Berlin’s Culture Project: plans for recovery after a year in lockdown

Berlin is arguably one of the cultural powerhouses of the world. With the global cultural sector devastated after a year of lockdown, we reached out to Burkhard Kieker, CEO of Visit Berlin, to discover what the city’s plans were for recovery, and how they have reframed their approach from ‘attracting tourists’ to ‘having guests’.

What has been your biggest learning as a CEO for a city  marketing organisation over the past year?

The biggest learning was something we were already aware of before, which is that there’s a very close relationship between tourism and culture – you can’t divide it by any means. We’re dependent on each other and so with the close of tourism in Berlin, there was also a complete shutdown of culture. One of the very few positive aspects of the whole development is that culture became aware of how dependent they were on visitors in our city. Berlin is such a cultural hub – we have 178 museums, 7 symphony orchestras, a crazy three opera houses … Even if Berliners were to go out every night, we still couldn’t fill it. So, I think there’s a much more positive awareness for guests who are visiting out city.

The other learning is that even though we are the start-up capital for Germany, the most influential industry in Berlin is culture – though they don’t like to hear themselves referred to as an industry! There’s no sector of public life where more people are employed than in culture and tourism – it’s about a quarter of a million. This has obviously been the sector which has been hurt the most during the last year.

How are you rethinking your approach to culture and tourism post-pandemic?

Absolutely. We used the time to set up plan B and prepare for the day when we can reopen. In the meantime, we’ve done a lot of testing and model operations for how you could open up a theatre or a philharmonic orchestra. We tried to make things possible in the sea of impossibilities. Our impression is that even if a third wave is hitting Germany very hard now, the end of the tunnel is quite clear. And we think there’s a lot of pressure in the champagne bottle – when it’s time, the cork will fly off the bottle and people will pour into our city.

We don’t dare to admit that we don’t think we even need marketing because the people will come anyway. They’ve waited so long for freedom – for travel and movement, but also for culture. They know that Berlin is 24/7 culture. You know you’ll find everything here.

The challenge is right now that you don’t know what will happen in the next week. The theatre companies don’t know if they can open up before the summer break. So we try to weave a carpet of events that we roll out over the city. We try to organise who is planning what – even if it doesn’t happen – to put it together and have an arrangement to make sure that there aren’t seven open-air concerts on the same day.

The second, we work very closely with the Kulturprojekt Berlin, or Culture Project Berlin. It’s the event company of Berlin - we’re sister companies and we’re planning what’s known as Aussenstadt or ‘Outside City.’ We want to take culture out to the streets. Theatre plays, guitar concerts, Shakespeare, symphonies – everything. We try to cater for that with stages and planning. To be honest, we’re not quite sure whether the cultural sector will need help or if it will be a self-starter. In Berlin, I’d say it will be a self-starter because people are so eager to come out, to play, to perform. If you look at the huge free scene – it means a non-state organised cultural scene, like Jazz performers, dance companies and so on – they all need to be out as soon as possible, and we will see them on the streets the very moment they’re allowed to.

By necessity, we’ve moved to digital events and experiences over the past year. What legacy will this leave? How will this impact the future for cities if experiences – or indeed, work – can be conducted online?

It may be due to my digital tiredness, but my personal feeling is that there will be no legacy concerning culture. If you play a digital concert hall or a similar digital event… you can do it, but it can’t substitute the feeling of being in the room. You can’t have that feeling on your TV screen at home.

Where it will leave an impact is concerning fairs and congresses, I fear. It will leave a legacy for business travel, and at the moment, I agree with Lufthansa which estimates that one third of business travel will never come back. You don’t have to fly to Munich anymore for a small boring meeting - you can do it over Zoom or Teams. But cultural interactions and to capture the spirit of a city – you can’t do that online.

For the cultural sector and the tourism sector, it has been an accelerator for digital offerings. We have to be much more digital, and we’re moving away from travel agencies and into the net more and more. But nobody who could attend a theatre play or a jazz concert live would go to the internet for that. Cities are very lively beings and without all that it makes no sense to live in a city. With no culture, nightlife and restaurants, there’s nothing left but high rent. Culture has to return of the very idea of cities has no future.

I have a personal theory - a campfire theory. As human beings, we’ve been sitting in the deserts or the plains for 350,000 years and at the end of the day, we gather around the fire to tell our stories. This is so rooted in our DNA that even the pandemic can’t put it out. Cities are just big campfires. People have been saying that cities have reached their climax and now are declining, but I just don’t think so. Yes, we were seriously hurt, but we will come back!

