‘Something magical:’ The Sonnenalp, Vail’s second oldest family-run business, celebrates 40 years in town and 100 years in business
John Rosenthal planned his son and daughter-in-law Michelle’s wedding at the Sonnenalp hotel. Unusual for a father of the groom, he was a central figure in ensuring the wedding went off without a hitch in 2012. Every year, Rosenthal would buy dishes from the hotel.
“He went online a few weeks ago, ‘what do you mean we can’t buy dishes anymore?’ So I got on the phone with Michelle and sent her some, because every year she’s been adding to her collection,” said Director of Sales Patricia McNamara, who’s been working with the hotel for decades. The hotel had stopped selling the dishes online.
Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 marks exactly 40 years since Karlheinz Faessler opened the Sonnenalp hotel in Vail. His son Johannes Faessler became the general manager in 1986 and has been at the helm of Vail’s second oldest family-run business since. It’s become a top hotel destination, and several national publications including Condé Nast Traveler, USA Today and Travel + Leisure have recognized the hotel as one of the best in the state and in America.
The Faessler family is also celebrating 100 years of their family-owned hospitality business this year: first generation hoteliers Adolf and Eleonore Faessler opened The Sonnenalp Resorts in Ofterschwang in 1919.
Back in 1979, Vail was successful and growing, but still young and rough and tumble. People came to ski and that was it: as many locals and frequent visitors know, the luxury amenities around every corner in Vail Village didn’t exist back then.
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Karlheinz ended up in Vail on a whim.
“A lot of coincidences came together that allowed him to buy a really old roadside motel at the time,” Johannes Faessler said in an interview this year with PBS.
Karlheinz saw the potential of the Sonnenalp and got started on executing the family’s vision, which remains the same to this day. He wanted to create an authentic alpine European experience in Vail for his guests.
When his son Faessler took over management in 1986, he felt like he was almost part of the first generation of a family business. The Sonnenalp in Germany was a mature, successful business, but everything here was brand new.
Like taking over any family business – most of which don’t make it to five generations – there was a lot of pressure to succeed.
“There’s always big shoes to fill because somebody before you worked awfully hard to get us to the point where we are, and all of a sudden you enter that arena,” Faessler said.
“In my case, that’s four or five generations of people. You really don’t want to be the generation that screws it up,” he laughed. “But there’s also a lot of motivation there to carry the torch and make it better and pass it on. I think it’s a really cool thing.”
He began expanding the Sonnenalp’s influence, not only by buying additional property, but by implementing luxury amenities.
“When we first came, hotels did not have spas. We built the first one,” Faessler said.
The Sonnenalp in Germany had always had a spa and of course, he thought, who wouldn’t want to be pampered while on vacation? The Sonnenalp was also the first to implement an extensive breakfast each morning. Nice breakfasts are now pretty much the standard at Vail luxury hotels.
“I’m not saying that they’re doing it because we started it, but nobody really thought about it at the time,” Faessler said.
Another thing that makes the Sonnenalp special in Vail is its style. Pretty much everything you could think of is imported from Germany. The furniture, the linens, the staff uniforms, even those dishes bought by Michelle Rosenthal.
“When we opened the hotel, we tried to buy furniture here in America and nothing was good enough, so everything came from Germany. And that hasn’t changed. We still order everything from Germany,” said Esmarie Faessler, who married Faessler’s son Sebastian after they met at Boston University and who now works as the Director of Marketing at the hotel.
Even larger than that, The Sonnenalp has been involved with the community since the beginning. The Sonnenalp Foundation is specifically designed to direct attention towards some of Vail’s biggest charitable causes. That includes the annual Casual Classic bike ride in the fall, which donates thousands of dollars to the ECO Trails bike path system, as well as the Scramble Against Cancer golf tournament at the Sonnenalp Club golf course in Edwards, which had been hosted for 20 years before ending in 2019.
Part of The Sonnenalp’s commitment to community comes from its longevity in the community.
“Family businesses in the hotel landscape are becoming a rare breed. I think the biggest impact to the community that it brings is a level of continuity that typically you don’t really see in other hotels. Somebody who has been here 10 years ago may not recognize a lot of stuff, but they do recognize and remember those few things that have this continuity,” Faessler said.
“It becomes generational,” he elaborated. “People come here and they meet for the first time and they get married here, and all of a sudden, 20 years later, they come back with their own families.”
McNamara said that over Thanksgiving, one family who’d been coming here for years came back. She knew the two girls when they were five years old and now they’re in their 30s.
“One of them got engaged here, the other was actually married here. This is it,” McNamara said. “There’s something magical about this place.”