I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. Earlier this year, en route to New York’s JFK airport for an overnight flight to Switzerland, I mentioned to the taxi driver that I was headed to Montreux. His face lit up. The driver once had lived, he told me, in the French-speaking town, which sits on the shores of Lake Geneva, surrounded by the Alps. “Just taking the train ride from the airport,” he said, trailing off as he searched for the words to describe the region’s beauty. “You’ll see.”
And hours later, traveling by train to Montreux from the Geneva Airport, I did see. To my right were postcard views of Lake Geneva, melting like an infinity pool into the blue line of the snow-topped Alps in the distance, while on the left, a checkerboard of green pastures dotted with farmhouses and vineyards flashed by. Even operating on a sleep deficit, I was glad that the trip took a little over an hour, so I could drink in the views.
My final destination was the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, a five-minute walk from the train station, and the site of Global Meeting Exchange 2019 (GME 2019), hosted by Accor Hotels. The conference, held March 27–29, annually brings sales representatives and executives from the Paris-based hotel chain together with their clients and the meetings industry press for education and networking.
The largest hotel chain in Europe and the fifth-largest hotel brand in the world, Accor has transformed itself in recent years, raising the number of brands in its portfolio to more than 30. Their strategy, said Accor’s deputy CEO, Chris J. Cahill, is to be the most diversified hotel chain in the world, with a brand “ecosystem” ranging from economy to super luxury, enabling Accor to meet the differing needs of its customers.
The Fairmont Le Montreux Palace lands squarely in “classic luxury” tier. Built in 1906 overlooking Lake Geneva, the hotel, with 236 rooms and suites, is one of the largest and most storied in the Swiss Riviera, as Lake Geneva’s scenic shoreline is known. The hotel’s central marble-pillared Grand Hall and salons, hung with crystal chandeliers, have withstood the test of time — they are clearly recognizable in the decades-old photographs that hang in the hotel. The hotel’s tall windows frame views of the lake and the Alps to the south — a view, I was delighted to find, that I could admire from a balcony in my room, where a round table and two chairs sat under a sunny yellow awning.
All That Jazz
The opening dinner in the Grand Hall, served by chefs at stations offering everything from sushi to risotto to tandoori chicken, reflected the three-day event’s global reach — participants came from Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Munich, Marrakesh, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, and Des Moines, Iowa, among other destinations. As he welcomed participants, Christoph Sturny, the director of Montreux-Vevey Tourisme, made it clear how deeply rooted hospitality and events are in the region — preparations were underway for the Winegrowers’ Festival, in Vevey, five miles away. It was first held in 1797 and is held only once a generation — this year’s event, from July 18 to Aug. 11, will mark only the 12th time the festival has been held.
A more frequently held — and more widely known — event is the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, founded in 1967 by local resident Claude Nobs. Over the years, the music festival, which expanded soon after its inception to include diverse musical styles along with jazz, has produced a unique fusion of traditional culture and rock-and-roll in Montreux. Bronze statues of Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, and Carlos Santana in the hotel’s garden, and a statue of Freddie Mercury — a favorite backdrop for selfies — can be found a few blocks away on a promenade along the lake.
More than 200,000 people attend the festival each year, which means that Montreux has a robust events infrastructure that’s hard to come by outside of cities. That includes the Montreux Music & Convention Centre, with a 4,000-seat auditorium, as well as the 2,000-seat Miles Davis Hall. The convention center is across the street from the hotel, and GME 2019 attendees took the stage, writing and performing a song led by Song Division, a company which designs interactive musical experiences for meetings.
The Palace has its own in-house conference center, Le Petit Palais, where conference plenaries were held, including updates on the global hotel industry and world economy. In total, the hotel offers more than 40,000 square feet of meeting space and 15 meeting rooms.
More than 24 hours into the conference, I realized that I had left the hotel only a few times, in order to squeeze in a few blissful walks along the lake. But owing to the hotel’s size and location, offering numerous public spaces indoors and out, it didn’t feel the slightest bit claustrophobic. The schedule included long breaks, which were held in the Grand Hall and the hotel’s garden, and offered Swiss chocolate, cheese, coffee, and pastries, along with lighter options like avocado toast and fruit-topped yogurt parfaits.
We did leave the Palace on the second night of the conference, to have dinner at a castle. Tour buses took us on a short ride to the medieval Chateau de Chillon, built on a small rock island just off the shores of Lake Geneva, which has been used at various times as a fort, a summer residence for the Counts of Savoy, and a prison. Entertainment, fireworks, and cocktails in the cobblestoned courtyard was followed by dinner in a hall with a fireplace large enough to walk into, one of three spaces available for events at the site.
On the last day of the conference, attendees headed off in every direction to explore more of the region and experiences that included wine-tasting in the Lavaux vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; a tour of the country estate of actor Charlie Chaplin; a walk on a glacier; and a chocolate-making workshop.
I traveled with a group who drove up the mountain behind Montreux to visit the Claude Nobs Foundation, which has been established in a pair of chalets where the Montreux Jazz Festival founder entertained friends and musicians who came to play at the festival. (Nobs died in 2013 in a skiing accident.)
Nobs filled the chalets with vintage juke boxes, art, toy trains, and pinball machines that he collected — he also collected recordings of performances at Montreux Jazz Festival for more than 50 years. The foundation, which serves as an event venue, is also home to an archive of thousands of hours of audio and video recordings from the festival, which, in 2013, were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The foundation is now working with scientists in the U.S. and Switzerland to store the archive using synthetic DNA — if all the information on the internet was stored as DNA, it would fit inside a shoe box, said Simon LePetre, the event manager for the Claude Nobs Chalets. The first two songs to be encoded in DNA strands were “Tutu,” by Miles Davis, a festival regular, and “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple, a song which was inspired by a fire in a Montreux casino during a Frank Zappa concert. Claude Nobs — “Funky Claude” in the song — helped with the rescue efforts.
Conference attendees dressed up for a closing gala dinner, which featured a red-carpet reception and presentation of video highlights from the Jazz Festival in the hotel’s Petit Palais conference center.
I set my alarm to wake me early, so that I would have time to take one more walk along the lake, then boarded the train, happy once again for the hour-long ride back to the airport, and the view.
Learn more about the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace at fairmont.com/montreux.
Barbara Palmer is Deputy Editor of Convene.