutely amazing," he chuckles reminiscently. One of his favorite memories is of the hotel band striking up his favorite "Sweet Home Alabama" in the hotel bar, B.A.T.S, during his final rounds every evening, giving him the feeling of a home away from home. He firmly believes, "Every stage in life is important; each one for a different reason. In Jakarta I learned how to cope with stress." Just after he had taken on a position as assistant director of the Shangri-La in 2009, the Jemaah Islamiyah launched several terrorist attacks in Jakarta. Their first target was the JW Marriott Hotel, then a few minutes later it was the Ritz Carlton across the road. "We prepared ourselves for the worst because nobody knew what might still happen." Thankfully, the Shangri-La remained unscathed, but only a short while later an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale occurred, and the entire hotel had to be evacuated. "Not an easy time, and a really steep learning curve. I know now that I can rise to most challenges."

Now that I've achieved an important goal, I don't have the urge to validate myself with adrenalin rushes.

In light of these turbulent times, Philippe Clarinval is frequently asked how he compensates the excitement of earlier days here in tranquil Zermatt amidst the looming peaks: In this 5-star hotel, daily operations are rarely a matter of life and death, and more often deal with the question of ensuring that guests get their coffee with precisely the kind of milk they ordered. "Certainly it was good to have experienced these situations, but too much is definitely not healthy either. Now I concentrate almost entirely on mentoring." For the moment he doesn't miss the adrenaline rushes that accompany a more exciting lifestyle. "Life's about being happy. I don't need to be able to say, ‘Phew, I survived a terrorist attack yesterday and an earthquake today,’ just to satisfy my ego. On a personal level I'm very happy to look up to the Matterhorn and breathe in the clear mountain air when I leave home every morning. It's those little things in life that fulfill me," he says and nods toward the window through which the picturesque landscape presents itself.

"My aim is to make a difference in other people's lives. By ensuring that my team is happy, my guests are automatically happy as well, and that is the best part of my job." To facilitate this, every employee is invited for a meal with friends, spouse, or family at The Omnia. "Everyone who works for us has to know what it's like to be a guest here," Clarinval says. "This enables all of us here to better appreciate and understand what we are offering our guests.

Many people like to think they’re indispensible. But actually, I've only really done my job well if everything continues to run smoothly when I'm not here.

"Being able to trust my employees to hold the fort while I'm away is something that personally makes me very happy," Clarinval explains and adds, "It shows me that I'm doing things the right way."

Every season, the employees also receive a new uniform, especially designed and tailored by John Jefferson Arnold, an American designer who currently lives in Berlin. And Clarinval is always engaged in finding the perfect staff for his premises. Each week he holds four or five job interviews with prospective employees, even when there is no position available. "I think it's important to take a look at the people who are interested in our establishment. And, who knows, they might fit in at a later point in time." His views on this are born out of personal experience: Clarinval applied for his current position three years prior to getting the job. But, just then, his timing was not quite right. "Bad luck," he chuckles. "But luck changes and now I'm exactly where I always wanted to be."

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