Rethinking Vienna’s Image

The city’s tourism boss, Norbert Kettner is reinventing Vienna’s image around the world

Belvedere palace, one of many snow-covered fountains rests during the Viennese winter months | Photo: Wien Tourismus/ MAXUM

Since 2007, Norbert Kettner has been exploring what Vienna means to tourists; why they come and why some don’t. Originally from Tyrol, he worked previously at harnessing the city’s creative industries and nurturing them.

In his offices in the classical Palais Grassalkovic, he talked of Vienna’s reputation.

“It’s seen as very elegant; a valuable place. It’s not a cheap-chic city,” he said. “The problem is the perception that something elegant somehow has to be old-fashioned. We would say it’s classic, but it need not be old-fashioned. I think you can combine an elegant approach with a contemporary style, so that’s our approach.”

These are the statistics: Vienna had 4.4m visitors in 2009, a drop of about 3.8% in 2008 (against a background of global recession and the blip that was the Euro football tournament in June ’08), with guests staying 2.4 days, a long weekend. That represents about 6% of the city’s GDP. Austria is the 12th most visited country in the world, with more time spent by tourists in the country’s Alps than its capital. The typical visitor is 41, well-educated, and wealthy.

“Eighty percent of our guests come from abroad,” Kettner said, “compared to Berlin where only 35% of guests are foreigners. That’s partly because we have a very small domestic population.” So Vienna must sell itself to the world.

The peculiarities of selling a well-known city in a small country presents some problems. “In normal economic times, it’s healthier to have a diversified market, but with Japan, the US and Britain all hit so hard by the credit crunch, we were affected very quickly.”

It’s complicated to speak to so many different audiences, in a way that is appropriate to each individual group – “But that’s how Vienna always was, a multicultural city,” Kettner reminded me. “For instance in 1910, only 50% of the people here spoke German, so it’s nothing new. In that year, Vienna was, after New York, the most multicultural city. And anybody who says it’s not like this…”

Does he mean the politicians?

“Well I would never say this. It is ridiculous!” I sense his frustration that the country’s leaders aren’t always on-message. “Vienna was always a super-multicultural city. We are used to that, and it is an asset to have so many different ethnic groups. One of the messages I bring to audiences worldwide is ‘visit Vienna and see Europe’. Because you are here at the crossroads of the Protestant north and Catholic south, the east and the west. This is the crossroads of Europe.”

So how do you reach these 25 different markets, as diverse as Japan and Brazil?

“I’m just back from Sao Paulo where we took a Viennese cook to quite a wild neighbourhood,” Kettner states. “We had an event for journalists and travel industry people, cooking Schnitzel and Kaiserschmarrn with them. It’s quite a daring concept because we knew the richer locals don’t cook for themselves, but we balanced it up and decided it would be fun.”

It was proving to be a relaxed interview, so I decided to probe a little further: For instance, just what is it that makes him proud to be an Austrian. At which point, Wien Tourismus spokeswoman Vera Schweder, who was sitting in on the interview, interjected. She was fascinated to hear the answer to this question, she said.

After a pause of perhaps 8 seconds, he began with, “Eh….. normally…. things…..er… which Austrians wouldn’t consider: What makes me proud is that there’s still a high level of solidarity within the society and that the averaging out of wealth still works here, which is very important. There’s still a high level of solidarity within the country.

“I cannot be proud of the beauty of the nature, because that is a given. I think Austria and Vienna is a real model for a healthy environment. Although we didn’t make up the figures for Kyoto, and indeed we are the only nation not to do so.”

I wonder aloud about all the wind turbines so visible across the country, and how much local electricity comes from renewable.

“Yes,” he says, “it’s partly because we chose the targets ourselves and were too ambitious. We’re very bad at communicating things we’re good at. Vienna was one of three federal states that cut emissions, that was to do with the high tech we use here, like district heating and now district cooling. It’s very innovative, but no one talks about it here.”

It’s typical (and charming) to ask locals what they love about their nation, and have them turn it into an existential angst and foray into self-criticism. It’s less common in France or the United States, where people would not think for long about what makes them proud, because they often discuss it. Here that is more rare, and patriotism is complex and nuanced.

