Offering abundant history, culture and architecture, all in the European style, Germany is top-of-mind among those seeking a first-class meeting destination. By Allan Lynch, July/August 2008
I think people should try to remember Germany,” says Heidi Gray, product development executive with Meridican Incentive Consultants, in Markham, Ont. “Everyone knows it’s there, but nobody realizes how much it has to offer. I know from traveling across the Rhine Valley that the countryside is gorgeous. There’s something for everybody, from wineries to castles.”
One of the reasons Germany seems off Canadian planners’ radar is the perception that it isn’t a fun destination, says Richard Rheindorf, the German Convention Bureau’s North American director. “People know that in Germany, things get done very efficiently and in a timely manner,” he says. “Once Germans are committed to something, it will happen, but Germany is not only a location to hold the perfect meeting of any size, it’s also a great place to have a good time.”
Indeed, Germans are one of the most celebratory people on earth. The focus and commitment they bring to business, they harness for pleasure, whether it’s Munich’s Oktoberfest or the 2,500 outdoor Christmas markets that pop up in town and city squares across the country; costumed carnivals in Aachen, Cologne, Duesseldorf, Mainz, Munich and Muenster; or sporting events like Formula One racing, cross-country mountain-biking championships over ice and snow and the 2,000-boat Kiel regatta. Musically, Germany hosts festivals for stalwarts like Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Handel; the Pied Piper, in Hamelin; and Splash!, Europe’s largest hip-hop and reggae music festival, on the shores of Oberrabenstein reservoir, in Chemnitz.
Germany’s fairytale countryside is populated by a diverse, quirky, romantic and fun infrastructure. There are 1,200 breweries producing 5,000 types of beer; 500 castles (including Neuschwanstein, the hilltop Bavarian hideaway of Mad Ludwig, which Disney used as a model for Cinderella’s castle), 150 scenic routes, 32 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, plus monasteries, museums, Roman baths, cathedrals, mountaintop schlosses and fully-outfitted riverboats offering everything from dinner to multi-day cruises on the Rhine. And for those who think German cuisine is boiled beef, think again. Germany has 300 kinds of pastry and 200 Michelin-starred restaurants. It also offers traditional culinary experiences like the 777-year-old Haxenhaus, in Cologne, where they serve metre-long bratwurst. And if that’s still not enough, the country boasts a variety of food museums dedicated to quirky staples like chocolate, bread, spices, salt, potatoes, sugar, peppermint, asparagus, horseradish and dumplings.
Valerie Hodgson, regional director of Helms Briscoe, in Vancouver, who made her first trip to Frankfurt in April, to attend IMEX, the worldwide exhibition for incentive travel, meetings and events, says she was surprised at “how modern it was. Coming from a place like Vancouver, where there’s nothing old, and going into Frankfurt, an old German city, I was surprised at how modern a lot of the buildings were. They’re fit very nicely in terms of the juxtaposition of old and new and yet somehow, they’ve managed to blend the old and the new. You might go into an historic older building and it’s all very modern on the inside, and it works. So you get a nice blend of seeing the historic buildings North Americans want to see when they go to Europe, but definitely with that modern European edge to it.”
Germans have always embraced technology, innovation and new ideas. While their landscape may consist of cobblestone streets, nursery-rhyme-like castles, medieval towers and fantastical baroque buildings, the national trait for precision and technological superiority shines through in everything from razors to automobiles. This is the nation that invented printing and where Martin Luther broke with the Church of Rome to found Protestantism. It produces everything from precision instruments to high-performance automobiles. So planners should take it as a given that they can find anything new in Germany.
While Germany is Europe’s number-one destination for meetings and trade shows, it easily caters to smaller groups and incentives. Gray, for example, has an incentive for 40 Canadian insurance executives in September, “doing a programme in conjunction with Porsche.” She says her client likes car rallies in high-end sports cars. “I asked Richard Rheindorf, at the German Convention Bureau, to help with what we were looking for, and he did some research for us.” When her client found out they could drive Porsches, and see the spectacular German countryside, they bought in. “We’re driving through the Black Forest, up into Baden-Baden.” From there, they will venture in the Alsace region of France, for lunch in a Chateau, then back to Baden-Baden. Gray says, “This is a very driving-intensive programme. But that’s what the client likes to do. The fact that we could use Porsches and drive through the scenery, which is so beautiful and offers some pretty exciting driving, sold the client.”
