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Hobby hotelier re-opens royal establishment

A royal welcome at Les Trois Rois

(Keystone)

Having made his fortune in dental implants, industrialist Thomas Straumann has turned his attention to restoring the sparkle to decaying hotels.

He has just re-opened Basel's Les Trois Rois (Three Kings), one of Switzerland's first grand hotels. He bought it two years ago and has spent tens of millions of francs on its renovation.

There is a lot you can do to preserve cultural heritage when money is no object. In the case of Les Trois Rois, it meant rebuilding from the bottom up, ripping out the floors and many of the walls.

It meant sending staff on shopping sprees at antique auctions with orders to snap up old paintings and a few marble-topped tables the Rothschild's just happened to be getting rid of.

It meant putting televisions into the walls above bathtubs once filled with vodka by the Rolling Stones and employing craftsmen to painstakingly restore the room occupied by Zionist founder Theodore Herzl during the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

But Straumann, one of Switzerland's wealthiest individuals, refuses to confirm or deny rumours that this latest project cost him SFr100 million ($77 million), twice what he is said to have paid to reawaken the Bellevue hotel from its slumber in the upmarket mountain resort of Gstaad.

Mild-mannered

Mild-mannered verging on shy, Straumann has neither the arrogance associated with Gstaad's jet set nor any hint of the aristocratic eloquence that was once the ticket into a place such as Les Trois Rois.

"It's a professional hobby – an expensive one," was all he was willing to tell swissinfo at the hotel's unveiling to the press.

Straumann thinks the hotel could make an operational profit by its second year but he does not expect a return on his investment for at least a decade.

Straumann is a member of a select group of Switzerland's "hobby hoteliers" as they have been dubbed by the press. Other members include German billionaire Karl-Heinz Kipp, whose collection counts top addresses in St Moritz, Arosa and Ascona.

Swiss investor Urs Schwarzenbach is currently the club's biggest spender, financing the complete makeover of Zurich's Dolder hotel to the tune of SFr285 million.

Belle époque

Without these individuals, few if any of Switzerland's hotels built during the belle époque at the turn of last century would be more than a shadow of their former grand selves.

"We need more people like Mr Straumann," said Fiorenzo Fässler, general manager of the hotel association Swiss Deluxe Hotels.

"To be very frank, I don't think you can get your money back on such a large investment," he said of Straumann's latest purchase.

"You need someone who is willing to invest money in something he loves. So it's not just about money but emotions too," Fässler added.

Saviour

"I don't see myself as a saviour but as a person who really enjoys restoring and preserving old hotels, their architecture and history," Straumann said.

The facelift took 20 months and a rumoured SFr100 million to cart away nearly 2,000 truckloads of discarded tiles, ripped-up floorboards and old wiring and to install four tons of new insulation, 630 kilometres of electric cables, 3,500 square metres of marble and 10,000 metres of finest-quality curtains.

"There are many people who are willing to invest in hotels, it's just a question of the price," Straumann concluded. "If you can buy a hotel at a realistic price, then you will find a lot of willing investors."

Whether the industrialist paid the right price to Rosebud Holding for the Basel hotel one will never know. What is known is that the secretive group of investors behind Rosebud have been sitting on several Swiss properties since they entered the market a few years ago.

Unable to find any takers for the five-star Schweizerhof in Bern, they closed it down and could do the same with the Atlantis Sheraton in Zurich and the Burgenstock on Lake Lucerne.

Straumann is unlikely to take either of these hotels off their hands.

"I don't have any other concrete projects for the next few years," he said.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Basel

Key facts

The Basel inn on the banks of the Rhine river, "Drei Könige" (Three Kings), was first mentioned in 1681.
The current building dates back to 1844, when it opened with the French version of its name.
After 20 months of renovation and restoration, "Les Trois Rois" re-opened its doors on March 20, 2006.

end of infobox

In brief

Industrialist Thomas Straumann of Straumann Holding was Switzerland's entrepreneur of the year in 2000.

He no longer runs the company but retains a 38% stake.

The 42-year-old took control of his family's business focusing on orthopaedic supplies when he was 25 and concentrated operations on dental implant technology.

The company is number two worldwide in this sector behind Swiss rival, Nobel Biocare.

end of infobox


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