CMW meets Marco Oelschlegel, head of the Berlin Convention Office (BCO), VisitBerlin.
Head of Berlin’s Convention Office (BCO) Marco Oelschlegel started his career at a conference production company (Management Circle) in Berlin, following tourism studies in Germany and France and internships in Budapest and Madrid.
His first project was working on a C-Suite conference in Vienna on investment in south-east European countries. Among the first interesting contacts was the Croatian Ambassador, one of the conference speakers. Oelschlegel also quickly learned how to deal with complaints, thanks to the Serbian embassy not being happy with some of the politics surrounding one conference session on Kosovo.
So, what other lessons from his early career have served Oelschlegel well?
“Stay curious and create a network without direct purpose – the breadth of contacts will help you in your life in different professional situations. And knowing so many people with so many backgrounds only enriches your experiences,” he says.
With 2020 being exceptional to say the least, the year has probably not panned out as Oelschlegel expected when he took over the top job at BCO back in January 2020?
“Indeed, I remember the weeks before I took over from my predecessor, Iris Lanz, who carefully trained me for the new role. Then, everything went in a completely different direction, far beyond any imagination or expectation.” Ironically, his first business trip had been to mainland China in January, just before the pandemic took hold.
According to official Berlin statistics, 12m participants attended over 143,300 events in 2018. A decision to change the methodology and then Covid-19 has meant no update has been published, although the BCO’s convention partners indicate 2019 was possibly the most successful year for MICE in the city’s history. “We will provide new data in autumn,” says Oelschlegel, who believes Berlin’s enduring USP for international MICE business has always been its diverse hotel and venue infrastructure and the easy access by train and plane to the city. To this, he adds, “the fantastic price-cost-ratio. Berlin combines the best of two worlds: German efficiency and a cool, relaxed atmosphere. And, in times of Covid-19, our mentality for doing things accurately and the way German politics has managed the crisis helps clients to be confident about holding conferences and events in our city.”
Oelschlegel admits the official statistics don’t record how many in-person events have been saved from total cancellation but reckons the number of events still scheduled to go ahead this year will be approximately 10-15 % of a normal year’s total. Many of the missing events events have been postponed to 2021 or later, he says.
From 2 June Berlin put a limit of 150 people attending events, a figure that rose to 300 from the 30 June, although traditionally 80% of the city’s meetings are for no more than 100 people.
“From September onwards that figure rises to 1,000 and from October to 5,000 people,” Oelschlegel notes, adding that Germany’s 16 federal states all have their own, separate regulations. “The framework in Berlin is quite open and allows for more than in other cities,” he says.
“The MICE industry and its associations in Berlin have been active during the last months in lobbying for their interests. We hope this will remain so that our industry will be seen and heard of in the future, too.”
On the conference of the future in the ‘new normal’ compared to the traditional meeting format, Oelschlegel has this to say: “At the moment, hybrid events are key – allowing for the broadening of the audience and also for a back-up version should numbers of live attendees decline.” He points out a longstanding collaboration with the German Convention Bureau’s Future Meeting Space research project and notes Berlin is hosting BoCom, a hybrid multisite conference, on 3 September. It will also be streamed in Vienna, Amsterdam and Essen, as well as online.
BCO can help organisers and agencies wishing to bring their big events to the city, with a range of research tools available on www.convention.visitBerlin.com, Oelschlegel adds. “Our experienced team is also available to supply answers and Berlin’s city government has announced a congress fund which organisers bringing meetings to Berlin can apply to.”
Oelschlegel’s BCO team played a key role in helping small businesses at the start of the pandemic and staffed hotlines to give advice on financial help available.
“When events where forbidden in March, we could hardly do what we normally do. There was an urgent need for consultancy and for informing people applying for the city’s support scheme, however. We heard many heartbreaking stories from people who were about to lose their livelihoods. At the same time, it was reassuring to be able to help.”
Berlin is a very green city and sustainability remains high on the city agenda. Delegates in future can use new pop up bike lanes to explore the boroughs. Oelschlegel says, here and in some other areas, Covid-19 has speeded up processes which would have taken much longer in normal times. “Now there are several major bike lanes in along the roads which makes cycling easier, safer and more convenient. Berlin has been a city to be discovered by bike, with its large avenues and tiny streets and now, even more so.”
Of course, any capital city DMO is sure to stress its ‘connectivity and accessibility’ for business travellers, but in Berlin there is a whole saga surrounding the BER airport construction. Can it really be on course to open in October, at last?
“I have been on a tour of the airport and I can tell you it looks great,” says Oelschlegel. “All is in place for the opening on 31 October. Berlin will get a modern single airport with a direct connection by train and a station right beneath the main terminal.” The new facility also means new direct international services once the airline industry will have come out of its Covid-19 depression.
The city’s hotels are, however, already opening up, albeit for guests so far mostly from Germany itself and Europe. So, when does the BCO envisage other foreign markets, such as the US coming back?
“We hope to welcome guests from all over the world soon. This will heavily depend, however, on the travel restrictions many countries (and companies) have set in place. We do not expect travel from the US before 2021.”
Germany has won a reputation as a country that has generally dealt well with the coronavirus threat, but is there still a threat of infection rates climbing due to illegal partying and a lively rave scene?
“Whenever you switch from severe restrictions by the state to a status involving more self-responsibility, there is a danger of helping the virus to spread. Regardless, we have to consider not only the medical aspects but also the economic impact of our measurements as well as the openness of our society. The challenge is to balance all these needs and objectives. And, so far, infection rates in Berlin and Germany are still at a relatively low level,” says Oelschlegel.
If infection rates are relatively low, then German hygiene, training and safety standards are certainly thought of as high. A ’Made in Germany’ certificate is a byword for quality, so is the MICE industry uniting around a common standard?
“Made in Germany, or Made in Berlin, stand for quality, for sure. There are different initiatives and ideas on creating a certificate and I think this is good. On the other hand, it is not just a new label which creates trust. It is above all a longstanding image of trust and solidity having been achieved over many decades and reassured in the current crises. We are ready to welcome you to Berlin!”