“It has to do with our past,” Kettner said. “And we are perhaps more modest. Also Austria is very provincial, people often identify with their region more than the country.”

Finally, though, he gets the question between his teeth… “And of course what I’m really proud of is the cultural life of the city and the country generally, and again that is often overlooked here, because it is so natural for us. And sometimes in political discussions it is seen as a wasted investment which is ridiculous. We have to be very clear about our cultural image in the world.

“Some people are proud of things that I wouldn’t even think of, like saying being an Austrian makes me proud, but that’s just where you are born, it’s not a reason to get excited.”

A part of the rebranding of Vienna has been to market it as a Creative City, but these days every major town promotes itself that way. It has become a cliché.

There followed a humorous discussion as to which is the least creative city in Austria, but sadly I wasn’t given permission to print this. The conclusion was that some cities choose to stay the way they are because people come to visit them because of the history and tradition. But large cities are different: “We are talking about metropolises, big, classical cities, where creativity is given, they cannot exist without it. Big cities are about differences, opposites, ruptures, it’s vibrant, it’s an intrinsic feature of a metropolis – it wouldn’t have become a metropolis without that.”

On the subject of missing things, I was curious who doesn’t come to Vienna and why.

“Maybe it’s not a party destination. The typical Ibiza crowd is not here. It’s not something we offer. We don’t have people who don’t want to spend more than 40 cents for a beer here; they don’t come. Those who only go for light entertainment, for sports, the entertainment here is more on a high cultural level.

“Gay people do come here in large numbers.”

I heard a report on ORF about how many Arabs come here.

“Yes, it’s an area we’ve focused on for a long time,” says the boss of Vienna Tourism confidently. “Everything is safe here. They feel protected. It’s to do with [former Chancellor] Kreisky. He was Jewish and had good connections with the Arab world. He helped look for peace in the Middle East and was one of the first politicians to treat Arafat as a serious partner to negotiate with. This was a gate-opener for us. And we profited during the second Gulf war, from this perception amongst Arabian people that they are not so welcome in North America and Britain.”

Vienna has a bold new photographic advertising campaign, which many readers will have spotted since October.

“The old slogan was ‘Vienna waits for you’ which is too passive,” Kettner explained. “That means we are sitting here and waiting for you. The city is seen as beautiful – but eternally beautiful – and that was the reason why we changed it to Now or Never, which is quite competitive, we know that. It’s more competitive than usual in tourism advertising.”

With groups like Rolex and Austrian Airlines also producing Vienna promos, I ask if they coordinate with other players? “I’m not so fond of the idea of standardising messages. Of course we collaborate with Austrian Airlines, we make joint advertising all over the world.”

I read that after the Kampusch case and then Fritzl that the Austrian government was considering an international campaign to reassure the world that not everyone in Austria was like that. “Horrible, just a horrible idea,” Kettner counters. “The more you stress it, the more people think ‘oh, they have good reason to do this.’ ”

He’s noted improvements in advertising recently. “Globally, before I came here, my impression was the most tasteless, the most horrible, things happened in tourism campaigns. Visually, everything, it was wow. But it’s changing now, the aesthetics are improving.”

But ultimately tourism is a struggle between cities and countries? “Well it’s a struggle, but it should be a fair struggle, and we don’t want another destination shown as being bad.”  It seems there are some ethics in tourism marketing and amongst the no-go’s are comparing with other cities. Norbert Kettner relates an amusing tale:

“Our agency proposed to us to run a huge poster on scaffolding in front of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona saying: ‘Right now you could admire a completed cathedral in Vienna’ [Gaudi’s cathedral has been under construction since 1882]. And we had a good laugh and it was actually quite funny, but then we said ‘We’re not going to do this.’ Because of course the Stephansdom is not completed either!”

And on cross-cultural humour, he says, “You can be ironic, but irony doesn’t work in many markets. I have the experience of making ironic jokes and people just staring at you, except the Austrians in the room who are laughing their heads off. Outside of Berlin, Austrian irony doesn’t really work in Germany.”

