Hotels in the competitive South Tyrol market are family-owned operations, which gives these companies a lean advantage when it comes to making operational and creative decisions. A good example of that is the Silena hotel, where a one-woman hospitality lab has come up with some deeply local high-touch proposals to counterbalance the prevalence of tech-aided experiences in the hospitality sector.
Vals, Italy – In the late afternoon, particularly during the cold months, the multi-sauna area in the lower level of the Silena hotel is a popular spot. But every day at five, unsuspecting guests hear a voice coming from the steam: a man with a recognisably Bolzanese German accent speaks of a death by horse in the Alpine pass between South Tyrol and Austria, a cruel act that cracks open several family secrets.
The man is , the author of the bestselling murder mysteries solved by Commissario Grauner, a fictional character that serves as stand-in for South Tyrol’s idiosyncrasies. But the track is no typical audiobook: it is a bespoke reading commissioned by the Silena, and one of the details most mentioned by guests during check-out. In a hospitality environment increasingly dominated by algorithmic soundscapes, this hotel makes a strong case for the highly personalised, hyper-local and certainly human-touched aural treats.
The recording exists thanks to Magdalena Mair, the hotel’s manager. The modest five-room guesthouse opened by her grandparents in the Puster Valley evolved into a three-star, 30-room hotel in 2002, under the watch of her mother and father. Asking prices, though, remained low, while competition increased from South Tyrol’s eagle-eyed hoteliers — as the lodging sector is entirely comprised of family-owned businesses, operations are exceptionally lean and decisions to update offerings are made at breakneck speed. Five years ago Mair, then in her early 20s, asked her parents to take a leap of faith: going from a mostly family-oriented winter-sports hotel to pulling in millennial and millennial-minded high-spenders, mostly couples and groups of friends, would require an ambitious overhaul. ‘We needed to become the place to go for people in the German-speaking market looking for a retreat, no matter the time of the year,’ she explained.
Mair found inspiration in her travels to Indonesia, where she experienced the holistic intersection of local architecture, health through food and age-old physical-spiritual practices. While most hotels in the north Italian province understandably double down on their Alpine DNA, Mair saw hybridisation as a way to stand out: the Silena would become a South Tyrol-Southeast Asia mix. She brought local architects Noa* on board, and the new concept launched in the autumn of 2017. The bet paid off: the occupancy rate is currently at 76 per cent (and quickly increasing), with an average stay of four nights throughout the year — mostly from the highly coveted German-Austrian-Swiss market — along with certified Excellent ratings on Booking and TripAdvisor. ‘We took a great risk by doing this, so had I known then what I know now, I would only change one thing: I would have renovated earlier!’ she laughed.
It was new for everybody: for the author, for the publishing company, for the public facilities administration
But as the design standard of millennial-minded hotels has substantially risen over the past five years, Mair knew food and activities were the way to earn repeat visits. That’s why the daily calendar at the hotel includes several sessions of yoga, mediation, qi gong, hiking, e-biking, forest bathing, food lessons, a three-course dinner and wine tastings — everything is already included in the stay, except for the latter. And that’s where details such as the sauna soundtrack come in: the Silena is actually a one-woman hospitality laboratory. ‘We know better than to say no when she comes up with one of her ideas,’ Ida, Magdalena’s mother, laughed. A piece of advice for the Aces and Mama Shelters of the world: send your creative team to the Silena for anonymous research, to see her at work. Exhibit A: she decided to renovate everything but the stube, the preciously maintained dining room that has been in the family for more than a century, and then turned it into a private space for a five-course dive into traditional South Tyrolese fare, featuring recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook. Exhibit B: as an avid bibliophile, the ground floor features a selection of more than a thousand personally selected tomes, from fiction to fashion, and guests can order their own personalised carts to be delivered to their rooms or pick up one of the books on the third-floor sleep library — it’s a selection of works meant to be easily devoured before bedtime.