“To become a millionaire in snow polo, you first have to be a billionaire,” said Katja Grauwiler as we entered the VIP viewing room of the 2023 Snow Polo World Cup in St. Moritz. On the sloping stands, well-to-do – or should I say well-haired – guests sipped Perrier Jouet as they politely cheered for teams playing against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
The tournament is the most exclusive event on Europe’s annual ski calendar, partly because of the luxurious experience offered to guests, but also because of its elevated location on a frozen lake in the upscale Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz, 1,800 meters above sea level. The resort in the Engadin Valley invented snow polo in 1985 and revives the sport every year on the last weekend of January, with around 25,000 spectators.
I was there on the first day of the tournament to find out how such an event survives when ski resorts elsewhere in Europe are cutting lift capacity and turning off heating amid an ongoing energy crisis.
One of thousands
It was a cool -9°C in the ‘heat’ of the afternoon, not that the designer-clad guests seemed to notice as they walked the sidelines or reclined on chairs covered in luxurious navy throws. While playing the game, a gentle buzz was interrupted only by the occasional boom of a G6 private jet flying overhead, and we were close enough to the action to hear the mostly British accents of players cheering each other on – or apologizing for a miss shot.
Between matches, the 750 guests retreated to the heated VIP tent (cost CHF 350 (£307) to CHF 750 (£658) per person, depending on the day), where caviar was served on a choice of Bellini or potato and oysters were shelled on ice beds. An international buffet, provided by the famous Badrutt’s Palace, lured guests into the main hall while in the lounge various sponsors offered coffee, chocolate, alcohol and cigars to jovial guests.
While this isn’t the only snow polo match in the world, it is “the most important” due to the sheer size of the field, says Grauwiler, avid player and CEO of PR/ticular. “There are still ones in Kitzbühel, Cortina and Aspen, but they are played on smaller fields with three against three. In St. Moritz it is four against four, just like normal polo.”
The three-day tournament costs organizers an average of CHF2.5 million (£2.2 million) to run, with additional costs paid by the six teams, each bringing at least 16 horses (four per player) to the valley. Many horses come from Argentina, “because they are the best horses in the world,” Grauwiler said. “It’s a huge expense for the team owner, but when you win the tournament, you win honour.”
Heat wave misery
For the residents of St. Moritz, the event is an essential part of the ski season calendar. The organizers estimate that the three-day tournament will bring the Swiss economy more than CHF 20 million (£17.7 million) in revenue.
This year it was hit or miss whether the event would go ahead due to the unusually warm weather, which meant the lake didn’t freeze as early or as deep as usual. “We need to build this structure on 12 inches of ice,” Grauwiler said. “A local company measures the exact depth with sticks and drones, and you can’t even start building if the ice is less than 9 inches.”
Usually the lake freezes over “around Christmas”, but this year it remained too delicate until Jan. 18, when the construction teams got everything safe just nine days before the tournament started. “It was ready at 10 this morning,” she added. “You could say it’s because of global warming, but it’s happened in the past.”
The ugly truth
Despite battling a warmer winter, organizers admitted to feeling little impact from higher costs due to the ongoing crisis in Europe. The premier venues and hotels serving the tournament’s guests are doing well.
One of those establishments is the five-star Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski St Moritz. The large ski-in/ski-out hotel features a newly renovated lobby with an Art Deco bar serving cocktails and whiskeys up to CHF 720 (£630) a glass, and restaurants including the former two-Michelin star Cà d’Oro and a Italian so sumptuous it serves caviar on top of pasta.
There is also a large spa with several saunas, a heated swimming pool and a cryotherapy chamber cooled to -116 °C, which is frequented by Olympians and guests who want to overcome their jet lag in three minutes. Walking down the halls, it is true, the crisis is far from people’s minds.
“It really is business as usual for all hotels like ours,” said Norman Zweyer, marketing manager at the hotel, which is running at 90 percent capacity despite price increases. “All the costs have gone up because of energy costs, but I think for the customers who come here it’s like pocket money. It doesn’t matter if they pay CHF 100 or CHF 200 more per night.”
“The ugly truth is that St. Moritz has been fully booked since the beginning of December and it will be more or less fully booked until the end of February. And the prices are standard rates (the highest rates), but people pay for it,” Grauwiler added.
This feeling is true throughout the resort. Designer shops, such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier and Chopard, turned out to be much busier than London’s Bond Street. Louis Vuitton even had its own pop-up tent in the snow with a busy al fresco bar.
Visitors didn’t skimp on transportation costs either, Grauwiler said as a Gulfstream G650 flew over to Engadin Airport. “I heard that the terminal is fully booked. Fighter jets can fly in, but they have to fly out to Zurich or Milan and stay there because there is no room left for the whole weekend.”
Many of these guests fly in from elsewhere in Switzerland and key markets including Germany and Italy, plus newer areas including South America and Southeast Asia. The war in Ukraine seems to have had little influence on the number of visitors. “The fact is, we’ve never had more than 10 percent Russians here in St. Moritz,” says Grauwiler. “It was already declining before Covid and the war.”
As the sun set and guests filtered out of the bleachers to continue their evenings in the resort’s well-heated restaurants, it seemed that St. was at home.
“Especially since Covid, people want to spoil and spoil themselves and where better to do that than here? You have great ski mountains, you have events, you have perfect hotels and everything is exclusive,” says Zweyer. “It’s a unique place.” That’s for sure.
How to do that: Rachel was hosted by the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski St Moritz, where double rooms start from CHF 550 (£482) per night in the summer season and from CHF 750 (£657) per night in the winter season, including breakfast and tax. Visit kempinski.com. For more information about the St. Moritz Snow Polo World Cup and for tickets, visit snowpolo-stmoritz.com.