Taking a road less travelled
It was the handsome man in the lobby who made a lasting impression on Volker Küchler at the tender age of six in the imposing Panorama Hotel in Thuringia’s Oberhof. “He wore a great suit and did nothing else,” he says mischievously. To be a hotel director one day, yes, that became the absolute dream to him from then on. And he actually became one, but he has also done a lot since then. Küchler is the director of the Oberjoch – Familux Resort in Germany’s highest mountain village, at an altitude of 1,200 metres. He always has the Iseler, Oberjoch’s local mountain, in view – and of course the 138 family suites of the resort with its eventful history.
The people of both Allgäu and Oberlausitzer are stubborn, but when it’s right, it’s for life.
Ever since that fateful encounter in his childhood, his career path has been marked out for him. Küchler first decided to train as a waiter, “because I always preferred to have cash in my pocket”. The decision turned out to be the right one: “I really put my heart and soul into it. During the training period, I became apprentice of the month 22 times in 24 months. At that time I was paid 50 marks, which was a lot of money,” says the Upper Lusatian. The people of Upper Lusatia are very similar to the people of Allgäu, Küchler says, “they are very stubborn, but if it’s right, it fits for life. Nevertheless, be careful: Never say Saxon to an Upper Lusatian! The region is special. Particularly beautiful. And particularly peculiar.
THROUGH A DEEP VALLEY
After working in event catering with 18-hour workdays and planned restaurant projects that never came to fruition, Küchler – newly married – moved to the Allgäu. “I was actually very close to home. It was clear to me that if I ever went away, it should be to the Alps.” Garmisch-Partenkirchen was followed by Oberjoch, and he gained experience in the family hotel business in Kleinwalsertal. In 1994, it was to become a lasting relationship with the climatic health resort – and the Alpine hotel including Alpine clinic at that time. “The combination of 4-star hotel and spa clinic was unique. There was also a third pillar, the mother-child cure. So, we had three completely different types of catering.”
The house flourished until health reforms gradually led to stricter spa regulations and “spa holidaymakers” became real patients. The compatibility with 4-star hotel guests under one roof turned out to be more and more problematic, the difficulties increased. “It was the beginning of the end.” And it was at the same time when Volker Küchler was promoted from restaurant manager to F&B manager. The situation continued to come to a head, Küchler became assistant manager and eventually deputy manager of a bankrupt business in the process of reorganisation. “I always believed in the location and in the greatness of the house.” And he likes challenges, too.
PASSION FOR NUMBERS GAMES
The clinic was closed, the German, known in Familux resort circles as a number cruncher, unpacked his business management know-how, “the bank and management doubted it, though, because I was only a trained waiter.” The sense of numbers, however, is part of his DNA: “I was a three-time Olympic maths champion in the Dresden district at school,” he reveals with a smile. Nevertheless, he had to work on Excel lists for the first time for the reporting required by the bank, “but when things start to work, they become more and more fun.”
Küchler managed the business from 2005 to 2010. Around 80 “potential buyers” were interested in buying. “But I just talked them down on the place, no one would have put much into the hotel. This gem had already become too valuable to me,” says the passionate host. Renovation was done in small steps with an even smaller budget. A few meeting rooms were set up, double rooms were merged into suites and the focus shifted more and more to the target group of families. “I was waiting for someone to recognise the potential of the house.” And one day a couple came. Without an appointment, to boot. They showed interest. Because the turnover and occupancy figures spoke for themselves despite everything. “Like everyone else, I asked them if they wanted to see the dilapidated swimming pool technology first or if they would rather see the broken heating system,” Küchler recalls. But the two were not deterred. They were Ernst and Andrea Mayer. And thus, the masterminds of the undisputed role model in terms of family hotels, the Alpenrose in Lermoos. Küchler would have preferred to sink right into the ground on the spot.
PROMOTION TO THE BUNDESLIGA
The rest is history. Not only was the chemistry right, joint plans were quickly forged. Küchler already had some ideas in his drawer – from the theatre to the slide. However, Ernst Mayer had it in mind that the latter would be 128 metres long, making it Germany’s longest tyre water slide – and many other things as well. “That’s how everything took off and gained momentum. Suddenly there was a perspective. He was exactly the investor I had been waiting for. Since then, the development has exploded. I don’t think there is anything comparable on this scale. We have risen from the Kreisklasse ad hoc to the 2nd Bundesliga, just phenomenal.”
The togetherness is warm and familiar, today more than ever
Of the 80 employees at that time, more than 70 are still in the house, the loyalty is immense. In the meantime, the Oberjoch – Familux Resort has grown to a team of 170. What principles does Küchler uphold as boss? “I don’t think I’ve changed much. I like to stay normal. Everything I ask for, I have done myself before.” Year after year, the hotel has been and continues to be expanded and modernised – sauna, chillout deck, suites, fitness centre. “We are proud of it, but it is still not enough. The Alpenrose has come up mightily again with the big refurbishment.” Next up in Oberjoch is the outdoor pool, the cosmetics and wellness department will be located on the roof in a glass cube, chalets for dog owners and penthouses are in the making. But it’s not just the many innovations alone; the house also scores with a lot of emotion. “Personal encounters are worth ten times more than before. We place a very high value on the familiar and warm-hearted.” Children as guests? “They are the best thing there is. Children are honest – they say when something doesn’t fit. And if it fits, they say so.” In any case, Küchler is completely in his element in the Allgäu mountains: “I could never imagine doing anything else again. The way it is now is just right.”