A Tyrolean in Sylt

From Mountains to Mud Flats

LIST, GERMANY - JULY 19: Visitors arrive on a beach among on the northern end of Sylt Island on July 19, 2016 near List, Germany. Sylt Island, with its long stretches of sand beaches and its protected dune landscapes, is among the most popular holiday destinations, especially for wealthy visitors, along Germany's North Sea coast. Many Germans, unsettled by the recent terror attacks in countries like France and Turkey, are choosing to vacation in Germany this summer. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sylt Island is one of the most popular summer destinations in Germany, especially among the wealthy. The ideal spot for Mr. Harisch's latest venture.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Austrian health spa hotel king Christian Harisch is working on building an international brand, and thinks he’s found a niche with luxury spa hotels catered to the wealthy.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Christian Harisch and his partners run luxury “Lanserhof” health spa facilities in Innsbruck, Tegernsee near Munich and in Hamburg.
    • The new Lanserhof on the island of Sylt is projected to cost €100 million.
    • Mr. Harisch’s next target is Britain, with additional plans for resorts near Canary Wharf in London and in Surrey.
  • Audio

    Audio

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As a hotelier, Christian Harisch is a man of the world, and yet standing on this dune, the Austrian looked rooted here like beach grass. His feet are planted wide, arms are crossed, back is straight, and eyes are fixed on the horizon.

“This place,” he says, adjusting his hat, “is the only place on Sylt from which you can see the sea and the tidal flats.”

Mr. Harisch is standing on his own land, located on this wealthy northern German island, vacation home of the German finance minister and with a similar reputation to Martha’s Vineyard in the United States.

He and his partner Stefan Rutter bought the 50,000-square-meter plot of land from the German government for about €17 million ($19 million) in 2014. It used to house officers of the German army, the Bundeswehr. Here in the north of the island, right next to the A-ROSA hotel, he wants to open a new location of his famed Lanserhof, a wealthy spa resort.

Whether he can really build the exclusive health resort is still unclear. While he’s won the approval of the roughly 1,500 inhabitants of the city of List –  the city council voted unanimously for his project – a decision by the nature conservation authorities is still pending. And the entrepreneur is still missing a partner for the €100-million investment.

But Mr. Harisch wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t believe in the inevitable success of the venture. “Once it really gets going, I’ll be here all the time, a Tyrolean on Sylt,” he told Handelsblatt.

“I realized early on that classical tourism hotels do not make money, while health hotels do very well.”

Christian Harisch, Managing Director and proprietor of Lanserhof

The 50-year-old’s self-confidence is not without reason. About 1,000 kilometers to the south of Sylt, the man known as “CH” is a heavyweight.

In Austria, he’s gained fame and fortune as a hotel owner, a lawyer and real estate entrepreneur. But to be called the “King of Kitzbühel” (his hometown) is not enough. He’d like to conquer Germany, and better yet the world, with his pet project the Lanserhof.

The original Lanserhof is in Lans near Innsbruck. The luxury spa hotel is based on regenerative and preventive medicine and traditional healing methods. Top athletes, movie stars, entrepreneurs and managers come to purify and detoxify. Regulars at the 70-room hotel include Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube and his wife, the chef Cornelia Poletto.

Mr. Harisch just renovated and expanded Lanserhof for €25 million. Another location, Lanserhof am Tegernsee, near Munich, also opened in the fall of 2014. Mr. Harisch and his partner invested €70 million in that project. Since 2012, he’s been running a facility in Hamburg under a slightly separate brand, “Lans Med,” which is less a spa and more an outpatient facility for health checks.

And now Sylt.

 

Christian Harisch Lanserhof
Christian Harisch thinks he has an international brand. Source: Lanserhof

 

A new Lanserhof here would be the culmination of Mr. Harisch’s career. He was born in 1966 in Kitzbühel. His family owned the hotels Weißes Rössl and Schwarzer Adler. After training as a travel agent, he studied law. Eventually, he founded a firm that specialized in real estate and tax law and today has offices in Salzburg, Vienna and Klagenfurt.

