Most people associate Zurich with venerable grand hotels, quaint old-town streets and the world-famous Bahnhofstrasse, the emerald green sparkling lake and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Maybe numbered accounts, neutrality and corrupt Swiss FIFA officials also come to mind. But one thing is for sure – and this is where the flashbacks end – the strong Swiss Franc comes first. ...Ouch!
Most Swiss people can’t bear to hear about it any longer. And that’s particularly the case if they work in tourism or the MICE business. “The shock of the Swiss franc in 2013 has long since balanced out,” says Daniel Borchert, of Zurich’s Convention Office. Like so many, he is annoyed that people only ever sees the costs, but not the associated added value. “We’re not cheap here in Switzerland,” summarises Nicolas Bovet, whose business card states says he "sells beds" for Zurich’s 25hours hotels, “but guests get a lot of extras, that otherwise they would have to pay more for”.
In fact, the extras are considerable. Extra time, for example. Thanks to Zurich’s central location in the heart of Europe. Even within the city of almost 400,000 inhabitants, almost everything is within walking distance – even if it’s only the next tram station. Or extra safety. In times of uncertainty and threats from all sides, hardly anything is more attractive to business and conference travellers from abroad than the safety that legendary Swiss values such as reliability, punctuality and precision promises. Not to mention how multilingual the country is. Or the new coolness of the city.
Techno spirit and industrial charm meet guilds and traditions
Cool? Zurich? And how! The successful banking centre had already begun to develop into a paradise for creative types, hipsters and start-ups at the end of the last century. A good example is the annual street parade, which takes place each August. Launched in 1992, it took a couple of years to get going – but by 1999, it was drawing more than half a million ravers to Lake Zurich. Today, the Street Parade is the largest techno party in the world.
As early as the end of the 1990s, the former industrial area had already begun to develop into a post-industrial hip quarter. The beginning was marked by the opening of a cultural centre in the former Löwenbräu Areal. With the conversion of a nearby former shipbuilding factory into a cultural centre combining a theatre, jazz club and the LaSalle gourmet restaurant, the successful conversion of run-down industrial buildings into bars and restaurants, cultural and event locations is continuing. Even the smallest possible niches such as the arches in the railway viaduct built in 1894 have established ready markets for experimental studios, galleries, fashion labels and delicatessens.
The Toni Areal, a gigantic building complex consisting of loft apartments, start-ups and the Zurich University of the Arts – a real hotspot for the creative economy – forms the western boundary of the trendy district. Also on site is – the completely new – Swiss Stock Exchange, much to the delight of the Sheraton hotel, which has been there for four years, and its neighbour 25hours. Conference planners also have every reason to get excited when searching for that “something different” for a Zurich evening event. The Prime Tower opened in 2011 on the site of a former gear factory, now a 126 metre high glass tower with a rooftop restaurant and very striking views over the city, lake and mountains.
In the meantime, the new creative types, IT workers and countless SMEs have moved on, into Altstetten, further to the west. “The district is still working on its reputation,” explains Gerard Ambrosetti of the new Placid Hotel, “but new companies and loft buildings are increasingly making the move to the area”. The same applies to radically minimalist design hotels such as the Placid, which, with its restaurant and rooftop terrace, is acting as host and meeting place for a neighbourhood that is still young. But the bare concrete architecture, floor-to-ceiling windows, even in wet rooms, and the first “digital mini-bar” – a guest sends a message, room service delivers – is daring to bring an entirely different type of hospitality to the fore
And Google’s new European headquarters? Zurich, where else?
It’s not just on the fringes of Zurich where the clocks tick faster than they used to these days. It's also true of the centre of the city, on the site of the former goods station: here, on an area of 550,000 square metres, where prostitution and drugs prevailed during the 1990s and early 2000s, an entirely new urban district is springing up, with hyper-modern buildings for living, working, socialising and shopping. “The Europaallee project is being built on one of the last free spaces in the city centre,” remarks Olivier Gerber, manager of the “Marktgasse” on the other side of the Limmat and the person responsible for yet another new, ultra-cool lifestyle hotel. “This is the most crucial innovation of the last twenty or thirty years.”
Red light district becomes party area
The very essence of the district has also changed, in parallel to the urban transformation. Langstrasse, adjacent to Europaalle, is no longer (just) a red light district, but also a great area for socialising. And that makes it ideal for the “We are different” self-image of the 25hours hotels. “Zurich is sexy, and now being here has become really hip,” says their bed salesman Nicolas Bovet. And the worldwide Google corporation seems to think the same. By 2020 the company, which is worth billions, will put their new European headquarters into operation. “2000 out of 5000 employees are already on site,” says Bovier, whose hotel aims to be the middle ground between the two universes of “hipster” and “business traveller”. “We’re even getting our own tram station from spring 2018.”
Meanwhile, over at Zurich airport, much more than a new part of the city is springing up. There is talk of “The Circle”, a congress centre with 180,000 square metres of commercial space including offices, twelve restaurants, boutique-lined streets, a day clinic and private parking. “We are building a completely new city there,” announces Sabrina Jacob proudly, whose Hyatt Hotels will not only operate a Regency and a Place, but also the Convention Center itself.
The total invested in this joint project involving the airport and the Swiss Life insurance company is around a billion Swiss francs and aims to ensure that the banking metropolis can finally draw level with MICE cities such as Amsterdam and Vienna. Although countless new event locations and hotels have sprung up recently, Zurich, according to Jacob, simply doesn’t have enough capacity to hold large multi-day congresses. However, this will soon change when The Circle opens at the end of 2019, offering more than 5000 square metres of event space and 554 guest rooms. And if that’s still not enough, a collaboration has been established with the Radisson Blu, just opposite. Jacob: “It’s about strengthening Zurich as a location.”
In the meantime, the “Digital Switzerland” location initiative, an alliance of companies, universities, politicians and the World Economic Forum, is working on the digital transformation of the country, to “strengthen the Greater Zurich area as a digital hub and to support the Swiss economy during the transition to the digital age”. If that’s not cool...