CreditJane A. Peterson
Visitors arrive in Wengen on a cogwheel train and find a traffic-free Swiss ski village perched on a snowy cliff that overlooks the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Towering above are the famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks; nestled in one mountain saddle is Europe’s highest rail station, Jungfraujoch.
Time has not radically altered the quaint look of Wengen’s shingled chalets and belle epoque hotels — or its miles of forested ski runs, which this season received piles of snow in November and December.
What is changing, though, is where visitors choose to stay — with rising numbers choosing to rent private chalet apartments rather than hotels. (Still, the Jungfrau region enjoys the highest hotel occupancy rates in Switzerland, according to government figures.)
Wengen is on the world map because of the famous World Cup racecourse, the Lauberhorn. During the races, held in January, thousands of fans pour in to watch racers hurl themselves down the icy slopes, followed by long bouts of partying.
Cheering on Canada’s racers this year was Peter Stephens, whose party of four booked a new two-bedroom chalet apartment with an uninterrupted view of the mountains. “It’s awesome,” he said. “We’re right in the village close to the gondola and the train.”
While Mr. Stephens booked with the local Swiss Maid Services, a small chalet operator managing 34 privately owned apartments, the apartment is also advertised on other booking sites, including Airbnb, which is credited for the latest surge in chalet rentals in all Swiss mountain resorts.
“Airbnb has finally come to the mountains, bringing new clientele,” said Harry John, the director of BE! Tourism, the canton of Bern’s government tourism board. “It’s part of the game today, especially with the younger generation.”
In Wengen, the Airbnb surge began two years ago, according to Rolf Wegmüller, the managing director of Wengen Tourism, the local government tourism board. As more owners have signed up, he said more guests are able to book chalets, an increasing preference among all generations.
Americans Carol Birkland and Tom Woxland, who have been coming to Wengen since the early 1990s when they lived in Geneva, abandoned winter hotel stays four years ago after they spotted a sign at the local cheese shop, “Ferienwohnung zu vermieten,” which means holiday home for rent.
The couple, now retired and living in Iowa, like to spend three weeks in the shop’s two-bedroom flat in Chäs Gruebi, which rents for approximately 1,200 Swiss francs a week — roughly the same in United States dollars. “We feel a part of the village — more like residents than guests,” Ms. Birkland said. “We open a bottle of Swiss wine, light the fireplace, sit on a comfy sofa, relax with friends and then enjoy a great cheese fondue. You can’t do that in a hotel room.”
CreditJane A. Peterson
Minnesota native Jerry Johnson, who also prefers chalets over hotels, booked directly with Swiss Maid Services on his second visit to Wengen, after mixed success with VRBO.com. When he arrived, there were groceries on the doorstep and an immaculate condo with a view of the Jungfrau. “You can see actual pictures of rooms and views of where you are staying versus checking in to find your hotel room is over a Dumpster with no view,” he said.
Beyond the homey ambience, guests often book apartments, rather than hotels, to save money. “It’s a good deal less — up to 40 percent,” said Julie Doyle, the owner of Swiss Maid Services. For a two-bedroom, her rentals range from 1,200 to 2,650 Swiss francs per week. She has a one-week minimum during high season periods that include Christmas, New Year’s, and school holidays, which are staggered throughout February. Otherwise, the minimum is four nights.
(A weeklong stay in mid-March for a family of four at the Beausite Park, a four-star hotel near the children’s beginner slopes, currently starts at 3,136 Swiss francs.)
Wengen now has a number of chalet service providers that offer a host of extras. “We have a concierge available daily,” said Rachel Padley of Alpine Holiday Services, a Swiss native who founded her business four years ago after sensing growing demand for a personalized service that would boost rental prices of top-end chalets. Two-bedroom flats she manages range from 1,800 to 2,600 Swiss francs per week. Extra services, charged separately, include daily cleaning, breakfast and grocery delivery, champagne and flowers on arrival.
During high season, booking far in advance is advisable. In October, returning Philadelphia guest Mark Putnam found only one three-bedroom chalet available over the holidays. He took it for his party of five at a cost of 5,485 Swiss francs for nine days. “As it turned out, we have a gorgeous view, a good location, and it’s well equipped,” he said.
