St. Veit: Siegi Tours enjoys a decades-long Alpine relationship with Americans
Stars and Stripes March 6, 2008
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American soldiers occupying Austria’s Salzburgerland in the 1940s during and after World War II used to give children in St. Veit hot chocolate and raisin cake from their combat rations.
One of those kids, Siegi Baumgartner, found a way to repay their kindness. When he grew up, he established a ski tour company that has served the U.S. military community in Europe for more than 40 years.
Siegi Tours started in 1967 when Baumgartner, then a ski instructor working on the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier, encountered several members of the Wiesbaden Ski Club struggling with the steep and icy conditions.
“I guided them off the mountain and they were so grateful they invited me to a party that night,” Baumgartner recalled.
The chance meeting gave the Austrian mountain man an idea. He would invite the members of the club to his hometown of St. Veit for a ski trip. It proved to be the first of many ski excursions he would organize for American skiers in Europe.
The Wiesbaden Ski Club members introduced Baumgartner to other American skiers, including members of the Heidelberg Ski Club, which had 2,500 members in those days. Soon he was visiting American ski clubs and outdoor recreation centers all over Germany, drumming up business for Siegi Tours.
Baumgartner said he enjoys helping Americans on vacation in Austria and rates them excellent guests compared with other nationalities.
“The Americans are the nationality who, whenever help is needed, they give it. That is their attitude,” he said.
Bavarian American Ski Club Webmaster Nate Atwood chose Siegi Tours for a trip he organized over Presidents Day weekend.
“We use other people sometimes but Siegi definitely gives you the best bang for your declining buck,” he said.
These days, the town of St. Veit still has a cobblestone market square where the U.S. Army used to set up its field kitchen to feed locals pork chops and white bread during the occupation, which ended in the mid-1950s.
It also has the Rustica hotel, a building near the town center where Siegi Tours operates. Some guests stay at the hotel, but, depending on the group’s size, others are often housed at other hotels and guest houses around St. Veit.
Siegi Tours makes sure that customers not only get good skiing, but also a taste of Austrian life. The guest houses, which often double as homes for the locals, serve European breakfasts of toast, bread, salami, ham, cheese, coffee and orange juice. In the evening, guests get a voucher for a local restaurant within walking distance, where they can choose from a list of hot meals and desserts included in the tour package. Drinks cost extra.
Customers are spoiled for choice when it comes to skiing or snowboarding, with slopes for all abilities throughout the Ski Amadé region. The closest ski area to St. Veit is Alpendorf, home to the Red White Red ski school, which offers lessons as part of Siegi Tours packages.
And Siegi has après-ski activities covered, too. The company offers a wide range of entertainment at the Rustica, including limbo contests, drinking games, ice curling and dancing.
Siegi Tours cuts the workload for ski club organizers, who often plan trips in their free time.
“It is hard to book hotels for that many people, but they make it effortless,” Atwood said. “They do the dirty work. That is very nice when you have a full-time job and don’t have that much time to do it. And having been in business 40 years, they know the ins and outs.”
Stephanie and Nathan Ramquist, American skiers from Stuttgart, Germany, said they were also impressed with Siegi’s value.
“We did a mental calculation in our room and realized that it is almost as cheap as doing it on your own and they take care of you, which is nice,” Stephanie said.
Siegi’s wife of 33 years, Irene, said the American military still makes up 80 percent of Siegi Tours business, although drawdowns from a height of 500,000 U.S. military personnel in Europe in the 1970s have forced the business to diversify. In the summer, Siegi Tours offers golf packages that have proved popular with Americans, she said.
Most of Siegi’s advertising is by word of mouth, she says.
“The word of Siegi Tours has been passed around the world,” Irene said. “People meet here who haven’t seen each other for years. People meet here and get married and have children and when the children can ski they come back and take them skiing.”
Find rates and package deals online at Siegi Tours.