Selling Swiss peaks from London office tower

Katherine von Ah (right) discusses a sale with Niall Smith

It's a fair bet that before any British tourists travel to Switzerland, they'll have been in contact with the Swiss Travel Centre in London. Representatives there make bookings and often find themselves answering the strangest of requests.

This content was published on December 19, 2000

"Somebody actually called up once to ask how much a 'Veggie burger' at a McDonald's in Switzerland cost, so we had to give him the information," says representative Patricia Bassler.

"He wouldn't go to Switzerland if it was more expensive than here. Somebody went to Switzerland a couple of days later to find out for us."

An inquiry about the type of gas used for a camp stove in Switzerland? No problem.

"I had a call yesterday from a man who is going camping in Switzerland next summer," explains Nick Robb. "He asked me if they sell a special kind of gas unit needed for his camp stove. We didn't have the information at hand and it took me about 10 minutes to find that out for him."

It's the duty of Bassler and Robb, and their half dozen colleagues at the Swiss Travel Centre, to answer even the most obscure questions. Rita Martin puts down her phone and runs off to find a map of Switzerland.

"The woman on the phone needs to know the name of a valley that she couldn't find on her map for something that's being published," Martin says.

"All she could tell me is that it's between Geneva and Neuchatel and if you look at the map, the Alps are on the right and the Jura on the left, and in between is a valley. Now she wants me to find out the name of the valley."

The Swiss Travel Centre is located in a faded office tower in Piccadilly known as the Swiss Centre. Supported by the Swiss tourist industry, the raison d'être of the centre is explained in the first sentence of its brochure: "Don't be afraid to ask, we are here for all your information and travel requirements."

The staff, a mix of Swiss expatriates and British, answer every caller's question, make hotel reservations and sell holiday packages.

An average day in the 10th floor office starts with a briefing by supervisor Niall Smith. On this day, Smith informs his troops about a new offer from a company trying to let luxury chalets in the canton Valais resort of Verbier.

After the briefing, a woman from the Zurich tourist office takes advantage of her stop in London to drop by and do some public relations work for Switzerland's largest city. Before leaving, she places a small box of exclusive Swiss chocolates into each and every hand.

At 10 am, the phone lines open and the staff take up their positions. "I receive 80 to 100 calls a day in the high season, so you can multiply that by the eight people working here," says Smith. "And that doesn't include the calls we can't get to that go on to our voice mail system. It can get pretty busy."

A couple of recent developments in the travel industry have increased the profile and workload of the Swiss Travel Centre. One is the appearance of cut-rate and more frequent flights to Switzerland, led by the airline Easy Jet.

The Swiss Travel Centre's managing director, Katherine von Ah, says it has opened up Switzerland to a lot of people who otherwise would not have been able to afford a holiday in the country.

She says it has also increased the number of last-minute bookings.

"A person who doesn't have a lot of time but still wants to ski will wait until about Wednesday to see what the conditions and weather are like for the weekend," says von Ah.

"Then they'll book. They'll fly on Thursday night, and ski all day Friday and Saturday and take the last flight back on Sunday or even wait until Monday."

The other development is the introduction of an online reservation system, Switzerland Destination Management. Rooms in nearly 2,000 hotels across Switzerland can be booked using SDM. It's believed to be the first online booking system of its kind.

Von Ah is responsible for the system in Britain, and has found it a huge success. The centre has received numerous calls from British travel agents wanting access to SDM. She says they're often disappointed to find that other countries' can't offer a similar service.

The phones continue to ring. Calls also come in from Scandinavia since the London office is also responsible for selling Switzerland in Nordic countries.

Aster Sagai, who speaks Swedish, fields these calls, often from people surprised to find they've been rerouted to London. "They say 'I'm in central Stockholm trying to find your office' and you have to tell them that you're not in Stockholm but in London and they will say, 'oh, am I speaking to London now?'"

But the centre isn't able to help everyone: "Somebody phoned wanting to go to a resort that is quite high, with snow," explains Bassler.

"So we said, 'well, this place or that', and they said, 'no that would be too cold' so we mentioned a lower one and they said 'no there wouldn't be enough snow'.

"Something was wrong with everything so we told them politely that they would be better off staying at home."

by Dale Bechtel

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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