So how do we try to sell Berlin? I don’t put in the shopping window that Berlin has new museums that are as big as the British Museum. It’s a big thing for us, and it’s very interesting, but I think people expect us to have that in Berlin. Our USP has to be something more than that. There’s a German term for it - Gesamtskunstwerk, which means a puzzle of art, put together out of so many pieces. Of course, people visit the Museums and yes, they’re looking for the history, but the first thing people want is to sit on a bar or a café on the street and catch the spirit. They want to watch how Berliners are living and the social exchange and curiousness happening around them. The liveliest and the more diverse the city is, the more successful you are. That’s the danger of gentrification. If everything is painted in unisex, at the end it’s no more interesting than anything else.

I’ve heard that you’d looking to reframe visitors as ‘temporary citizens’ to put the focus on ‘having guests’ rather than attracting tourists. How will this impact your future strategy?

The approach towards viewing our guests as temporary citizens was driven by fear of overtourism. We saw what overtourism can do to cities, and we thought, how can we approach our guests differently? We’re absolutely convinced the exchange with guests was critical for the city – not just economically, but in shaping our mindset. But we want to have people who come here and respect the local atmosphere and the way we live, and when they do so, we treat them like citizens. Even if you’re here for one week, you can be part of the game.

Berlin is very open minded and tolerant – more than 55% of Berliners weren’t Berliners 20 years ago, so we have a huge population who are new to Berlin. And we’re eager to get in touch with other people. So, we say, ‘when you come to Berlin, you’re treated with extreme openness, but also please behave like a citizen. Don’t get drunk and pee on the street.’

It’s a two-way street, the concept of a temporary citizen. We’re looking for something we would name ‘quality tourists.’ It sounds awful in English! For me, a school class is a quality tourist as well as a wealthy couple strolling through the galleries and buying art in Berlin. But what we don’t like are people who come to Berlin just to get drunk and dance in the nightclub regardless of where they are, who wake up and don’t know if they’re in Berlin or Barcelona or Tallinn. We’re interested in people who are interested in Berlin and who want to be part of it.

Berlin still has a very anti-capitalistic soul, because there are so many young people, because of the last 70 years, and in Berlin, it’s still more important to be able to tell a good joke than to drive a Porsche. That’s the kind of lifestyle we want to keep in Berlin – we’ve never wanted to be a boring, wealthy city.

Does this impact your communication strategy at all?

We don’t talk directly to the tourists – the hotels do that for us. Instead, we’re looking for markets like Europe…. For instance, two years ago, we set up Berlin pop-up stalls in London and Stockholm – 12 big cities in total – and for four weeks we bought artists and designers with us. You could buy Berlin designs, and every evening we had a bar. London was very difficult to have a bar, by the way. The police were always there because we had a thousand people out on the street! People who are interested in that, who are interested in the arts and exchange, would go there and then maybe visit Berlin. We tried to do unusual marketing. We don’t post an advert with a brand logo on it. That’s boring. We like to say we’re on tourism marketing 3.0 – or at least we try too!

What we don’t do is curate the city. The artists would hate it. Berlin is a big chaotic hotspot, and you can’t be the conductor of it - it’s impossible. You can only give impulses into it. Interestingly enough, the Berlin brand that we developed in conjunction with our citizens is ‘The City of Freedom.’ For a city which hosted two of the fiercest dictatorships of the 20th century is a brave statement, but that’s what we found out in our market research. People liked the way Berlin was developing, the free spaces left for clubs and galleries, the lack of curfew that means you can dance the whole night through. People like that, so we try to keep this. The core of our brand is freedom and tolerance.

And of course, we are also an authentic place of history. Many people – especially the British – come to see ‘where did it happen,’ from the Emperors to Hitler to the GDR. There’s history under every stone in this city. And finally, because of this free lifestyle, we attract interesting young people from all over the world. Not people with billions in their pockets, but people who have interesting ideas. We try to mingle, and I have a cultural department with several very interesting people who are from the scene and are pioneers. They’re ‘truffle pigs’ if you can say that in English – they have their nose on the ground for the newest developments.

And we need them – I’m not dancing through the night, but they do, and they keep me on top of what’s going on in our city. We test all of our marketing to see if the creative class like it. And if they like it, then we dare to go out with it. Then you can be sure that we don’t do boring things!

Related reading:

Putting Baltimore on the map as the USA's most inclusive destination

Four big challenges we face in 2021 to Build Back Better

Three ways place brand leaders can foster innovation and creativity in a virtual workplace

10 essential lessons all places should learn from a year of COVID-19

Missed the event in person? Don't worry...

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.