For this programme, Porsche provides 22 cars, plus a lead and follow-up cars, staffed with a team of elite drivers to advise participants on road conditions and when they can open up the cars.
A driving incentive is a no-brainer in a country that is home to high-performance luxury brands like Audi, BMW and Porsche. To pump up the experience, group participants can feel the thrill of a Formula One race car, either behind the wheel themselves or “chauffeured” around tracks in Hockenheimring and Nürburgring by a professional driver at beyond-Autobahn speeds.
Rheindorf believes the country deserves consideration “because of the great price value you get in Germany, especially in the city of Berlin. Our hotel prices are very low in Berlin and will be for the next coming years, in comparison to other European capitals, because of the overcapacity. After the unification (of East and West Germany), all the major hotel chains felt they needed a presence in the city, so they opened large hotels, especially in the five-star sector, even though the capacity wasn’t needed.” While Berlin hosts a number of important trade shows, it has traditionally had less business travel than the other European capitals, says Rheinhorf. “What makes Germany so interesting is that other countries were always more centralized, with the power resting in Paris, Rome or London. But Germany was pluralistic, so while Berlin was always an important city and has meetings facilities,” other cities have business and cultural infrastructure equal to the capital. “Every major German city has major meeting and event facilities and they are all state-of-the-art, with the latest technology, with space to get around, and the cities are connected by high-speed trains.” This built-up countryside means budgets benefit from the healthy competition between cities.
Canadian planners agree about the price competitiveness. Rosemary Smart, the international marketing programme coordinator for the Canadian Swine Exporters Association, who takes a small group of members to the large five-day EuroTier agricultural fair held every two years in Hanover, says, “The expense is not really too much. We’re looking at about 120 euros a night for a hotel room, in a four-star hotel. That’s about what we’re paying in North America in big cities.”
Hodgson found Frankfurt “a fantastic place to hold meetings,” in p
t because the airlift is so good. But she also found it easy to navigate the city on her own and happy to discover language wasn’t an issue. “I think it’s a very good place for English-speaking people to do business. Everyone was able to speak English, you didn’t have to know German. I found going to Frankfurt, you get a very German experience, with all of the comforts of being able to speak English. It’s easy in and out of the airport, there’s a fantastic transit system, and a city trolley that makes getting from hotel to restaurants very easy. It’s also relatively good value, when you talk about how expensive some of the European cities are to do business in and to host meetings. You definitely get a lot more value in Frankfurt, from even just sitting down as a person in a restaurant and the cost of a cab.”
As for the challenges of doing business there, Smart says, “in Germany, there really isn’t much of a challenge. It’s easy to get around, the traffic is acceptable, the hotels are what we’re used to. So no, I don’t think there is a big challenge.”
For her group, “the allure of Germany is that we’re reaching our customers in Eastern, Western and Central Europe. Germany is just a nice central location for that.” Since none of her group speaks German, they hire a translator as back-up in the booth, but find “language isn’t really a hindrance. There are so many people now who speak English, it really is the international business language. Most businesspeople speak English,” she says.
For Gray, the biggest challenge to working in Germany is “the time difference (to Toronto). Other than that, everyone we’ve had to work with is very professional, very conscious of the timelines, very organized in getting things done and giving us information we can get out.”
Germany is a solid marriage of the romance of history, culture and architecture North Americans expect to find in Europe, with efficient, crisp service and well-thought-out features. Planners constantly comment on how well-laid-out the congress centres and event venues are. Many venues are connected to city centres and airports by rail and public transportation. Some are even connected by water, so riverboats can provide transportation as well as a memorable off-site venue.
While their cities offer that romantic streetscape, their facilities and hotels are on the forefront of environmental awareness and innovation. Rheindorf says, “Green meetings, sustainable energy and sustainable events have been practiced in Germany for at least 20 years. So I would say there are some things Canadian and American planners can learn from how Germany uses technology.”
For example, Darmstadt’s new congress and event centre features a wood-chip power plant, subterranean cooling system and coated windowpanes that reflect sunlight to support the air-conditioning system in summer. In Mannheim, the congress centre installed Whisper Asphalt to reduce noise pollution. And the Stuttgart Trade Fair has planted half of its land in greenery and is installing photovoltaic panels, with the goal to produce more energy than it consumes.
Rheindorf says planners and incentive houses should cherry-pick their perceptions of Germany. “Germany is a place where you have great meetings, but it is also a place where you can have fun.”
— Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelance writer.