Editor’s Note: Skift is publishing a series of interviews with CEOs of destination marketing organizations where we discuss the future of their organizations and the evolving strategies for attracting visitors. Read all the interviews as they come out here.
This continues our series of CEO interviews that began with online travel CEOs in Future of Travel Booking (now an e-book), and continued with hotel CEOs in the Future of the Guest Experience series (which is also an e-book).
Berlin is considered one of the hottest cities in the world right now and its ever-increasing visitors numbers confirm it.
The city has, for many years, been considered a hub of creativity, music, and cheap rents for entrepreneurs. While young American freelancers come in search of a low cost of living and Europeans on discount flights stop in for hedonistic weekends, the majority of the city’s visitor base remains a high-spending, middle-aged visitor.
The influx has created tension in the city with tourists starting to view tourism as a threat to their everyday pleasant way of life. An attitude that the tourism board has started to focus on as raptly as its outward promotion.
Skift was recently in Berlin where we spoke with VisitBerlin CEO Burkhard Kieker on the city’s unique approach to marketing, its efforts to mediate between tourists and locals, and their smart strategy for increasing funding.
Skift: Berlin is such a popular destination right now. The city has received so much press, attracts a broad range of tourists, and is in a great position. As CEO of VisitBerlin, what are your challenges? What troubles you?
Burkhard Kieker: It’s not only the numbers that count, but also the quality of visitors. It’s a race to explore new markets and markets of the future. It’s also keeping the local population happy, not giving them the feeling that they’re in an open museum.
Berlin is the only city in the old world that had the unique chance to completely redefine itself as it went though the mincing machine of history. There were the Nazis, WW II, and then the city was divided in two parts. Only when the wall came down 25 years ago did Berlin have the chance to push the reset button.
What we see now is that it was a chaotic process. Many people could claim that they were the marketing masterminds behind it, but there were no marketing masterminds. This was a chaotic self-propelled process but the result is important. If you look at the numbers and the hype, the result seems to suite the world.
Our struggle is to always do more market research, to understand what people are looking for in our city, and how we can enhance it while staying authentic. You see so many cities so overrun by tourism that they become a kind of Disneyland –a pale picture of what they could have been.
We don’t want that to happen to Berlin. We don’t want to freeze our city like a fish in a big block of ice. The fish is nice and everyone wants to eat it, but Berlin is changing rapidly and we don’t want to sell its spirit.
Skift: How do you strike a balance between maintaining locals’ quality of life and catering to tourists who basically want to live locals’ lives for a few days?
Kieker: We started out as a marketing company, very much outward facing, but in recent years have done more and more internal marketing to rally for tourism acceptance.
We are a public-private partnership so we are, of course, close with politicians. They want us to do this and call it the Tourism Acceptance Program. How does it work? In short, talk about it.
Berlin has 12 boroughs and we are in close touch with the mayors of each. Every borough is like a big city with about 200,000 to 300,000 inhabitants. We talk to them very closely and try to monitor hot spots.
For example, there is a bridge where young people go in the evening to drink outside. There would be 1,000 young people sitting on this tiny narrow bridge where a lot of families and elderly people live. We have to deal with it.
We put out a box for the empty bottles and got in touch with neighborhood committees and the police to find solutions. We talked to all of the well-known travel guides and asked them not to name it any more. This is one example of how we defuse these ticking anti-tourism bombs.
Skift: Have you seen any shifts from the people that live here? Are they more or less accepting of tourism than in the past?
Kieker: We monitor it very closely via polls every year and it’s still very high — between 90 percent and 92 percent of people say they like tourism. It’s different from borough to borough.
I always joke about how Berlin overtook Rome. Berlin is now number three behind London, which is much higher, and Paris, which is going down. How could Berlin overtake Rome? They had 2,000 years of experience ahead of us.
Berliners are not experienced in tourism. The underlying feeling is that they feel honored but Berliners are very skeptical people who say, “It’s nice that all these people are here, but why are they coming here?” They only partly understand what’s happening to their city.
More than half of the residents are new. It’s a totally new culture and, interesting enough, the people resisting tourists are the people who came here five or ten years ago. They conquered their Berlin and they don’t want to share it.
We say, “This isn’t all for you. You have to share it with our fellow Germans and the people from around the world.”
We have four staff working on raising awareness of tourism.
Skift: You mentioned that VisitBerlin is a private-public partnership. Can you explain how you make this funding model work?
Kieker: Visit Berlin’s budget is 20 million euro per year, of which about 7 and a half million are from the government. What we do with it is very strictly controlled.
We earn about 63 percent of spending ourselves via ticket sales. We have our own travel company through which we sell tens of thousands of travel packages to Berlin. We also have the Berlin Welcome Card, which is the biggest in Europe. This gives us some freedom to try new things.
The model is quite successful and we consult other destination marketing organizations on it. We don’t try to interfere with other commercial companies. They are welcome to introduce their own welcome package, but we are more successful because we are better at it. We are part of the competition.
Skift: Is there any thing that Berlin is doing differently as a destination marketing organization in terms of marketing?
Kieker: Our joke is that I have nightmares of myself doing a presentation in a room at the Hilton in New York. Boring. We don’t do those things anymore.
Instead we do a Christmas party in New York every year at the Soho House.
We’ve started doing a series of pop-up stores in Europe where we rent out stores and take the most interesting Berlin designers, entrepreneurs and DJs with us. There’s a party every night and we invite different kinds of people to experience Berlin.
Skift: We believe that travel PR events are largely broken. It sounds like you are figuring out a way into the future.
Kieker: We don’t think about it. We just try to work and run very fast. We have a window of opportunity — the city has one or two more decades to develop a brand on the same level as New York or Paris. We are running very fast, because our window of opportunity will some day close and we have to have achieved what we could have.
We skip things the very moment we have the feeling that they’re old fashioned or worn out. We run our company on a lot of market intelligence and try to find creative people from hip ad companies. In the end, cities are like consumer products. You have to know your brand and take good care of it.
Skift: Do you think other destinations are following your lead?
Kieker: We see some similar things, but we would never say that we were copied. We’re not arrogant. We just do things the Berlin way.