In 1841, at the age of 22, Alexander Seiler, son of peasant, leaves his village Blitzingen in the Goms region to try his luck in southern Germany, where he learns the soap-boiling and chandler trade. One year later, he returns to Switzerland, going from village to village as a travelling salesman, exchanging goods for other goods, and eventually founding a small soap an candle factory in Sion, which just barely manages to keep afloat. His brother Joseph, who is appointed chaplain of Zermatt, encourages him to join him in his village of 400 souls and open an inn. The first outside visitors, at the turn of the 19th century, had been greeted with wariness or outright hostility by the locals, initially finding modes accommodation with the village priest and, from 1839, with the village doctor Lauber; but the attitude towards the Zermatt visitors gradually improved, and the guests turned up in ever greater numbers. Alexander hesitates for three whole years before packing his rucksack. The first sight of the Matterhorn sends shivers up and down his spine – a lasting sensation which compels him to settle down in Zermatt and to realise the chaplain’s dream. In 1853, with the help of Joseph and his second brother Franz, he signs a leas for Dr Lauber’s chalet and does not let himself get worked up when, just a few steps down the village street, a magnificent hotel by the name of “Mont Cervin” is quickly taking shape. The competitor, Josef Anton Clemenz, is attempting to round up the salary he receives as a member of the cantonal government. Nevertheless, the first two Zermatt summers prove to be successful for Alexander –enabling him to acquire the chalet after only two years in business, and 22nds November 1854, to expand it from 6 to 35 beds and to reopen it as the “Monte Rosa.
From now on, his purpose in life is to be a hotelier or, more precisely, to guarantee his guests’ well-being. No matter what he has to deal with, he judges it from the point of view of the hotel. In the meantime, he has become a firm believer in his mission to transform Zermatt and to make it known throughout the world. Of course, he immediately realises that the main obstacle to overcome is of a psychological mater: just like Johannes Badrutt in St. Moritz, he is an outsider in Zermatt. The locals – most of them poor as church mice -, whose living condition he intends to improve, treat him coldly, if not with hostility. The clan spirit is highly developed, each valley considering the neighbouring valley as foreign territory. Nevertheless, Alexander feels his strength growing and is determined to expand his business. In the third summer, he leases the small “Riffelberg” mountain guest house. Built by clergymen – Europe’s highest guest house at the time (2582 meters above sea level), tow hours away from the village and blessed with one of the world’s most spectacular panoramic views.
The young innkeeper is lucky, business is flourishing. Practically day by day, Alexander’s will to carry on, to make progress, to succeed grows stronger. 1857 is in the year that he is given the opportunity to lease the inn in Gletsch, at the foot of the Rhone glacier, converting it latter to the “Glacier du Rhône” Grand Hotel shortly thereafter. In the same year, he marries Catherina Cathrein from Brig, who will not only bear him 16 children, but who will also play an essential part in the rapidly growing family business, perfectly complementing with her warm affable nature her husband’s restless pioneering spirit.
In 1867, Alexander buys the Mont Cervin“ and expands it from 68 to 180 beds. The principal house, his beloved “Monte Rosa”, is also further expanded to 110 beds. In 1871, the “Jungfrau” hotel on the Eggishorn is added; in 1879, Alexander leases the “Zermatterhof”, built by the “Burgergemeinde”. One year later, he acquires the “Hôtel des Alpes”. With only a minimal subsidy from the canton of Valais, he improves the valley’s main road and builds access roads to Schwarzsee and the Mettelhorn. He buys land in Zermatt, runs farms, raises cattle and horses – all in the service of his expanding hotels. Despite the fact that hotel guests are still carried from the valley up to Zermatt on muleback or in wobbly coaches, the number of Zermatt visitors grows larger each year. Driven by a spirit of adventure and the tumultuous events of the time, more and more people – especially the mountains-conquering British lords and gentlemen – feel the desire to discover this unknown, untamed Alpine world and test their strength on these provocations turned to stone. In 1884, more than a decade before the Gornergrat railway is built, the monumental “Riffelalp” luxury Hotel is inaugurated, meticulously planned and built at great personal sacrifice by Alexander; since the Visp-Zermatt Railway doesn’t exist at the time, all building materials have to be hauled on muleback from Visp to an altitude of 2222 metres – a 10-hour expedition. The result, however, fully lives up to his expectations. Shortly after opening, the hotel receives an annexe, increasing the number of beds from 150 to 200. When in 1890, the leases for the “Schwarzsee” and “Gornergrat” hotels are signed, all Zermatt’s inns and hotels – with the exception of the “Hotel de la Poste” – are managed by Alexander Seiler, offering some 1000 beds and employing a staff of 600, not counting the mountain guides. As a regional newspaper describes it: “The large estates in the Upper Valais are owned by two parties: the nuns and Seiler”. His friends as well as numerous Zermatt guests may grant Alexander Seiler a monument for his pioneering touristic efforts, but they still choose to exclude him from their ranks, the “Burgerschaft”. For 17 years he has to fight, until, after a hard struggle and an umber of legal proceedings ending up at the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, he is finally accepted to the “Burgerschaft”. For the upright new citizen of Zermatt, this “Green Card” is a matter of self-preservation, but also of necessity – in order to be able to further expand his business, most importantly for his entitlement to exploit the local forests, quarries and pastures at the same conditions as the “Neuburger”. When in 1889, he finally receives the yearned-for “Burgerbrief”, his certificate of citizenship; his health has already begun to weaken.
