Switzerland

A Farewell From The Best-Connected Davos Man You've Never Heard Of

As it does every January, the upscale Belvédère Hotel in Davos will host World Economic Forum guests. Only this year, the VIP's won't receive their usual greeting from Ernst Wyrsch, the hotel’s recently-retired director, who has long min

The Belvédère Hotel in Davos, Switzerland (Robert Scoble)
The Belvédère Hotel in Davos, Switzerland (Robert Scoble)
Matthias Chapman

DAVOS -- "I had tears in my eyes," says Ernst Wyrsch. He wasn't talking about last year, when he left his job of 15 years as director of the Belvédère Hotel above Davos, Switzerland. He was talking about 2006, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited the hotel. "We waited for him in the lobby, along with around 50 journalists and photographers. When Ali arrived, something unexpected happened. The photographers put their cameras down on the ground and started applauding."

Wyrsch has probably met and lodged more government and business leaders, more show biz greats, than anyone else in Switzerland. Along with 70 Nobel prizewinners, the list includes 100 heads of state. Just a few of the names on it are Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann – not to mention Angelina Jolie, U2 front man Bono and Robert De Niro. Wyrsch has endless stories to tell, ranging from Clinton's talents on the saxophone to the impact of being in the presence of Nelson Mandela, whose eyes were still so sensitive to light after years in jail that photographers were forbidden to use flashes.

As director of the Belvédère, Wyrsch became a central figure in Davos, where his hotel remains a favorite address of the world's great and good. Wyrsch remembers taking up his position when the hotel was "very down" and there was talk of demolishing it or converting it into holiday apartments. Wyrsch put all his energy into keeping it functioning as a hotel. He made his number one priority the week in January when the World Economic Forum (WEF) meets in Davos.

Wyrsch's concept didn't find favor with everyone. He was, for example, the person who came up with the idea of staging big society events in the mountain town. "That wasn't always in the interests of WEF founders Klaus and Hilda Schwab," he says. The founders preferred a more "sober" atmosphere, according to Wyrsch.

Wyrsch also discovered that there's a dark side to the glamorous lifestyle. "Some of these people want a separate entrance, or a red carpet, and when all the extra trouble you go to still isn't enough – it was kind of a pain," he says. He also remembers more than one big-time French business leader: "They compensated for the fact that they didn't speak foreign languages with arrogance." Sarkozy's was an exciting presence, "but he took up an exceptional amount of room."

Clinton"s mega-entourage

Probably the most important if also the most security-intensive visit during his Belvédère career was that of former U.S. president Bill Clinton in 2000. "He had an entourage of 1,500 people, really borderline in terms of putting them all up," says Wyrsch. Rooms had to be booked for miles around. Clinton's security team was particularly picky: "Only the director's apartment in our hotel was good enough for them." Before the big man arrived, some 40 Secret Service officers showed up and examined every last corner of the Belvédère.

The January following 9/11 was also a challenge for Wyrsch. The WEF meeting in 2002 took place at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. "My wife was invited to work with the team there, and she gave me daily updates." This was also a time when anti-WEF activity was increasingly taking place in Davos, and it was unclear if the annual meetings would resume there. "But on the last day in New York, there was a vote, and the majority – even the Americans -- wanted to return to Davos."

Since then, Davos appears to be unchallenged as the venue for the WEF meeting. New conference facilities have been built to the tune of 40 million Swiss francs and several new hotels are going up.

Wyrsch, 50, retired the day after last year's WEF conference came to an end. He made the decision because, in his words, he wanted to try his hand at "something new." Wyrsch is now a lecturer at the St. Gallen Business School and sits on a number of tourism sector boards. He still lives in Davos. Looking ahead to next week, he says: "I'll be meeting up privately with a few old friends." Who knows, maybe Bill Clinton will drop by the house, just like he did in the old days.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Robert Scoble

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