Culture and spa are an innovative and perfect combination: you can relax in the spa and then clear your head for new ideas, music and literature,” says Dietmar Mueller-Elmau. “It’s wellness for the mind and body: both a mental detox and food for thought.”
Mueller-Elmau claims there’s no other spa in the world offering what Schloss Elmau offers. Culture and ideas were the starting point and spa – all seven of them – came later, which is what makes the concept inimitable. World class musicians perform, leading philosophers lecture and best-selling authors, like Julien Barnes and Ian McEwan, come to launch new books, perhaps attracted by the massive book shop and well-stocked library.
“There’s no other place in the world which I know of which has this combination, the musical tradition goes back more than 100 years, with a legendary concert hall,” says Mueller-Elmau. He became proprietor in 1997, taking the helm of the property which had been in the family for three culture loving generations. It was built by his grandfather, Johannes Mueller, in 1914, and since the 50s it’s been building its reputation for music.
After a successful career in IT, Mueller-Elmau sold his hotel software company, Fidelio, and returned home to help his parents. Sadly, in 2005, a fire destroyed most of the original schloss.
Space and freedom
Turning disaster into opportunity, Mueller-Elmau decided the rebuild should include a luxury spa, which would attract more people and more top class musicians. However, he admits that he’s not a spa lover. “I tried to build a spa which would tempt me to use it,” he says. “I used the worst case scenario, taking the most extreme position in order to convince people like me, who don’t like spas to use it. But I still haven’t used it! I don’t like to be with other people!”
Space is one of the luxuries he has created for his guests: there’s both space to avoid people and the opportunity to meet them. The Luxury Spa Cultural Hideaway, in the restored original building, has 115 bedrooms while the Luxury Spa Retreat, built in 2015 to host the G7 summit, has 47 suites, a view of the mountains and the sound of the stream rushing by.
Guests then have the choice of eight restaurants, including one with a Michelin star and six pools, five of which are outside. “What you need in a spa is a sense of calm, fresh air and warm water,” he says. “People love being able to swim outside in warm water when it’s freezing cold.”
Three of the spas are aimed at families and three are adult only. The TCM Medical Spa is very popular, as well as anti-ageing treatments, but the most demand is for traditional western massages. “We’re seeing the mental detox becoming far more important than anything else,” says Mueller-Elmau.
“Everyone is mentally stressed out, not physically stressed out. They want to be inspired and meet inspiring people, discover new worlds in literature and participate in interesting political debates. All of our guests are attracted by the spa, the nature and the sport, so the cultural side is a new thing for many, but they all go away talking about the psychological and mental benefits.”
One of the interesting aspects about the model is that children stay for free and all of the cultural experiences, the use of the spas, breakfast, dinner and renting an electric BMW to explore the area are included in the room rate.
“And it’s still only one third of the price of a [high end] UK hotel,” he jokes. “We’re not pedagogic, we don’t give people programmes, there’s no pressure. Most go to the spa, but the most sophisticated guests don’t anything. The biggest luxury is to just gaze at the mountains.”
Hiking and e-mountain biking are popular in the summer and skiing in the winter. The mountains also host a castle dating from King Ludwig, which Mueller-Elmau describes as “the most spectacular architecture in spectacular nature.”
The whole concept has been created according to what Mueller-Elmau likes personally: “I didn’t think about any market, I was just trying to build something which I’d like to use. I have six children, I like to be alone, I like music, literature and architecture.”
If it seems like there’s a lot on offer for adults, children are equally well served with a huge ‘edutainment’ programme available. It features culture and sport, including soccer camps every two weeks – taken by professionals from the German football league no less.
The resort has been phenomenally successful. It’s consistently accoladed by magazines and polls, has been profitable since day one and runs at 75 per cent occupancy, with more than 90 per cent of guests returning. The bulk of the visitors – around 70 per cent – are from Germany or German-speaking countries and the rest are from the UK, Europe and the US. It’s a 50/50 split between families and couples.
The biggest operational challenge is to keep ahead of the game. “We’re rated as one of the best hotels in the world and the better you get, the thinner the air gets and the better you have to be,” says Mueller-Elmau. “There’s never an end, you have to continually improve, it takes a lot of energy to constantly run ahead of the curve and hire the people who have the energy. We are never happy, we have to lift the bar for everything.”
Mueller-Elmau might have hit on a concept which works perfectly, but he doesn’t think others will, or could, follow their lead: “It takes someone who has a passion to do this. We are running the hotel because of the cultural programme not the other way around and that’s why the artists come: we are the second biggest promoter of classical music in Germany. However, the spa is also a tremendous asset, it has made us even more unique and enriched the experience.”