Meanwhile, tourism is developing on all fronts; paraffin lamps give way to electric lighting, the Visp-Zermatt railway is built. In a peculiar act of fate, the first scheduled train to leave Zermatt for the valley in 1891 carries with it the coffin containing Alexander Seiler’s mortal remains.
Within 38 years, the foresight, strength and stamina of this visionary peasant’s son have laid the foundation to Zermatt’s success story. Overcoming all opposition and setbacks, he has cultivated touristic fallow land, putting Valais on the map internationally and leaving his distinctive mark on Switzerland’s hotel industry. Inspired by his brother Joseph, the chaplain, he realised early on that it was not only goods and raw materials, but “also the landscape which constitutes capital”. He was among the first to recognise the Alpes’ touristic potential and the foreigners’ yearning for “a change of scenery”. The period between 1854 and 1865, during which the Valais’ peaks of more than 4000 metres in attitude were conquered one after the other, went down in history as “The golden Years of Alpinism”. Edward Whymper’s legendary first ascent of the Matterhorn on 14th July 1865, which he accomplished after seven failed attempts and which ended with the tragic fall of four of his team members, carried the name of Zermatt – and that of the clever innkeeper Seiler – out in to the world. Upon Alexander’s passing away, his widow Catharina assumes the management of the company. In 1895, she also passes away, and is succeeded by her third son, Alexander II.
After completing his law studies in Munich, working as a lawyer in Brig and marrying Emeline Willimann, a native of Lucerne, the 31-year-old assumes the management of the family business in 1895. Talented, pro-active and gifted with infectious enthusiasm like his father, he starts to make Zermatt attractive to “non-climbers”, founds the “Gebrüder Seiler” (Seiler Brothers) Company and buys out his sisters. He significantly contributes to the electrification of the village, the realisation of a water supply and sewerage system the founding of the tourist Office of Zermatt and the building of nature trails and parks. This son of a chandler is among the Valais’ first motorcar owners and exerts a great influence not only on the history of tourism in the canton, but also on the mentality of the people living there; he gives his compatriots a good shake and forces them to choose between their traditional reserve or opening up to the world. The tourism industry is on its way to becoming the canton’s main activity – while the “pests”, as he refers to the stick-in-the muds standing in the way of new roads, railways and self-sufficiency, are trying to make his life miserable. But using his legal skills, he outmanoeuvres them, expropriating undeveloped pieces of land here and there to obtain a railway licence, for instance for the Gornergrat railway. After its completion in 1898, he creates the “red tram cars”, the world’s highest tramway “as an alternative to the planned road through the “Burger” forest, for which the right of way has not been granted), carrying the “Riffelalp” guests and their luggage from the Gornergrat station to the hotel, which does not mean that there aren’t any more attractions for the guests: there is a tennis court (Europe’s highest), the hotel organises “bathing picnics” at the Riffelsee or the Grünsee lake, and the telescope on the hotel’s terrace is very popular amongst the guests wishing to observe the mountaineering activity on the surrounding peaks from a safe distance. The “Invalid Path” or “Chemin des Philisophes” – is the trail leading to the Gorner glacier is referred to – is perfectly safe for fashionable ladies in hat and veil to stroll on. Sophisticated social gatherings, table-bending buffets, five-o’-clock tea parties and glittering dinner dances are becoming all the rage.
In 1908, 4 years after the opening of the new „Victoria“ hotel, Alexander II converts the company to a public limited company. In 1909, the Group’s economic height, he controls some 1200 beds, including those of the leased hotels. Shortly thereafter, he has a bitter pill to swallow, as the “Burgergemeinde” of Zermatt refuses to renew his lease on the “Zermatterhof”, “Riffelberg” and “Gornergrat” hotels, instead opting for the temptingly high offer made by the Dingraux brothers from Bienne; however, the First World War drives the Gindraux brothers to bankruptcy, transforming what has been Seiler’s disadvantage into kind providence. What’s more, he can buy, at an attractive price, the “Beausite” hotel sold by auction from the Gindraux’s bankrupt estate and integrate it into Seiler Hotels. At any rate, Alexander II safely steers Seiler Hotels through the difficult crises years from 1914 to 1918, acting as an indefatigable “Perpeetum mobile”, maintaining the overall view with the greatest ease. In the year of the great fever, 1918, the converts the “Victoria” hotel to a makeshift emergency hospital, and, for the first time, attempts to launch a winter season – at the time, there is only the summer season. This project, however, will not become a reality until eight years after his demise, as only then can the owners of the Visp-Zermatt Railway be convinced to maintain the train connection throughout winter. Alexander Seiler II, in addition to bring a hotelier, entrepreneur, farmers’ leader and passionate mountaineer, is also a committed politician – member of the Valais’ cantonal parliament and member of the National Council from 1905 to 1920. Furthermore, he founds the “Pro Sempione” syndicate promoting traffic across the Simplon pass, initiates the construction of the Grimsel pass road as well as the Lötschberg railway line and is co-founder of the Swiss national Tourist Office. “The King of Zermatt”, as he is called by his guest, passes away on 4th March 1920 at the age of 56.
