Interview: Peter Fetz — Hotel Hirschen Schwarzenberg

 A Mind at

Interview, Story & Images
Marie Zieger
& Katharina M.

It’s been quite a journey, driving through the whole country to the westernmost part of Austria. Hours pass as lowlands slowly turn into mountains, a well-known scenery while surprising us at the same time. You wouldn’t call it a beautiful day, but the moody weather fits our eager curiosity to make it to our destination. Entering the Bregenzerwald is quite a particular experience: it feels a bit as if your mind can finally take a break, letting go of everything it’s been holding in for a very long time. Our eyes glide over the lush green hills, cattle grazing in the distance, as we breathe in the crisp air surrounding us. Wherever we look, everything just seems to fall into place, that we can’t help but feel completely at ease. The »Hirschen« is a place this very specific sentiment is echoed in every single detail.

Being located within the small town of Schwarzenberg, we arrive at the hotel and immediately start to feel like two characters straight out of a Stefan Zweig novel, who are retreating to the mountains for »Sommerfrische«, an antiquated Austrian term for spending the summers with leisurely walks, fine dinners and a good read in the countryside.

»Not doing much« is frowned upon back at home, but at the »Hirschen« the so-called »dolce far niente« is not only welcomed, but celebrated.

The man behind this philosophy is Peter Fetz, who has taken over the hotel from his father. As we’re lingering at the »Hirschen« over the course of the weekend, we get to exchange stories with Peter, share a few exceptional bottles of wine and talk about tradition, failure & everything beyond.

After spending some time at the »Hirschen«, we’ve noticed that although living in the countryside, you are bringing the world & its many interesting characters right to your doorstep. What significance does travelling still have for you? Are there any places that left a lasting impression on you?

You are pretty good observers, do you know that? (laughs) But travelling is indeed very important to me, because it takes me out of my daily grind. I truly enjoy having all these interesting people stay at the hotel, I can’t imagine having it any other way. But I immediately notice how I change, how my behaviour changes, once there is some distance between me and the »Hirschen«. I am so much more relaxed, and all the responsibility suddenly falls off, making space for new inspiration and fresh ideas to bring back home with me.

I think you are the sum of the places you have traveled to.

People in Medellin, Colombia, for example, showed me what it means to live each day like it’s your last. That may sound cheesy, but it affected me very much and gave me a certain appreciation for life. To see how happy people can be while having so little. I also learned a lot while working at »Claridges« in London – that was the first time really seeing how a high quality hotel works.

How would you describe the identity of the »Hirschen«? What are the surprises the hotel is offering its guests?
It’s often the tiniest details, that attract people and draw them out of their usual routine. Here, exciting haptics or well-coordinated light play a big role – this is deep into experience design, which is something we care for a lot. We like to call it »turning off the guest’s auto pilot«, making them notice the little things. But that’s something I appreciate about my job very much – that you have to know your way around so many different fields. I know few things that are as interdisciplinary as a hotel. Social skills, room psychology, e-commerce, branding … it’s important for us to create this really individual experience that works on a high quality level in all these departments.

The Bregenzerwald is often praised for its beauty & its understanding of aesthetics. Where do you see your place amidst that & is it important to you to contribute something to your region? 

I might be considered a »young gun« right now, but there have been many others before myself, who have been the respective »young guns« of their time. That is a great testimony for our region. We could be known as the ones who were simply retracing their parents’ steps, but instead we have always rethought tradition.

And what does tradition really mean? It’s a bullshit-term. People think, tradition in Bregenzerwald means Wiener Schnitzel – but we don’t have any connection to that! Our tradition is our open-mindedness.

We have always been open to the world, always been liberal, always represented a melting pot.

All my ancestors have been wanderers, and we have been welcoming strangers from all over the world ever since. Change, progress – that is our tradition.

What was your favourite dish as a youngster growing up?
»Käsknöpfle« – Vorarlberger Spätzle with cheese – but gently roasted. In the pan, with some butter. I still remember when we used to get home late after going out, threw some leftover Käsknöpfle in the pan and ate them – simply the best.

Where do you get inspiration for your work and for the »Hirschen« hotel?
I think one of my biggest strengths is my multidisciplinarity. I am interested in everything. I am always contemplating how to improve various parts of the hotel and experimenting with it. And what is there to lose? If something doesn’t work out, then at least you’ve given it a shot. I gain a lot of inspiration from other industries, but also from social media like Instagram. It’s often good for lighting a spark, but then you have to do the work of digging deeper into the matter.

Also, we are very spoiled here in Bregenzerwald with all these fantastic artisans and manufacturers. The lamp in our bar for example, started out as a simple mood board. Then, a local metal worker & our interior architect helped me to translate the vision in my mind into an object that actually shines, all thanks to their professional expertise. I really love how by sharing your ideas with a lot of people, it often naturally finds its way to the right person, who will be able to turn it into reality. That’s the beautiful thing of being surrounded by inspirational people.

»You cannot let yourself be paralyzed by the possibility of failure.«

How much discipline and how much laissez-faire does it need for you to find the perfect balance?