Wien Tourismus is a project of the City Council, receiving majority funding from a ‘bed tax’ every tourist pays, of 2.8% of the price of a room. But when we moved on to explore the most irritating parts of his job, he expressed most dislike of those authorities only interested in their own department or ego.

“Our job is to generate tourism in Vienna, our job is not to make some functionaries happy. And this is sometimes a problem in Austria. If you want to make everybody happy, the result is you are very mediocre.”

He appears disappointed at the restrictions of working with shortsighted bureaucrats. “I have always had the privilege to work in an environment where I could really focus on the strategy and how to do this, and sometimes there are attempts, which I have to keep from my people,” he confessed. “That’s my job, I take it on my shoulder. I think that’s irritating. We’re making some progress.”

He’s really on a roll now. “Sometimes I meet people who are afraid of everything, seeing innovation and new things as threatening. That’s very Austrian. And if you travel the world, you see how well people live here; and yet they are complaining, complaining. Imagine, when the Austria Center was rebuilt next to the UN building, there was such opposition to it, politically, in the people’s mind, in the newspapers, we don’t need that, it costs too much. Conference tourism is so important for Vienna, and this was such an important thing to have. You have groups saying of course we are a city, but please close everything after 6 o’ clock.”

What one thing would you change about Vienna to make it more attractive to tourists? “The opening of the new railway station is a key development [the grand Vienna Central Station will replace Südbahnhof and most services from Westbahnhof in 2013], plus Skylink at the airport [a controversial, much-delayed and over-budget new terminal and third runway] will greatly improve access to the city.”

Some quickfire common tourist gripes that the Viennese are rude snobs.

“Yes, but I don’t think that’s true when they speak to visitors from abroad. It’s perhaps a legacy of this having been the old capital of the empire.” Smoking in public buildings is a shock to many visitors in 2010. “I agree.” The city can seem too sweet and kitsch to some hip visitors, the so-called Mozartkugeln image. “Actually it’s part of our society, so we can live with it.” Couldn’t Kärntnerstr and Graben have been dug up in winter, instead of July? “Construction work has to be done, and in February it’s more difficult to do. We put up English language scaffolding to explain what we were doing.”

Brüno or The Sound of Music? “They are not so far apart,” Kettner mused. “Both deal with clichés. In both clichés, politics plays a part. I think Brüno did a good job for us, I saw the film, and Austria never came off badly, actually. And for a while, bookings for Vienna were up 90%. People saw the movie and were reminded that they must come to Vienna.

“I did an interview with Brüno in Esquire magazine, which was so hilarious that nobody could take it seriously. He talks about there being a big fashion show every year on St Adolf’s Day. [another sample quote: ‘We are all very proud of our country and our race to achieve ze Austrian Dream: ‘find a job, get a dungeon and raise a family in it’.] They hoped we would protest and we didn’t, so they were disappointed. Vienna’s reputation as a nice place is so strong, what can a movie do to hurt that? And then as it turned out, the very opposite happened.

“But rather than Brüno or The Sound of Music, the Third Man is really the film that captured something of Vienna perfectly, with all its twilight.

Sticking with showbusiness, could you say why the Michael Jackson tribute concert didn’t happen? “We were promised a certain level of actors and singers. So the deal would have been, if the concert took place at the right dimension, Vienna would have bought on-screen advertising. We offered an amount of money as long as it was matched by them, we put it on the table, but they just couldn’t come up with their share… so no money was spent.”

You commented recently that cheap flights are central to Vienna’s future tourism growth. Can international tourism ever be environmentally sustainable? “I think it’s more sustainable than some other industries, if you do it in a smart way. But yes, 46% of our guests come by aircraft. Green tourism is a big issue and specially in an under-developed country, it can aid those places a lot. But I have no satisfying answer to this actually.”

In Norbert Kettner, I met a man comfortable with his brief and clearly enjoying it. His honesty was refreshing in a tourism boss. I came to understand that getting tourists to come to Vienna is perhaps not as easy as it might appear.

So, in summary, why should people come to Vienna? “Visit Vienna, see Europe,” he concludes. “There’s a great mixture of everything here, of cultural life, of savoir vivre. You have this incredible imperial heritage, it is probably still one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and locals love to share the lifestyle with guests.”

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