Austria is reinvigorating its brand and stealing some of Switzerland’s reputation for being the home of Alpine modernity and great healthcare. Nowhere epitomises the trend more than the Lanserhof.
You have to travel up a mountain to experience high-level abstinence at its best. The small village of Lans is around 300m higher up in the mountains than the nearby Austrian city of Innsbruck, and is home to the Lanserhof, one of Europe’s best centres for detox and regeneration medicine. The hotel stands amid green meadows and villas dating from the start of the 20th century. Its identity stems from how it contrasts with its surroundings: the Lanserhof is purist modernism in design rather than Alpine playfulness, while the meals eschew dried hams and cheese for lots of tea and very few potatoes.
Anyone checking into the Lanserhof will be paying a lot of money to discover that less is more. The daily routine starts with a glass of Epsom salts to purge the stomach and bowels, one hour of gymnastics in the woods, a glass of malt coffee and a piece of buckwheat toast. For lunch, soup and fish; in the evening, not much of anything. The day is spent in the care of experienced doctors and acupuncturists, and guests pass the time being massaged, lying in salt baths – and going to the toilet.
A typical treatment takes 10 days, during which guests’ bodies are examined and detoxified, and their minds decelerated. “We focus on inner purification,” says Andreas Wieser, the Lanserhof’s managing director. His concept is a great success: Wieser has turned this former holiday hotel into a modern health centre, complete with eight doctors, around 20 assistants, approximately 3,000 guests a year and annual sales just short of €9m. The Lanserhof’s clientele is well-heeled, cosmopolitan, usually over-worked and almost always a little too corpulent. “But we do not only emphasise losing weight,” says Karin Ebner, one of the Lanserhof’s doctors and a specialist in traditional Chinese medicine. “We prioritise the guest getting a feel for their body and its weak points. Prevention is just as important as repairs, in line with classical medicine.”
While reading the morning papers in the lobby, you are likely to spy directors from the boards of European corporations alongside members of the aristocracy, the wives of mid-cap company owners from small-town Germany, well-known designers and artists, or even Russian oligarchs, such as the billionaire and London football patron Roman Abramovich. When he arrives with his entourage, he regularly rents an entire wing of the hotel, and is happy to pay half a million euros for the privilege, as one newspaper recently reported. The hotel’s staff is accustomed to caring for such illustrious guests: some speak Russian, all are fluent in English, and discretion goes without saying. So you may have to resort to Google to find out if the man at the next table made his fortune from a paper factory in Finland or as a director of a Baltic airline.
That said, the Lanserhof’s success is not the product of skilful marketing by its MD, or its famous guests, or romantic analogies to Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. “Our best argument is our guests’ appearance and wellbeing when they leave,” says Wieser. Indeed, in most cases a stay at the Lanserhof can cure many of the causes of an ailment or complaint, not just relieve the symptoms.
What really counts is the tranquillity, the minimal fare carefully calibrated to each individual guest, the detoxification, the medical support, and the recognition that your body does not function like a machine. “In most cases, the fruit of the treatment lasts for about six months,” says Ebner. “And then our guests return to their little sins.” In other words, coffee, too much alcohol and sugar. For this reason, most Lanserhof customers come back for a second or third visit. “Each year I long for that feeling of Lans wellbeing,” confesses Heinrich Graf von Spreti, president of Sotheby’s Deutschland and a regular guest at the Lanserhof for over a decade.
But other Lanserhof fans, such as Munich-based journalist Kerstin Greiner, can also foresee taking their annual detox elsewhere. This is because, following on from the Lanserhof’s success, a health-spa industry has emerged in Austria, with its emphasis no longer on the over-used term “wellness” but on the idea of “balance”. For guests, this means a blend of Ayurvedic medicine, a classic detox diet and all-round medical and sporting care. Some of these new hotels (in centuries-old spa towns) opt for a modern version of the fasting cure devised by Austrian physician Franz Xaver Mayr. This consists of a special diagnosis of the bowels and intestines, and dictates that only through a strict regime, dietary and otherwise, can metabolic disorders and the damage caused by modern life (burn-out, allergies, etc) be alleviated and cured.
Almost all these hotels have modified Mayr’s method in favour of a less Calvinist approach; one no longer fasts for religious but for medical reasons. “Our innovations are medically proven – the guests do not want just to torture themselves,” suggests Wieser.