In Wengen, chalet rentals started accelerating a decade ago when many longtime visitors began to snap up properties as fast as developers could build them, a trend that lost momentum in 2012 when Swiss voters approved a “second home law” that prohibited more holiday home building in Swiss resort areas, partly to stop the increase in absentee owners who leave their holiday homes shuttered most of the year.
But the law did not slow the demand for rentals, particularly among Swiss visitors. In the winter 2015-16, Swiss guests booked 25 percent more nights in chalets than they had four years earlier. Mr. Wegmüller credits part of that rise to Swiss parents who prefer booking chalets because they offer better “family time.”
Several Wengen hotels have converted into private apartments, which are then sold separately to both Swiss and foreign buyers. “The driving force is that a hotel is worth more than double when broken up into apartments, even after conversion costs,” said Alan Norris, one of 20 hoteliers in Wengen.
The four-star Hotel Silberhorn, just across from the train station, is converting part of its hotel into apartments and using the proceeds to improve the hotel infrastructure, pay high staff costs and stay afloat. “Our biggest issue is with Airbnb,” said owner Bettina Zinnert, whose family owns three hotels in Wengen. “For an Airbnb, you need a smartphone that can make pictures, load it up and, in the end, just a cleaning lady,” she lamented.
Hotels remain a key part of the tourism picture in Wengen, but the business is not without challenges beyond chalet apartment rentals.
“With high staff costs and the strong Swiss franc, we are not able to compete anymore against ski areas in Austria, France and Italy,” Ms. Zinnert said.
During Lauberhorn week, for instance, members of a German television group staying at the Hotel Alpenrose, an uphill walk to the train and gondola, each paid 220 Swiss francs a night, which they estimated is twice as expensive as a comparable hotel in Austria. “Switzerland was always very expensive, but two years ago the exchange rate jumped,” said the television commentator Michael Pfeffer. “As pretty as Switzerland is, I would not book a private ski vacation here. It’s a matter of price.”
For family-owned hotels in Wengen, there is also further pricing pressure from chain hotels in the village that dropped prices two years ago to attract Asian tour groups, forcing other hotels to lower prices. For this year’s low season, Ms. Zinnert estimates prices at two of her hotels will be down 30 percent compared to 2015 — despite stronger bookings this season that followed early heavy snowfalls. (At the Hotel Wengener Hof, a four-star hotel, current prices for a weeklong stay in mid-March for two start at 1,967 Swiss francs. At the Hotel Belvedere, a three-star hotel, rates for two start at 1,435 Swiss francs.)
Last year, Jungfrau Railways took one million tourists — 70 percent from China, South Korea, India and Japan — to Jungfraujoch. While the majority of Asian groups don’t stay overnight in Wengen, Asian bookings at the centrally located Victoria Lauberhorn Hotel, part of a Swiss hotel chain, are rising. Asian travelers account for up to 18 percent of all winter bookings, rising to 40 percent during the summer season, according to the manager, Roger Wyrsch. (Winter rates for private bookings start at 180 Swiss francs per night.)
Another complicating factor for hotels: the declining popularity of skiing in Switzerland. Numbers of skiers started declining in 2004, dropping sharply after 2012. “It seems that there are too many [vacation] options to choose from and preferences are different,” said Judith Graf Engi, who owns Hotel Bellevue and is the president of the Wengen Tourism Association. “The stay of guests is getting shorter and shorter; 20 years ago it was six days in winter, now it is about three.”
At Hotel Regina, the longtime owner Guido Meyer predicts smaller hotels may continue to close — three in the last 15 years have fully converted into private apartments — but larger ones will survive as the summer season booms, especially among tourists from Asia and the Mideast. “It will keep Wengen definitely on the map,” he said.
Mr. Norris, whose small luxury Hotel Caprice faces the Regina, said he is also upbeat. “There are signs the Chinese, particularly from Hong Kong, are coming to Switzerland for skiing,” he said, noting they could offset the slump in British and European demand. “We had strong bookings for Christmas and New Year,” he said. “Now the snow has arrived in abundance – the best since 1998 — my feeling is that it will be a very good winter season.”
Mr. Putnam said he intends to book another private chalet in Wengen for a third season. “We’ll absolutely come back, he said. “The skiing is incredible — miles and miles of runs, no driving, and perfectly-timed trains. It’s better than the States.”