The Farinet: Still At The Heart of Verbier

farinet hotel

“The Farinet’s closing and it’s going to be a private chalet”.

During the Summer months many people could be found swearing on their mother’s life that Verbier’s legendary Après-Ski venue was closed for ever. It turns out that rumours of the Farinet’s death were exaggerated, and the crowds who head straight to Place Centrale once the pistes have closed will not be disappointed after all.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been changes. The Farinet now has a new owner and management team in place: the building and business have been bought by British IT entrepreneur Lawrence Jones, who has been skiing in Verbier for several years and now lives in Switzerland with his wife (and business partner) Gail and children.

When we met Lawrence in September, he assured us that he never had any intention of changing the winning formula of the Farinet, and that extensive construction work has been taking place because the building only received remedial patchup jobs over the past few years. This means you can expect to hear virtuoso Scandinavian cover bands in the Après-Ski and big-name guest DJs in the Lounge throughout the 2014-2015 Winter season. The general manager is now Stephen Wilson (“Scotty”), replacing Laurent Royer who is reportedly launching a new venture at the Nevaï this Winter.

Even if you aren’t in Verbier, you’ll be able to share the atmosphere by listening to mountain radio verbier. The local station will be broadcasting many of the evening band and DJ sessions during the season and will have more information on its updated Website in early December.

Lump-Sum Tax Deals Under Threat

Allowing some foreign residents to negotiate a lump-sum tax arrangement in Switzerland (based on their spending in Switzerland rather than their worldwide wealth) has undeniably contributed to the attractivity of Verbier as a home for many international business people.

But there’s a real risk that this arrangement could come to an end because, on the 30th of November, the Swiss people will vote on a Popular Initiative called “Stop The Tax Breaks For Multi-millionaires”, aimed at abolishing the practice nationwide. It is supported by several organisations on the left, including trade unions and the Social-Democratic Party.

Underscoring the importance of wealthy domiciled foreigners to Verbier and Bagnes municipality, the local council organised an information evening at the Espace St. Marc hall in Le Châble on the 16th of October. The president of Bagnes, Eloi Rossier, opened proceedings with a reminder that foreigners with lump-sum tax deals bring in 8 million francs per year, 17% of the total tax revenue. According to Rossier, losing them would mean higher taxes, a poorer canton and job losses. Maurice Tornay, member of the Valais regional Government, calculated that foreigners with lump-sum arrangements pay 84 million francs per year to the cantonal exchequer. And at a national level Yannick Buttet, a Christian Democrat member of the Federal Parliament for Valais, cited indifference and jealousy as the two main reasons why a majority of Swiss voters risk voting yes on the 30th of November.

Although it was framed as a disinterested look at the pros and cons (the evening was entitled “Lump-Sum Tax: Opportunity or Risk for our Region?”) none of the instigators of the initiative were invited, and all of the speakers exhorted citizens to vote no. Following the meeting, we contacted Stéphane Rossini and Mathias Reynard, the two Social-Democrat members of the Federal Parliament for Valais, for their reaction to the comments made in Le Châble. Matthias Reynard replied by email, denouncing the current situation as unconstitutional, as it runs contrary to the Swiss principles of fiscal equity. The Social Democrats also reject the view that tax revenue will be lost: when Zurich canton voted to abolish the arrangement at a local level, 50 % of those benefiting from the regime left, but the increased taxes paid by the remainder cancelled out any loss.

So if December sees the end of the lump-sum tax era for foreigners, will they all disappear from Verbier? Prominent Verbier resident Caspar Schübbe is one of them. He told us that, having lived in the resort for over 20 years, he wasn’t likely to uproot, but he estimates that around half of those living here under the current arrangement will leave.

Over the last few years, the canton of Valais has been hit by national votes that have (or are perceived to have) a disproportionate effect on the local economy. The 2012 Weber law (limiting the proportion of holiday homes that can be built in every commune) for example, or the 2013 LAT (Town and Country Planning law, which tightens up zoning laws, therefore reducing the potential value of plots for some mountain landowners in or near tourism hotspots).

Many Valaisans have come to feel that the rest of the country doesn’t understand them: indeed, the Valais was the only canton in the whole of Switzerland to vote against the LAT. An acceptation of the “Tax-Breaks for Multi-millionaires” law is likely to make things worse.

Who is Verbier?

verbier_2014Who is Verbier? This was the question Pierre-André Gremaud, head of Verbier Promotion (the resort’s marketing company) asked at an information session on the 16th of October, the last before the coming Winter season.

The question was the starting point for a new, long-term marketing strategy aimed at presenting a coherent image of Verbier to the outside world. Previously the marketing director for Club Med and Mazda Switzerland, Gremaud has been in the job for just over a year, a period which has seen the dissolution of the “Verbier-St. Bernard” destination (which included Grand St. Bernard, Champex-Lac, La Fouly and Vichères-Bavon) and the launch of “Verbier-Bagnes-La Tzoumaz”, as well as the near-collapse of the huge 4 Vallées ski domain (since averted following an agreement reached by the various ski-lift companies involved).

