December 24 2010
There’s something incongruous about the world’s best financial minds longing to attend a curious sporting event that has yet to make a profit. When January’s World Economic Forum is held at Davos, delegates in the know will have just witnessed the seventh Berenberg Snow-Polo tournament at nearby Klosters, which takes place a few days before the forum. Named after its sponsor, Germany’s oldest private bank, this wonderful contest has not made any money yet for Daniel Waechter, the local businessman who created and runs it. But offering as it does an exhilarating cocktail of sporting danger and spectator glamour, its growth has been exceptional. And with additional pre- and post-polo parties at Davos hotels and clubs, the tournament looks set to move up to networking’s premier league.
A descendant of the horseback hockey-like game first played in Persia in 600BC, snow polo, unlike modern variants, is played not only on snow but with three players per team rather than four. It was first played in 1985 in St Moritz, where another annual snow-polo tournament takes place, and is played in a handful of other places, including Cortina in Italy and Aspen, Colorado. What marks out the Berenberg Tournament, however, is that the snow polo is played at night.
The hint of madness about the event is to be found in Waechter himself. Like Fitzcarraldo, the obsessed opera lover who hauled a riverboat across an Amazonian mountain in a quest to build an opera house in the Peruvian city of Iquitos, Waechter had something of a challenge on his hands when he decided to bring snow polo to Klosters. Not only did he know nothing about the game, he had to build an arena – not to mention such details as transporting strings of polo ponies high into the Swiss Alps and stabling them so they didn’t freeze to death.
Indeed, it might never have grown from being a rather wayward idea but for a chance encounter Waechter had in December 2004 with Jack Kidd, one of Europe’s leading polo players. Kidd was in Klosters visiting his sister Jemma, whose in-laws, the Marquis and Marchioness of Douro, have a chalet here.
“Jack convinced me it was possible,” says Waechter. “We came to an agreement that he would organise the polo teams and I would organise the pitch.”
One thing that they were in agreement on, and which would be a worldwide first for a polo tournament, was that it would be held at night. “People want to ski during the day and it also meant creating a completely different kind of event with a unique atmosphere,” says Waechter.
Like the Snow Queen’s palace, Waechter’s arena is made of snow and ice – even if the inspiration comes from his long-standing knowledge of construction rather than the pages of Hans Christian Andersen.
“The method is not that different to constructing a bridge or a wall, except that, instead of cement, we pour water and snow into mouldings that then set and become solid,” explains Waechter of the novel technique he and his team created, and that has since been copied by others. “The whole arena is like a Roman amphitheatre, where the spectators stand on the snow walls and look down onto the pitch.”
Fortunately for contestants, they are not dispatched to the grave after doing battle but are shepherded into the hospitality tent for a glass of champagne. Not that there haven’t been hiccups and headaches aplenty. “The first year  it snowed so much and the ground was so soft that the horses could hardly run,” recalls Waechter. “The second year it didn’t snow enough, so we had to drop 40 lorry-loads of snow onto the pitch to save the event. Another year it was so cold the horses could hardly breathe and we had to stop the game to give them a break – never mind the players.”
Yet within five years, the Berenberg Snow-Polo tournament weekend has become the biggest event in Klosters by any means, with attendance rising from around 4,000 to 8,000. Some 150 tonnes of materials are trucked into the village for the weekend, including tents, wooden floors and stabling, hay and straw.
As for the polo, in 2011 six international teams will compete for top honours in this new twist to the world’s oldest and fastest team sport, played on an oval playing field measuring 55m by 115m. Huge light balloons illuminate the pitch. The event is free to watch with free admission to a heated tent, equipped with a bar, while more luxurious VIP tents, styled in a contemporary Alpine fashion, and tickets at reserved tables will also be available (£400 with dinner and drinks). Indeed, the hospitality aspect of the event has also grown considerably.
“The first year we had one small tent and a few staff handing out peanuts and beer and prosecco in plastic glasses,” says Waechter. “Now we have a whole tent village with two separate banquets of 250 people on each night, sitting down to four-course dinners. We also have a lounge tent where everyone meets for music and dancing.”
As well as being one of the best-known polo players on the international circuit and now one of the main promoters behind the Berenberg tournament, Kidd has played snow polo at St Moritz and sees a distinction between the two. “Klosters is what St Moritz used to be: smaller and more family orientated,” he says.
Kidd is also one of several players hoping to broaden public participation and interest in the sport and take it away from its “sport of kings” image, most notably in his role as director of polo for the recent Polo in the Park events that took place in London this summer.
Those with a yearning to take up playing polo can get a leg up here. For a start, Klosters boasts the only “computerised polo simulator on the continent”, according to Waechter. Looking a bit like the old Bucking Bronco fairground attraction, this is a wooden horse that moves from a slow trot to a fast canter. Either side of the “horse” are moving belts offering balls to hit with your mallet. For those looking to try the sport for real, there will be packages available that include lessons during the day from professional polo players such as Argentinean-born Oscar Mancini, who is competing this year.
Adventurous sports fans beware: polo can be as hazardous as it is exhilarating. “You’ve got horses galloping at 30 miles an hour combined with people with sticks,” points out Kidd, whose injuries include “lots of broken bones, torn ligaments, twists and bangs; being knocked unconscious and helicoptered off the field”.
“The sport gives you such an incredible feeling, the only way of quitting is death or bankruptcy,” concludes Kidd. Although, on a much lighter note, he recognises that “at the end of the day, people use polo as a gathering point; a way of bringing people together”.
And it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular and fertile setting for networking than a chocolate-box pretty village at the foot of a sweeping mountain range. And that is before the polo players on charging steeds start kicking up the snow, with mallets flailing, and oozing sex appeal.
“The best thing about Klosters is that it takes place at night, after all the fun that we’ve had during the day,” says Andreas Brodtmann, managing partner of Berenberg Bank. In addition to being the event’s main sponsor since 2007, they support one of the teams and invite 300 clients from around the world to attend for hospitality purposes. The British menswear company Hackett also sponsors a team and have produced a Snow Polo collection that has proved to be one of its most popular clothing lines. Meanwhile, the team that Oscar Mancini, not to mention snow-polo fanatic Daniel Waechter himself, will be playing on is called How To Spend It after this very publication – the event’s UK media partner.
Unlike St Moritz, where the polo is distant from spectators, many of whom watch the game through binoculars, Klosters puts you quite literally on top of the action, with most spectators standing on Waechter’s ice wall. They are so close they could almost reach out and touch the horses. This makes for a much more electric atmosphere, closer connection to and greater appreciation of the game, according to Brodtmann.
“People also love the fact that it is so down to earth at Klosters,” he explains. “You get to meet with the players and hang out with them – and the catering by Swiss group Gamma is second to none.”
If the rich at Klosters are more Puffa-jacket-and-woolly-hat practicality than St Moritz fur-coat flamboyance, then Waechter reckons they have the better professional and social standing. He’s just not naming them. Nor does he reckon most would stand out among the local farmers or want to see that change – “We like your British understatement here,” he says.
Asking whether the event will make money produces a smile. “We do it for fun,” says Waechter. “Polo costs, and because nobody in the organisation has ever made a nickel from it and we all do it for free, there is a lot of enthusiasm. Maybe somewhere down the road, that spirit will change but I’m going to try and keep it like this and for as long as possible.”