Hospitality is in his blood: Heinz Hunkeler knows every nook and cranny of the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz from his childhood, now he runs it.
St. Moritz: Heinz, for how long have you been General Manager of the Kulm Hotel
Heinz: I grew up here in St. Moritz, and after some time outside of the valley my first position “back home” was at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina. My wife Jenny and I were heavily involved in bringing the hotel back to its former glamour after the Niarchos family bought the property in 2004. At Grand Hotel Kronenhof I was the General Manager for 7 years, before returning to my roots in nearby St. Moritz and taking over at the sister property Kulm Hotel St. Moritz. I have held the position of general manager at the Kulm together with my wife since April 2013. Along with my appointment as General Manager, I was also entrusted with overall responsibility as CEO for the Kulm Hotel St. Moritz and Grand Hotel Kronenhof.
You come from a family of hoteliers, your father ran the Kulm before you. Did that predetermine your path?
Already as a child I was fascinated by the hospitality industry, and especially by the majestic Grand Hotels. Since I pretty much grew up in the Kulm Hotel, I know every corner of the building – in part because I used to play hide and seek there. The smaller jobs within the hotel that I had as a teenager, for example as a pool boy or in the hotel kitchen, prepared me perfectly for the position I have today. I think it is beneficial to climb the career ladder the way I did it and to gain experience in all the various hotel departments.
It was never planned or intended that I return to my roots at Kulm Hotel St. Moritz to become General Manager here. After all there there are so many other exciting opportunities all over the world. However, I am happy and very thankful that my path led me back here.
Did you ever leave the Engadine for a time, and if so, where did you go?
Of course. As a boy from the Engadine mountains it was very important to me to be able to travel around the world and get to know different cultures. The time away greatly broadened my horizons. After graduating from the École hôtelière de Lausanne, I started my career at the prestigious The Pierre in New York. It was a Four Seasons Hotel at that time, and my job there was followed by two more, at Four Seasons properties in Prague and Paris. After that, I moved on to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Du Rhone in Geneva and the Kempinski Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich. The time abroad is an experience that I would never want to miss from my life.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury to me from a very personal point of view is spending quality time with my family – preferably outdoors. However, I am sure if you would ask various people they would mention time and freedom as well – be it in their personal or their professional life. From a hotelier’s point of view, luxury is connected to an outstanding, effortless atmosphere combined with a very welcoming feeling and a heartfelt service.
In the summer one can often spot you on your e-bike, riding through St. Moritz. Is that how you stay fit? Are you into other outdoor sports too?
You know, you can get exercise on an e-bike. Besides, it's great way to get from a to b quickly – a great benefit for busy people. But yes, I am a big fan of outdoor activities. Having grown up here in the mountains, I am of course a passionate skier. In the summer you can often find me enjoying various activities in the mountains with my family. You have endless options in the Engadine, even with little kids.
I also enjoy fishing and hunting a lot – these activities create a wonderful balance with my work.
What was the stand-out moment in your career at the Kulm Hotel?
I can immediately think of several. One was definitely the big renovation of the Grand Hotel Kronenhof after my wife and I took over – the biggest since 1896! It still impresses me how quickly the underground parking garage, the 28 additional rooms and suites as well as the 2000 m2 spa area came into being. Of course I've experienced renovations before and since then, but none was as impressive as this one. When I think of my time as General Manager at the Kulm Hotel, one of the moments that stands out is when we were awarded “GaultMillau Hotel of the Year 2018”. This meant a lot to my wife Jenny and I because we were the first hoteliers to receive the award twice – it is an oscar of sorts in the hospitality industry.
How have you seen tourism in St. Moritz and the Engadine change over the last 15 years?
A lot has happened in the last 15 years, where to even start? Just think of the Swiss Franc abandoning the euro cap for example… Here in the hotel our clientele has become much more international. We still have a noticeable number of returning guests, the duration of the stays has changed. Sustainability and eco-tourism are becoming ever more important – if you ask me again in 15 years, I'm sure a lot will have changed in that respect.
What do you think the next decade will look like in the valley?
I think times will be challenging, but also exciting. Competition is sure to grow, but that always brings opportunities. Since the summers in the cities are getting warmer and warmer I hope that more and more people will learn to appreciate the refreshing summers in the mountains. On the other hand, climate change will probably mean that we can no longer depend on consistent snowfall. Of course here in the Engadine that will be less of an issue than at lower altitudes. I am convinced that “smart luxury” will become ever more important.. You can see we have more than enough reasons to continue to constantly update our tourism strategy.
What do you love about St. Moritz and the valley?
The diversity of our valley is something unique. From the exclusive boutiques in the center of St. Moritz to the calm forest around Lej da Staz, from the Michelin-star restaurants like our “the K by Tim Raue” to the rustic mountain huts … And in between all of that the great variety of events like the Festival da Jazz, St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, Snow Polo or Passione Engadina, which all attract different guests. The outstanding combination of impressive nature, long tradition, entertaining events and exciting sports – that’s what captivates me anew every day.
What do you envision for the future of St. Moritz?
We should appreciate how unique this valley is and be grateful for it. That is one of the reasons why I strive for sustainability – not only in our hotels, but in general in the Engadine. This extraordinary nature needs to be protected for future generations.