Gremaud invited the resort’s main tourism actors (including the associations of business owners, estate agents, chalet owners, the ski-lift company, as well as Swiss Tourism) to a workshop designed to reach consensus on Verbier’s image. “Young, Progressive, Active” were the three key words used to describe Verbier. However, these only applied to Winter, whereas the perception of Summer, when the resort is dominated by the Verbier Festival, is “Old, Conservative and Passive”. The challenge, then, was to extend  the “Young, Progressive and Active” image throughout the year.

This is good news for fans of mountain biking, as Gremaud believes much more needs to be done to promote the fact that Verbier has some of the best trails in Europe. In terms of image, mountain biking would become the Summer and low season version of freeriding.

But how does the Verbier Festival, which prinicipally attracts older visitors, fit into this image? Gremaud’s reply is that he wants to push a “young at heart” aspect, as well as putting more emphasis on the members of the Festival Academy and Orchestra, both of which are made up of young musicians.

And what about the Verbier Bike Fest? One of the key, stated aims of the local municipality is to develop the reputation of Verbier and Bagnes as a reference for responsible, sustainable development (including elements such as eco-tourism, reduced pollution, renewable energy use and responsible use of the mountains). This is why the municipality has welcomed initiatives such as the Verbier Institute, which plans to become the “Davos of sustainable development”. When asked how the Bike Fest fits within this part of the strategy, Gremaud replied that he is working with the Bike Fest organisers to make it more sustainable, whilst admitting that he is at the start of a process and doesn’t yet have all the answers.

A major complaint from business owners has been the state of the resort’s Website, which has not been working properly ever since it was relaunched earlier in 2014 (the previous version was also severely criticised). A new, debugged version won’t be ready until February 2015, because Verbier Promotion and the Tourist Office have decided to prioritise the launch of a new smartphone application for Verbier, which will be ready for the beginning of the season and presented to business owners at a meeting in December.

We will have more information on the key events planned for the 2014/2015 season in a forthcoming article and, in the meantime, we welcome your comments.

Bagnes or Verbier Valley?

An entreprising couple marketing their holiday chalet in the Bagnes village of Versegères have described the location as “Verbier Valley“. Now Versegères is not in Verbier, and some might find this ploy reminiscent of South London estate agents renaming Peckham “North Dulwich”.

However, this example is not in the same league of mendacity: Verbier is up the mountainside, and Versegères is in the valley. Ergo, Verbier Valley. And, as an added bonus, you’re not likely to get shot or stabbed in Versegères (which also has more snow than Peckham).

Maybe the Vallée de Bagnes, to give it its official name, should have been rebranded as Verbier Valley years ago. After all, the stated aim of the municipal council is to promote tourism in this valley, practically unknown to the majority of those who visit Verbier every year yet which has many complementary attractions to the resort. These are principally in the realm of what can be called “soft” or “low impact” tourism (snow shoeing, skinning, cross-country skiing, hiking: anything which doesn’t involve heavy infrastructure such as ski-lifts).

It’s probably significant that the “Verbier Valley” idea came from foreigners. Amongst some Bagnards there’s a certain hostility towards Verbier, with several villagers having told us that they don’t feel it’s “their” resort anymore. Whatever you might think about that, these are the people who vote for the Conseil Communal (local council). Needless to say, a project to rename the valley probably wouldn’t get very far…

Valais, From The Heart

The title of this article is an attempted translation of the name of a video which has been making waves in Valais, via the national press. It was produced by a Website called 1dex (www.1dex.ch), which proclaims itself to be for a “free and independent Valais”.

The video is a parody of “Valais. Gravé dans mon coeur”, a lavish new promo video for the Canton of Valais, commissioned by the recently created quango “Valais-Wallis Promotion”. Spot the difference.

Valais à Coeur Ouvert is a riposte to the chocolate box image of the region, taking the viewer through some of the less palatable aspects of Valais: mercury and dioxine pollution from the Lonza chemical plant, noise pollution from army jets, mafia-style politico-economic stitch-ups by powerful clans, and so on and so on. It’s also an attempt to drum up interest in (and funds for) the Website. And indeed French-language tabloid Le Matin took the bait and ran with it, provoking dozens of comments on its Website (both for and against).

Is this another example of Valais shooting itself in its own foot? Some people seem to think that this is, yet again, self-destructive behaviour by a Canton which can seem to be its own worst enemy. The producers of the parody say that they were sick of the same old clichés being trotted out for national and international consumption (cheese, cow-fighting, granny’s apricot tart etc). One could argue that there’s a more positive way to promote a different image of Valais, as a modern, forward-looking high-tech Canton. But that would most likely have made less of an impact.

On one hand this could be dismissed as an example of shock, or emotional marketing for a Website looking for cash. But it isn’t just that: it is also a reflection of a strong vein of opinion in this canton that rejects a still dominant conservatism.