The hotel founder’s youngest son dedicates the first half of his professional life mainly to politics, becoming mayor of Brig in 1904, member of the Valais cantonal parliament in 1910, member of the upper chamber of the Swiss parliament in the same year, and a member of the National Council in 1925. When, after the passing of Alexander II, he is faced with the question of whether to continue serving his country or to take charge of the family business, he opts for the hotel trade. He marries Elisabeth Cattani, who descends from a well-known family of hoteliers from Engelberg; from this marriage come 13 children. He can’t get his brother’s vision- of opening the snowy village o f Zermatt to winter sports and thereby attracting new markets – out of his head. In 1928, one year after 180 sports enthusiasts from England have spent New Year’s Eve at Seiler’s “Victoria” hotel, the vision becomes a reality, as the Visp-Zermatt Railway for the first time continues to operate throughout the winter, and the Gornergrat train finally functions right up to the snow. By the end of the 20s, the guest become more and more international and demanding; numerous celebrities from the worlds of culture, industry and politics visit Zermatt. Gradually, more and more hotels rooms are equipped with running water (previously, only the most luxurious suites had their own bathrooms), and skiing becomes fashionable. The “Riffelalp” is the new meeting point of the high society, and prices don’t seem to matter. Under Hermann’s direction, the Seiler’s principal hotel, the “Monte Rosa”, manages to maintain its reputation as one of the Alps’ most stylish mountain hotels.
In 1931, the devaluation of the Pound Sterling marks the beginning of several years of crisis which need to be dealt with somehow or other. Newly won Swiss guests help the Seilers to keep their hotels open throughout the Second World War. From his eldest brother Joseph, Hermann takes over the “Glacier du Rhône” hotel in Gletsch and, along with it, acquires ownership of the Rhone glacier, a transaction which, through contested later on – despite peculiar circumstances surrounding the acquisition - , is eventually confirmed by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. In 1943, at the age of 67, he hands over the management of the Zermatt hotels to the third generation: his nephews Franz and Joseph II, sons of Alexander II. Hermann Seiler, who has left his distinct mark on the company over several decades, passes away in 1961 at the age of 85.
The third Seiler generation enters the scene of the family business in 1943, at the height of the Second World War and the great economic crises. Joseph II and Franz, sons of Alexander II, initially have to overcome enormous financial problems, but manage to secure the Group’s independence and finally make sure that the hotels are up-to-date in terms of comfort. Before taking care of business in Zermatt, Joseph II goes through a classic hotel career, working for renowned houses from London and Jerusalem to New York, later on leasing the “Bahnhofbuffet” in Basle’s central station. At the age of 52, he succumbs to a coronary owing to a cardiac defect. His brother Franz has a PhD in law and, as chairman of the Swiss Hotel Association, very effectively promotes Swiss tourism. At the age of 46, he is at his peak, endeavouring with refreshing competence to preserve the familiar character of Seiler Hotels without ever losing sight of the company’s international competitiveness. In addition, Franz represents a sophisticated lifestyle and with consummate ease contributes his network of acquaintances from the world of culture to the “Zermatter Musikwochen” festival, of which he is a co-founder. However, tragedy overshadows his “hardwearing optimism”, to use the words of his sister, Emeline Zschokke-Seiler – manager of the “Riffelalp” hotel for 40 years: On 15th February 1961, just as the still empty “Riffelalp” is about to be prepared for the upcoming winter season, the splendid main building goes up in flames within 120 minutes, the Zermatt fire brigade arriving too late. In march 1963, another calamity struck the village: a typhoid epidemic broke out, killing only a few but causing enormous damage to the reputation both of the domestic hotel industry and Swiss tourism in general. But one did what needed to be done: meaning even better hygiene in the water supply and irreproachable food control.
In 1981, Roberto Seiler and his cousin Christian Seiler as Managing Director take over management of Seiler Hotels. Under their leadership the Mont Cervin Palace and the Hotel Monte Rosa are fully refurbished and extended. They also initiate restoration of the hotel on the Riffelalp.Years later, the properties are sold to Credit Suisse. However, in 2012 the Seiler family and partners buy back the operating company and regain control of the hotels. André and Simone Seiler, the fifth generation, with their young family (sixth generation), now manage the origianl hotel, the Mont Cervin Palace, and have their home in Zermatt.