The utmost quality, but presented informally and without pomp. Total professionalism paired with a real sense of warmth. With this concept, Daniela and Philippe Frutiger have created a truly special atmosphere in the luxurious establishments of the Giardino Group – though they originally had quite different paths in mind.
text: Silke Becker // photography: Pascal Mora
Philippe Frutiger: a chef by trade, who dropped out of school to surf along the coast of Australia. “I was no good at school, and didn't know what I wanted to be.” Daniela Frutiger: a pharmacy assistant who trained to become a spa manager. “I didn't enjoy only ever seeing ill people.” Together: an unbeatable team that is redefining the luxury hotel industry in Switzerland.
And this is how it happened: bored of being on a permanent holiday, Philippe Frutiger returned to Switzerland in his early twenties. “Now I was ready to build a career.” He went to hotel management school in Thun, and started off with an apprenticeship at the Giardino parent hotel in Ascona, which was under the direction of the Swiss hotel legend Hans Leu at the time. “I actually wanted to go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi after that.” However, the Giardino simply would not let its future Vice-Director go. “I handed in my notice every year, and each time I was promoted.” At that time, Daniela Frutiger was in charge of the Giardino spa. During her beauty training, she had done an apprenticeship at the spa in the luxury Arosa Kulm Hotel. “That's where I fell in love with the hotel industry.” After Kulm, she soon found herself at the Giardino.
Philippe Frutiger was immediately taken with the attractive spa manager from Germany. “The photocopier was near the spa, and I just always seemed to have a lot of copying to do,” he laughs. They have now been together for over twenty years, and have two grown-up sons. With every glance, every minute touch, you can feel their deep connection. They make all their decisions together, both in their professional and private lives. They usually agree on most things anyway, but whenever they don't they talk it through. “We are each other’s harshest critics, and that's the way it should be.”
They are both very well known in the Swiss hotel industry, as they were responsible for getting the 80-room traditional Lenkerhof hotel, which had gone bankrupt after 300 years, back on the path to success. They received numerous awards for this achievement, including ‘Hotel of the Year 2005’ and the ‘Gala Spa Award 2004’. The Frutigers, who were in their early thirties at the time, got wind of the job via contacts in the industry. “We didn't plan any of it, it just all came together.” When designing the relaunch of the five-star hotel, they opted for a “combination of tradition and lifestyle”, which was very popular with customers. “The investor took all of our ideas on board.” In the small tourist destination of Lenk, everyone soon got to know the couple, and they were popular with the local media too. “It reached a point where the hype was too much for us, and we hardly had a private life any more.”
So it was perfect timing when, after five years at the Lenkerhof, the Giardino in Ascona came calling. The investors who had since taken over the hotel from Hans Leu had so far been unsuccessful, and were hoping that the Frutigers’ know-how would turn things around. “Nothing had changed, it was all just the same as before”, say the couple, something which still astounds them to this day. The Frutigers drew up a 22-point plan. However, the desperately needed renovation wasn't the only problem. “The hotel had been sold and then leased back at far too high a price, which was not economically sustainable.” Nonetheless, the couple were determined to continue running the traditional hotel. Together with Rolex heir Daniel Borer and Giardino’s long-standing financial adviser Stefan Schmidt, they found new creditors, and the Frutigers also bought out 40% of the shares themselves. Once again, the couple was right on the money. “The following three years were the most successful in the history of the hotel.”
After that, they went from strength to strength. The first hotel was followed by the Giardino Lago, after Daniela Frutiger fell in love with this run-down 15-room gem with a fantastic view of Lago Maggiore. Almost at the same time, they acquired the Giardino Mountain, with 78 rooms. The coup-de-grâce was the re-opening of the previously unoccupied 95-room Hotel Atlantis by Giardino in Zurich in 2015. In the 70s, this hotel used to be frequented by international celebrities such as Frank Zappa and Freddie Mercury.
In all the Giardino establishments, the Frutigers aim to create a luxurious yet informal, warm atmosphere that sets them apart from the often intimidating, garish style of comparable hotels in this class. Bright, welcoming colours, comfy seating areas, lots of soft cushions and a roaring open fire are intended to create a sense of stylish cosiness. “We are innovators in the five-star hotel industry in Switzerland.” Under the brand Ecco, they offer their guests a top-class, usually Michelin-starred restaurant experience, a matter of honour for trained chef Philippe Frutiger. In addition, their in-house brand Dipiù provides the cosmetics line for the luxurious spa, Daniela Frutiger's very own hobby horse. Here, she has opted for a modern form of Ayurveda, adapted to Western culture. “We are all living longer, meaning that leading a healthy life is becoming increasingly important.”
However, for the two 49-year-olds, the most important thing of all is the staff. At Giardino, staff are instructed not to be formal and stiff, but instead warm and natural, whilst still duly meeting all the requirements of their demanding guests. This is precisely how Daniela and Philippe Frutiger themselves interact with people. Even within the team, the Frutigers set great store by the staff getting to know one another. “Happy employees mean a good atmosphere for guests.” Both pay regular visits to the individual establishments; they are hands-on managers with high expectations, but without the airs and graces. In spite of this, as is true of the entire sector, finding good staff at Giardino is a constant challenge.
Despite their agreeability, Daniela and Philippe Frutiger are driven by an iron will, clear goals and absolute perfectionism when it comes to the design and quality of their hotels. “Every detail matters to us.” Both can fall back on many years of experience, and know what really pleases guests for whom money is no object. “Everything has to be available at all times.” Many bookings don't come in until the last minute, even for banquets with over one hundred guests.
Of course, along with the successes there also comes setbacks, including a number of hotel projects launched in the past years that ultimately met their demise due to financing issues. Or the unexpected death of the Emir of Qatar just before the opening of the Atlantis in Zurich. The palatial ‘Royal Residence’ on the top floor, furnished to his specifications, was Europe's largest hotel suite with a total of 17 rooms, but suddenly had to be re-marketed. This of course had an impact on their financial planning.
In the summer, when all of the hotels are open, the company employs around 500 people. Currently, the group's turnover stands at 50 million Swiss francs (43 million euros). Giardino has not been spared from the crises in Russia and in the Gulf, its guests now primarily coming from German-speaking countries and the USA. At present, an additional five-star superior hotel is under development in Grindelwald, which is now set to open in 2019 after a series of postponements. “For business reasons, we want to add a further two or three hotels.” Their shared dream was a hotel by the sea, furnished as always in the signature Giardino style.