Much has changed in Kitzbuhel since the imposing Schloss Lebenberg first held court over the town, some 400-years ago. Now a hotel designated as a somewhat confusing 4 Star Superior there is little to suggest by its overall performance, at least during my recent 11 day stay, how it successfully sets itself apart from the ubiquitous 4 Star establishments found throughout Austria’s Tirol. Although confusingly branded as 5 Star by Inghams Lakes & Mountains(Hotelplan) it again remains unclear how distant to an overall classification reflecting the recognised pinnacle of service and comfort the Schloss actually is.
As with most hotels there are aspects therein that transcend the official rating, whilst others fail to live up to it. The overall experience within the restaurant, for example, would generally be rated with a single classification but my stay witnessed such a fluctuation in standards of service and catering that the breakfast offering, evening meal, and table service would all need to be graded individually.
Breakfast was the undoubted highpoint of my time in the Austria Trend-owned Schloss. Although predominantly self-service the depth of choice and attention to detail was astonishing, and worthy of considerable praise. It would take a stay of long duration to do justice to the countless options of cereal, cheese, meat, fruit, breads, yoghurt, and so on. Hot eggs, sausages, and bacon were just a small part of the buffet, a word that hardly does justice to what was a 5 Star experience. A chef was on hand to cook bespoke omelettes and pancakes, or patrons could order these directly from one of the restaurant staff. Here though is where continuity of service began to unravel, and at times seemingly grind to a halt amidst what became a land of confusion.
The same staff who waited on tables would almost without exception do so both in the evening and during breakfast. Although breakfast began at 7 o’clock the self-service nature of it was more evident until at least an hour later, when staff suddenly arrived, or at times appeared to roll in late. One such example is an omelette order, taken at the table, that failed to materialise. All it takes is for a member of staff, without making a physical reminder of a customer’s order, to become distracted by other guests or contemporaries before he reached the kitchen and subsequently forget about it completely. This is what obviously occurred. Most mornings I would have to request coffee, when the accepted norm in Austrian hotels appears to be that once the ‘guten morgen’ niceties have been dispensed with the guest is then offered coffee. If preferring tea one would be required to source it from the breakfast buffet, where a bewildering array of choice is usually the case, the Schloss being no exception.
Somewhat surprised I had actually asked for coffee only because it was presumed I had already been asked by A N Other, this was a classic case of everyone assuming somebody else had done the job, when in fact nobody had. Poor organisation, a lack of communication, and cursory interaction with and interest in guests were depressing counterpoints to the lavish and generous breakfast on offer.
A lederhosen-clad gentleman, Gerry, who I can only describe as a ‘breakfast maitre d’ guarded the restaurant behind a lectern, offering a nod and wink with helpful tips of the local area, should inspiration be needed on how to while away the countless hours when rain frequently stopped play. An interesting individual who makes his own shirts and is a professional musician Gerry did not carry, or assume, the authority to crack the whip or chide reluctant and slipshod staff. Not a restaurant manager in the classic sense aside from directing first-time diners he instead, presumably unintentionally, cut a rather sartorially-cliched figure with an absence of real purpose. What was required, as well as rather than instead of, but whose absence was conspicuous, was a individual tasked with continuously but subtly patrolling the dining area, seeking out inconsistencies and monitoring staff attentiveness and indeed, their numbers. Despite denials that it has any interest in being a fully paid up 5 Star hotel, for consistency and quality of service the Schloss Lebenberg only merited a 3 Star designation for its overall restaurant experience, notwithstanding a nailed on 5 for its breakfast.
Experiences in the restaurant during the evenings would continue in a similar vein, although the standard of food fluctuated wildly. Consisting of a starter, salad, self-service soup(courtesy of a industrial size ladle and tureen), main course, dessert, and cheese with fruit and extra bread should there be sufficient room for the latter, there could be no complaints as to the amount of courses that made up the half-board option. Several nights I would walk away feeling sated although on others, anything but. My vegetarian preferences were catered for to a reasonable to moderately high standard, although several dishes were tasteless and lacked imagination – risotto two nights out of three, being one such example. Service was at times good, often haphazard, sometimes poor, but never great. The evening’s appeared to begin with individual waiters/waitresses having their own ‘patch’ but as the meal wore on this system seemed to unravel, resulting in an again lack of communication and an at times unacceptable delay for the next course. Some staff seemed more interested in telling guests what they had done during the day than showing interest in those they were serving. Guests do not need, or want, to know that a waiter has spent his day sunbathing.
I have found over the last few years that Hungarians and those from the former Yugoslavia make up the majority of waiting on staff in Austrian hotels. This in itself is not a problem to me and I fully respect the EU’s Freedom of Movement directive allowing the willing and able to earn money that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to find in their homelands. Indeed, the most charming, diligent, and industrious worker during my stay at the Schloss Lebenberg was a Hungarian, Lazslo, but the novelty of non-Austrians working in the restaurant precipitates a certain line of questioning from curious, often incredulous guests, as to where the staff are from and oh yes, I once went to Dubrovnik, Lake Balaton, and so on. How can any interest be shown in guests and to what their days consist when staff have little or no knowledge of the wider area and individual mountains, for example? The days of receiving verbal guidance and tips for the best walking routes or the ones to avoid from staff, both in the restaurant and behind reception, are seemingly long gone. Yes, Gerry was the obvious exception to this but should an ethos of showing the minimum of interest in guests now be the norm within Tirolean hotels a vital part of the quintessential gemütlichkeit* experience appears to have been irrevocably lost.