I feel like it’s 60% discipline and 40% laissez-faire for me. The »Hirschen« is an atmosphere-driven hotel: the sum of its people, its architecture, its art and the cultural endeavors are pivotal for the experience. We truly radiate all of that, and if something’s not going right, it will rub off on the whole experience. Creative work can so easily be suffocated by operative tasks, so I believe in a collaboration of an art director with a person for the numbers to keep the right balance.

When experimenting, one walks a thin line between success and failure – how do you feel about a healthy error culture?

You have to face failure head-on, and really think through every single possibility if something goes wrong. And then you still have to take the risk – because if you don’t, your ship will sink in the long run, only slowly. Failure is omnipresent in this business. Not only due to bankruptcy, but also because there aren’t many folks left who want to do this job. The true challenge lies in anchoring a healthy error culture in your whole organisation, not only within yourself. Not everybody has the same approach to failure as yourself, but it needs to be part of your company culture – just as a certain playfulness has to be. You cannot let yourself be paralyzed by the possibility of failure.

People are accepting experiments & change only at a specific pace, and you have to do things »in batches«. You cannot change something each week, you have to wait some time before you introduce them to something new again. Otherwise people give up on you, because it’s too much. And there’s also the issue of energy: it’s just not endless anymore. Always being the one on the front, pushing innovation, is taking its toll. And I want to see things through, because if there are just ideas without the implementation, you are losing your credibility.

Would you call yourself a control freak?

I sure would. (laughs) I’m a bit addicted to Luhmann’s system theory, back from my university days – I believe every mistake has to be made once, but the system has to cushion the blow from these errors. That means, you need something like an »error manual« displaying how to act in case of every possible situation. It definitely takes enormous amounts of work to create, but it motivates us to keep optimizing our system and helps us to keep our cool. So, I’d say I’m a bit of a control freak by day, and relaxed & enjoying the good things by night.

The »Hirschen« officially invites the guest to »dolce far niente« – sweet idleness. A bit of an unusual philosophy in times like these, where faster, better and more is the general rule. How can you identify with this philosophy?

It represents many things I like to do in my own free time. I can still remember the time when I used to work in Viennese hotels: I was immensely driven, always wanted to get things off the ground and promoting ideas nobody else wanted. When I did spend time in a hotel as a guest myself, I enjoyed nothing more than doing a bit of reading. Reading books is just the best. My circle of friends are looking for very similar things when they have some free time: getting out of town for a few days, going for a walk, looking at the sky, eating well, having drinks at the bar, sleeping in a cozy bed, being surrounded by beauty, in the house and in nature, craftsmanship, art – all these things. I’d dare say that the high performance society is driving guests into my arms.

Medical insurance companies should even pay us, we are burnout prevention.

How much do you see yourself as the model host & entertainer of the hotel, or is this traditional model slowly changing with the next generation?

I have put much thought into this, but I have also assumed this role under the sole premise that I will do things differently than they used to be in my father’s generation. When he started back then, there were barely any guests at the hotel. Each and every new visitor was a gain. So always being this talkative, always present character was crucial for the business. But spending the whole day at the hotel, and playing host at night, it’s not feasible in the long run. Not six or seven days a week. You’re gonna run out of energy, and until a certain line you will slowly burn out. If you cross that line, you will be addicted to it.

I want it to be different, and that’s why I feel like it’s my duty to gather this crowd of interesting personalities, who can take my place when I am not in the hotel. Of course you need to be able to tolerate having these guys take the stage sometimes, but I truly believe in this concept. In the past, I’ve gotten bad reviews when I wasn’t present at the hotel for one or two nights, but that’s something I have to live with. And I want to live with that. If that’s the reason I fail, then it’s alright for me. At least I’ll know that I have failed on my own terms.

Are you more of a thinker or a doer?

I am a thinker who has forced himself to become a doer. My father has always been a thinker, but he was never completely satisfied with his ability to realize the visions. So I learned that I had to be both – but it definitely takes its toll on me. Sometimes I feel like I’m a doer who can only achieve 80%. I’m really quick in achieving these first 80%, but it takes me ages to finish the last 20% after that. I just can’t do it. That’s why I prefer to jumpstart concepts, and collaborate with people who are able to take them to the finish line – at least that’s how it works for us. But I guess, I’m still a thinker at heart.

Being young and stupid again – what would you do differently?

Probably nothing. I never missed out on anything. Studying always came pretty easy to me, that’s why I had a pretty good time back then: always out and about, experimenting, getting up to all kinds of nonsense. (laughs) But looking back at these days and everything we experienced then, it gives me a certain calmness today. Let’s see how long it lasts, but it’s there at the moment. It may sound corny, but I’m currently really drawn to nature. I have completely underestimated how liberating it can be to just sit on a tree trunk, look out into the great wide open and let all your thoughts quiet down for a minute. That truly puts all your problems into perspective.

What a luxury, to be surrounded by something that’s so simple, and yet so grounding.

hotel hirschen schwarzenberg
Peter Fetz