An eco-transformation with a difference

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by Dina Maaty | Published 5 years ago

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How can a traditional, family-run Austrian hotel, reinvent itself as a unique organic resort village? 

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Nestled in a secluded lush green valley of Bad Gastein in Austria’s Salzburg Alps, surrounded by endless mountains and forests, sits a traditional family-run hotel village with a difference.Hoteldorf Grüner Baum is the Gastein valley’s first entirely organic hotel and only the third such property in the Salzburg province. But it’s not always been that way.

The property, which has been run by the Blumschein family for more than 100 years, took the ambitious step to ‘go bio’ back in 2011 – a move pioneered by Maximilian Blumschein and his wife Sigrid who are the fourth generation of the Blumscheins to manage Grüner Baum.

The experienced man-and-wife team, who first met working for a well-known hotel chain in the US before moving together to North Africa, decided it was time to give the family resort a new point of difference, while retaining its rustic authentic Austrian charm.

It saw the passionate hoteliers embark on an 18-month €500,000 makeover of the property in 2013 and while the extensive renovations to both the rooms and exterior were taking place, they orchestrated Grüner Baum’s transformation to a fully organic resort.

Food first

In an exclusive interview with Hotel News ME, Sigrid Blumschein explains how Grüner Baum’s new Hungarian chef first instigated the move to organic when he joined the property a few years back.

“Chef Endre had lived in Bad Gastein for years and at first, we talked about focusing on original food [of the region] which naturally led us to the subject of organic locally-sourced food and ingredients,” she explains.

“This involved changing our menus, our suppliers and our ingredients – everything. It was a big change.”

One of the first steps the culinary team made was to “scale back the menu from six to four courses”, explains Blumschein. “We changed quantity to quality.”

This process involved reducing menu options to fewer dishes, but still offering a delicious salad bar to start the meal; followed by the choice of two starters, typically soups; then three mains (one meat, one fish and one vegetarian); and a desert of the day. An organic cheeseboard is served upstairs in the bar for guests who would like a post-dinner indulgence.

The switch to seasonal dishes using local organic ingredients where possible was also high on the agenda.

“We learned to buy in bulk when items like strawberries, for instance, were in season, because we could then deep freeze them to make them last,” says Blumschein.

“Another challenge for the chef was that deliveries of organic ingredients are not as frequent as regular produce, often occurring once every three days rather than daily, so we have had to adapt to that.”

To ensure quality, Grüner Baum procures solely from suppliers whose organic products are guaranteed and certified by Bio Garantie, the Austrian market leader in inspection and certification of organic products.

The certificates must be renewed every 12 months, during which time Austria Bio Garantie conducts two checks. The Grüner Baum management team also conducts its own checks every six months.

By August 2014 every consumable product in the resort’s kitchen and cellar was certified as organic by Austria Bio Garantie, from wine, soft drinks, tea and coffee to salt and pepper, flour, vegetables, chips and ice-cream.

The hotel has also committed to using fish from its very own on-site pond, wine from vintners with certified sustainable agricultural practices and beer made at the local Gußwerk brewery.

Grüner Baum serves up more than 100,000 meals a year, so the use of exclusively organic food and drink represents a significant undertaking.

“Sourcing wine and spirits was particularly difficult; there’s not much organic vodka and whiskey around,” laughs Blumschein.

“But thanks to suppliers from all over the world, we now have 120 wines on our menu and have sourced enough organic spirits to create a brand new innovative cocktail menu.”

Future plans at Grüner Baum include growing a herb garden at the hotel while the resort’s estate, which spans some 70 hectares, is home to two natural springs which produce the property’s entire water source.

“You can drink our fresh spring water straight from the tap,” says Blumschein. “We definitely don’t have a water shortage here and it costs us nothing.”

She concedes that organic produce can be costly, but notes the chef is clever with recipes and sourcing ingredients.

“For example, we have even learned that some of the small organic eggs are just as tasty but not as expensive,” she adds.

The whole organic package

While the kitchen transformation was taking place, Grüner Baum overhauled its spa offering too. The property now uses certified organic skincare products from Salzburg-based firm Marías Organic Care and last year introduced six new treatments, from facials to massages, based on mare’s milk, wild roses and other natural organic ingredients.

In-room amenities, from soap to shampoo, are sourced from FLORALUXE Bio, which are made from natural ingredients too.

The last step in the journey was to rollout organic cleaning products in January 2015. These products are even applied using recycled paper such is Grüner Baum’s quest to become as environmentally friendly as possible.

The 4-star resort finalised its ‘green makeover’ with the implementation of eco-electricity throughout the property this year, using water and wind power as a renewable energy source.

Wood-chop heating and sourcing energy from ‘green’ suppliers has helped the property complete this transformation.

As attestation of its commitment to enhancing its eco-credentials, the Grüner Baum hotel has become a member of ‘BIO HOTELS’ – a pan-European group of more than 50 hotels that all agree to adhere to stringent criteria of energy-efficient construction, organic cuisine and environmentally-sound waste management.

Blumschein says guest feedback since the resort went organic has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

“At first some guests, particularly the older generation and regulars who have been staying with us for years, were sceptical,’ she admits. “But once they experienced the resort for themselves they embraced the change and they have acknowledged that the organic food tastes so much better,” she says.

“There is growing demand for organic resorts as part of the global drive for responsible tourism and my advice to any hotels thinking of taking the plunge would be, ‘just go for it’.”

She advises the managers of would-be organic resorts to “take advice” from those who have already made the switch.

“We definitely learned some top tips from other hotels in Austria, particularly when sourcing ingredients,” she adds.

Grüner Baum general manager Max Blumschein says the resort now caters to the growing number of international travellers seeking “organic travel experiences”.

“In 2013 The Grüner Baum celebrated its centenary and we want to be here in another 100 years, offering the most sustainable quality possible,” he says.

“We have always taken pride in our hotel’s closeness to nature and now we are throwing down the gauntlet and retaining and growing our great range of food, wine, spa products and activities but offering a guarantee of organic quality and reduced [environmental] footprint.

“Today’s travellers are extremely discerning and the Grüner Baum will continue to pride itself on offering the best, which now means being genuinely responsible and sustainable.

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