An electronic reservation and booking system was among the first-ever winners of prizes awarded for excellence and innovation in the Swiss tourist industry. The Milestone Prizes were announced at a ceremony in Berne on Tuesday.
"Switzerland Destination Management" (SDM), won the top prize in the project category. Created nearly three years ago, it became a global trendsetter by offering an electronic system for booking holidays in Switzerland.
A car-free zone in the centre of Gstaad came in second as a unique way of improving the image of the resort.
In his speech at the awards ceremony, the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, reminded the industry officials present that it was their job to sell dreams. "It's more important that the tourist is allowed to dream and not tourism," he said.
He accused some regions of still promoting outdated offers and called on the industry to become more innovative.
He hinted that the industry's improved figures over the past few years were partly due to the general economic upswing in the country. He said Switzerland Destination Management was an example of how the industry should cooperate in order to sell Switzerland better.
SDM was set up by Switzerland Tourism, Swissair and the Swiss Federal Railways in 1998 to enable tourists or travel agencies to make direct bookings in Switzerland via the Internet or telephone call-centres.
It's been such a success that SDM's director, Markus Busch, says the company will turn a profit next year. Before the system existed, an individual or travel agent had to track down telephone or fax numbers of hotels if they wanted to make a reservation.
"Now they just log onto our web-based reservation system and receive a confirmation immediately, and they can do that with nearly 2,000 hotels in Switzerland," Busch said.
The Milestone Prize was the brainchild of Peter Kühler, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper, "Hotel Tourismus Revue". He hopes the Milestone Prize will become the Oscar of Switzerland's most glamorous industry and promote competitiveness.
"The industry needs some incentive to improve their offers, to take on new ideas," he said. "If we publish these ideas, we encourage those who have ideas."
The "Gstaad Promenade" which came second in the project category met the jury's criteria of being innovative, having economic value and long-term potential.
Peter Keller, head of the tourism office in the economics ministry said even though the idea of pedestrian zones was nothing new, the Gstaad Promenade was unique.
"It's a combination between a meeting and marketplace and that's rather new," Keller explained. "SDM is the software and Gstaad represents the high-quality hardware that's needed."
Before a tunnel and bypass were built, increasing traffic had damaged the quality of life of residents of Gstaad and the resort's image.
Awards also went to the young person working in the industry considered to have the most potential, and to officials who have made life-long contributions to tourism.
Hans Leu, the director of the five star Giardino Hotel in Ascona, was one of the two recipients of the latter. He was awarded for being one of the most innovative in the business, taking guest relations to new heights.
Now retired, he made it his duty to get to know every single person staying at the Giardino, and created special events to satisfy their wishes.
"One evening we put up a tent and my wife and I dressed up in costumes and told the stories of 1001 Nights," he explained. "We served delicious oriental dishes. We put all the guests together at one table. That was my secret. I could bring them altogether to promote discussion."
Leu also created what he called a "soft management" system. "I delegated many of my duties and responsibilities to the hotel employees. It gave them the feeling that they themselves were entrepreneurs, and they could identify more closely with the hotel Giardino."
Pascal Couchepin warned the industry not to rest on its laurels. "We must be critical," he said. "I'm convinced that only through innovation and new ideas is it possible to compete in this world. Switzerland is known for quality but that comes at a price."
by Dale Bechtel