Vienna’s Sacher Turns to Imperial Concepts to Gain Back Guests

The Sacher Hotel in Vienna, hit by the lowest peacetime booking rate in its 150-year history, is reviving a tradition that made it popular among the powerful a century ago: Luxurious private evenings in all of its 152 rooms and suites, shielded from the eyes and ears — and microbes — of others.

The five-star hotel next to the Austrian capital’s State Opera is offering evenings fit for a Habsburg with secluded rooms for up to 10 people. With butlers sworn to secrecy, the Separee used to be a place where coups d’etat were plotted, peace and war discussed, where admirers approached opera singers and bankers closed business deals. Customers can book every room in the hotel for a private party and be sure that the evening is not the talk of the town the next day.

“The Sacher is full of secret legends that make people talk about what’s happening there,” said Matthias Winkler, the managing director of the hotel, in an interview. The crisis is turning people’s attention back to “what life is all about: eating, drinking, playing cards, dancing, philosophy.”

Along with the country’s best-known inn, all Austrian hoteliers can re-open their houses after a 10-week closure May 29. Many of them are seeking fresh ideas to lure guests as the country is racing to make up for a dramatic loss of overnight stays. Tourism contributes about 15% to Austria’s economic output.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government has started a campaign to support the industry, which is also struggling with criticism after thousands of tourists brought the novel coronavirus home from the Ischgl ski resort. Kurz announced a 40-million euro ($44 million) marketing campaign for the summer season, and promised the government would sponsor weekly tests of around 65,000 staff to present the destination as safe.

The complete shutdown has also sparked a debate in the Alpine country about whether it’s time to counter overtourism as more travel groups clog historic towns like Salzburg and Vienna. Hoteliers are promoting decompression in settings reminiscent of the 20th-century “Sommerfrische” retreat, which combined nature and calmness with intellectual allure.

Sepp Schellhorn, owner of the lakeside Seehof hotel near Salzburg, is hosting literature conversations with Thomas Glavinic, a best-selling author in the German-speaking world, and artworks by Gerhard Richter are part of wine-fuelled evening sessions with theater actors or politicians. “Travel is much more than eating and sleeping,” Schellhorn said, “it’s being a host and sharing joint experiences at the lake or in our salon.”

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