Together with his friend Stefan Rutter, 46, he also invested in real estate. Their group is now the third-largest shopping center operator in Austria.

But his passion was and is the hotel industry, and he thinks he’s found a profitable business model: “I realized early on that classical tourism hotels do not make money, while health hotels do very well.”

And yet, with Sylt, Mr. Harisch may have reached his limit. He and his partners cannot raise the capital for the investment of around €100 million for the new health clinic – which, by the way, would have the only MRI machine on the island.

In addition to Mr. Harisch and his partner Mr. Rutter, Anton Pelzer, 72, a go-getting businessman from Hopfgarten near Kitzbühel, is also investing in the project, just as he did with the Tegernsee location. Together the trio will contribute around €10 million of their own capital. The rest is expected to come from banks and new partners, preferably long-term family business owners from Germany.

“With the investments in Lans and Tegernsee, our own strength is largely exhausted,” Mr. Harisch said.

It’s likely just a matter of time until he finds new partners in Germany. He became the “King of Kitzbühel” when he was chairman of tourism in Tirol and director of the Bergbahn Kitzbühel cable car company. Now he’s building up a new network in Germany. Recruiter Andre Kemper and architect Christoph Ingenhoven are already part of this network. Both rave about cooperation with Mr. Harisch.

“Christian Harisch is a super builder: difficult, sophisticated, beguiling, generous,” Mr. Ingenhoven told Handelsblatt. “It’s a lot of fun with him,” said Mr. Kemper.

To attain his success, Mr. Harisch is constantly in action. A private plane, a Cessna CJ2, brings him from Salzburg, Innsbruck and Vienna to Munich, Sylt, Hamburg or Nice (where he has a holiday home). He claims to have never slept in the same bed for more than two nights in a row.

Mr. Harisch also makes decisions quickly. In return he expects similar expediency from his business partners as well as the “prompt completion” of orders by his employees. As one employee reported, “he is very demanding.”

Mr. Harisch concerns himself about the smallest details. At the Tegernsee hotel he sawed off the castors of a grand piano because they weren’t in the company colors. And in List on Sylt he focused his attention on a nearby Telekom transmission tower: “That has to get out of here, that’s clear. You can’t have a health center with electrical charges in the air,” he said.

Despite his convictions, Mr. Harisch also isn’t your typical German businessman. He brings a certain courteous air that comes with being from Germany’s smaller neighbour. “You will never go through a door or into an elevator after him,” said Mr. Ingenhoven.

His Austrian charm seems to be working on Sylt, where the new spa resort may be his biggest but not his first venture. He is the owner of a captain’s house in Kampen. At Rauchfang, a local bar and restaurant, he and his partner have a regular spot upon which is engraved “Anita and Christian’s sunny table.”

Even Dirk Erdmann, head of the association of private Sylt hotels, is a big fan of “Herr Doktor Harisch.”

“His Lanserhof is a gain,” he said.

But Mr. Harisch would not be considered a “a jack-of-all-trades,” if he were not already planning the next project. Having considered and rejected Long Island, New York and Dubai as sites, plans are now coming together for a Lans Med near Canary Wharf in London. And a fourth Lanserhof is also scheduled to open in Surrey, about an hour south of the city in a few more years.  

But first List on Sylt. Construction should begin in 2017, with an opening celebration coming in 2019. This means Mr. Harisch has no time to dilly dally. He enjoys the view from his dune for a few moments. He climbs down just as any Tyrolean would, with no concern for his fine leather shoes.

“Let’s go!” he says and stomps down through the sand dune as if through snow on mountainside.

 

Tanja Kewes is a senior reporter for Handelsblatt and writes a weekly column. To contact the author:kewes@handelsblatt.com.

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