My bedroom was well appointed and although overlooking the forest (waldblick) atop the eponymous Lebenberg peak(in reality more a hillock) I was as satisfied with this as those with a front of hotel mountainscape view from their balconies. More decking than balcony my terrace was in effect built into the hillside, allowing in theory anyone on the same floor to walk the full length of the hotel with nothing to stop individual outdoor space being violated. A member of my party staying in an adjacent room was disappointed, and a little disturbed, by finding an ashtray full of cigarette ends on her balcony, obviously smoked by another guest or a member of the cleaning staff. Is this what one expects from a 4 Star (Superior) hotel? I think not.
Many guest reviews have taken issue with the Schloss’ out of town situation, albeit equidistant between Kitzbuhel centre and the Schwarzsee (Black lake). This isn’t though a stick with which to beat the hotel; from the outset the hotel is marketed as somewhere to get a quiet night’s sleep after partying hard in Kitzbuhel. Even if the dubious pleasures of grape and grain are not your thing one at least has more chance of sweet dreams than being awoken by passing revellers. Although almost if not full for the entire length of my stay the hotel seemed well insulated against inconsiderate guests in neighbouring rooms and those above. An extremely helpful minibus service every hour between 9-6 whisked guests to town in a matter of minutes, picking up those wishing to avoid the at times steep walk back to the hotel. I was though sad to see that the pick up point to return to the Schloss was outside McDonalds. In a town so rooted in its self-styled cosmopolitan, reassuringly monied image it was sobering to see such a grim reminder of generic, corporate excess having a presence in one of Tirol’s gastronomic hotbeds.
With around a dozen hotel rooms within the oldest remaining part of the original Schloss Lebenberg the majority of guest accommodation, leisure and dining facilities are housed in exteriorly more bland and unrelieved surroundings. Despite its geographic position there is little at the hotel to be genuinely described as imposing other than its behemoth, monotonous extension. Surrounded by wonderful nature within the forest to its rear and the leafy suburbs leading down to Kitzbuhel the positioning of the hotel is irrelevant and will only be used pejoratively by those with other axes to grind.
Will I ever have another breakfast in Austria as good as what was on offer at the Schloss Lebenberg? Almost certainly no, but nor would I wish to be greedier or feel entitled in this era of conspicuous, vulgar consumption. Do I feel that surly, at times head down reception staff is becoming a behavioural norm within the country’s hospitality industry? I would like to think not and hope it would still be anathema to family-run accommodation providers. It does though appear that young Austrians, as has been the norm for years in the UK, are reluctant to demean themselves by taking on supposedly menial workplace roles, either whilst studying or as a full-time occupation. This inevitably opens the door, as again it has in the UK, for foreign nationals to pick up the slack. If appropriate individuals are placed in the right jobs I have no issue with this, but I would expect genuine interest to be shown in guests and some knowledge of the local area to be at their disposal. There is though little worse than a member of the restaurant staff showing fake interest as a consequence of being compelled to do so by his or her employer.
I would not stay again at the Schloss Lebenberg but genuinely appreciate the efforts of those behind the scenes who are never seen by guests, the few good men, and Laura, who actually wanted to be in the restaurant. The national or Tirolean guidelines as to what one should expect from a 3, 4, 4 (Superior), and 5 Star establishment are not at my fingertips but I suspect the vast swimming pool overlooking Kitzbuhel’s rooftops and a sizeable spa and wellness area have pushed the Schloss into 4 (Superior) territory. It would seem the very fact facilities exist and are at guests’ disposal dictates a hotel’s star rating rather than their upkeep and modernity. Purely using this criterion it would seem that having all the facilities in the world would take a hotel to 5 Star status; there is though surely far more to it than that. Maintenance, cleanliness, the Wellness offering, and breakfast would push the Schloss Lebenberg toward the top table; a lack of a personal, professional service, recurring disorganization and an inability or desire to control at times unruly and antisocial guests’ behaviour in the dining room rein it in from the front runners back to the pack.
Less than the sum of its parts, the hotel is now too big and lacks genuine attentiveness. As a guest I felt anonymous and a number, not an individual, something I have rarely experienced in Austria and certainly not to this extent. As a frequent visitor to Kitzbuhel for the annual Hahnenkamm downhill race and subsequent knees up, Arnold Schwarzenegger will undoubtedly ‘be back’. Unless staying in more modest and realistic surroundings in neighbouring Hopfgarten, Kirchberg, or Aschau, it is unlikely that I will.
Gerry from the Schloss Lebenberg: http://www.gerrytirol.com/home.htm