What is also new is that the Lanserhof and other spa hotels have founded a new Austrian hotel aesthetic that is far removed from the plush, narrow-minded kitsch that held sway for so many years. At the Hotel Post on the shores of Lake Bodensee you can play tennis, have a massage and eat homemade cake in a setting that’s sharp, crisp and modern.
This new aesthetic, visible throughout the country’s architecture and design, can be traced back to a national scandal.
In 1985, Austria’s vintners were plunged into crisis when it was revealed that some producers had been sweetening their product using anti-freeze. The entire industry collapsed. Yet today the episode is generally viewed as a blessing in disguise, as a new generation of wine-growers took the helm overnight and threw out the methods of their fathers. They emphasised one thing and one thing alone: the quality and natural properties of their wines. A new, modern aesthetic symbolised the break with the previous generation and, around 10 years later, new Austrian wines started their victorious march through Europe.
The wine industry pre-empted a change which has now become central to the nation’s brand image: natural properties but audaciously modern. The country treads this thin line not just in its food industry but with its architecture, design, and increasingly its tourism industry (which now accounts for more than 8 per cent of Austria’s GDP – a figure that can only be beaten by France and Spain among European nations).
Smart marketing executives have taken the idea of keeping things natural – the buzzword here is “terroir” – from the wine groves and planted it in their own worlds, focusing on typical regional products and their origins. In other words, the Austrian identity increasingly relies on characteristics that were for a long time exclusively associated with Switzerland. An unmistakable part of the Swiss brand was the aesthetically appealing combination of old and new, of upmarket holidaying and ultra-modern spas. But this alliance of hostelry and medicine, the Alpine world and money, famous guests and discretion, is no longer the sole property of the Swiss.
While Austria’s national identity previously consisted of a reflection of its former glory, it’s now very much focused on the future. When, just over a year ago, a new national newspaper was launched in Vienna, it quite naturally and self-confidently bore the name Österreich.
Young Austrian movers and shakers identified the key issues of years to come faster than their Swiss counterparts. The reason: the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and Austria’s accession to the EU six years later. This dreamy country in the hindmost cranny of western Europe was suddenly offering real opportunities. Overnight, Vienna was at the centre of the new Europe, and a fresh wind had blown away the cobwebs left by the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Today, the Lanserhof and other spa hotels, the modern architecture of the Vorarlberg region, the cultural community around Salzburg and the wine industry are all symbols of a new Austria. Here, aesthetics mingle with the topics of tomorrow – health, education, sustainability and environmental awareness.
With climate change leading to dwindling snow on the hilltops, everywhere in the Alps must now look for sources of revenue beyond skiing. Austria’s tourism chiefs are not only opting for artificial snow and giving access to glaciers ever higher up the mountains, but they’re also prioritising Austria as a brand. The Alps are beginning to offer plenty more that’s attractive to tourists: mountain-biking, detox, shopping, golf, art exhibitions, concerts, the whole gamut. Ultimately, the tourism managers do not care what guests spend their time doing, or what they spend their money on, as long as they spend it in the new Austria.
The doctors at the Lanserhof advise their guests to drink less alcohol after their spa stay, and to avoid coffee altogether. Uncooked vegetables and salads should be eschewed in the evening, as the stomach has a tough time digesting them. Cooked fish and steamed vegetables are easier to process. And, first and foremost, they recommend hotel guests eat slowly and chew a lot. “At least 20-30 times per bite,” suggests Wieser. “What your mouth chews no longer needs to be worked on by the stomach.”
Holidaying at an altitude of 1,500-2,000 metres is beneficial for the health, as the slight oxygen deficiency prompts the body to mobilise its reserves. According to a 2001 study by University of Innsbruck professors Egon Humpeler and Wolfgang Schobersberger, body fat drops, and with it blood pressure and heart rate, while oxygen is transported more swiftly and efficiently. The effect sets in after two to three weeks.
After the anti-freeze scandal hit the Austrian wine industry, sales fell dramatically and several well-established and mostly family-owned businesses went bankrupt. Among those that learned the lessons was the Heinrich winery in Burgenland. It introduced radical standards of sustainability and transparency for its products. Today the company produces some of the country’s best-known red wines. Newly designed production buildings are an expression of the success of the new regime.