Berlin + Dusseldorf

Berlin is on a record run with 8.3 million visitors in 2009—its best year ever—with further increases so far in 2010. You don’t hear that very often about 2009. So we flew in for a dose of the arts, music, glamour and grit to see why the famously edgy capital hosts over 1,500 events a day.

The answer is immediate. Berlin celebrates modernity in all its manifestations, and in the meetings industry, modern equals green.

Germany is the world’s top producer of solar power and a European frontrunner in wind, biofuels and renewable energy. Laws subsidize solar energy production and thousands of Germans sell surpluses back to the grid. Many businesses are betting on a third industrial revolution fueled by green tech and clean energy, and Germany has been Europe’s top meeting destination for the last six years.

Nowhere is the topic hotter than in Berlin, where 32% of the landmass is public park and one is never too far from actual green. To spread the word, the Berlin Convention Office has created a planner-friendly Green Meetings Berlin site with a robust database of eco-active providers.

Meet Besondere Orte/Great Locations. The DMC is run by Tim Rössle, who converted a WWII-damaged church near Alexanderplatz into the Umweltforum Auferstehungskirche (Environmental Forum in the Church of Resurrection)—a modern, beautiful, and über-sustainable meeting space.

“Being eco was good marketing and it met our convictions as well,” says Rössle, a political scientist who always bikes to work. So the old rubble was recycled and new loam walls were built to better regulate temperature. Radiant heating was installed and solar panels were placed on the roof beside a vast rooftop garden. And a “solar facade” of cellulose comb behind glass plate transforms sunlight into heat to warm this ultra-green, majestic space—one ceiling soars to 55 feet. Two years later, the site generates almost half of its own power.

Clients like Greenpeace have flocked to the 4,800-sf Great Hall, with its awe-inspiring ceiling and world-class pipe organ. Including the foyer and 12 bright conference rooms, Rössle offers planners almost 13,000 sf, including tranquil outdoor gardens.

On the sunny morning of our visit, the “church” was host to a 280-person meeting of pan-German recycling agencies in the Great Hall. But pharma and tech companies meet here too, and the site was recently used for a party thrown by Heike Mahmoud, director of conventions at the Berlin Convention Office.

“I chose it because green is innovative and a church as a venue is so unusual,” says Mahmoud. “Our clients, mostly planners, loved the service and really got a sense of the range of possibilities we can offer in Berlin. This reflects the openness of the city and the endless opportunities.”

As a followup, Rössle converted a 19th century brewery into the 150-pax Conference Center New Malthouse, with two event spaces in the domed halls originally used to dry malt. Then he opened the 320-pax Jerusalem Church, a modernist revision of a 15th century historic building, with seven meeting spaces in the heart of Berlin between Checkpoint Charlie and the Jewish Museum.

AXICA In Berlin, it’s not considered unusual for a bank building with meeting space to be a tourist attraction. Such is axica, home to DZ Bank’s HQ and an elite apartment complex—designed by famed Bilbao Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry. Just down the block from the Brandenburg Gate, it houses a huge stainless steel free-form sculpture by Gehry that seems to float above the 500-seat hall below.

The sculpture, described both as a diving whale and a horse’s head, is an 85-seat walk-in artwork pulsing with natural light on sleek curved wood. It just may be the world’s coolest meeting room, where past guests have included rock stars, royalty, heads of state and corporate groups.

“Nine hundred tourists a day want to see this building,” confides spokesperson Christine Jost. “That’s on top of the 150 functions we hold each year. Gehry originally thought all this would be a cafeteria for the bankers. But after a few weeks they realized they had the pearl of Berlin; they had to share it.”

When we visited a creativity forum for an innovative car manufacturer, brain food was in order. While artists began sketching the ideas bandied about, the staff served organic nuts, local fruits and dark chocolate truffles crafted by individual request—spiced, herbed or plain—for each participant.

The axica makes Mahmoud’s Green Meetings list due to initiatives like its composted waste going to a biogas plant to be transformed to fuel.

HIPSTER SAFARIS After the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists, designers and young people moved to East Berlin by the thousands to live cheaply in the beautiful old apartments of the Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg districts. Galleries, shops and prosperity were hot on their heels, and a new international tastemaking scene was born. To us it seems to cross New York’s East Village with Austin, and the vibe is resolutely bohemian.

East Berlin is vast, while the shops powered by these creative folk pop up and disappear suddenly. Too, the coolest of them like being under the radar of mainstream guidebooks. Enter Berlin’s “hipster safaris,” led by guides like Miriam Bers, an art consultant and cofounder of the DMC, Go Art! Berlin.

“Berlin is extremely contemporary thanks to all the creative people living and working here. And this only attracts more creative people,” she says. “Berlin is so vivid. We want to be the key to it.” Her walking tours will unlock doors to new art galleries, studio visits, boutique shopping and street art.

Our fashion/design was led by a savvy young designer who steered our group through the boutiques of young designers in the Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. Then in Kulturbrauerei, a collection of restored breweries chock-a-block with shops and bars, we strolled on to see rehabbed furniture made by the notorious Noodles, Noodles & Noodles Corp., designers of steel beds recycled from decades-old German tanks. We admired handmade purses, designer collectives and an absinthe bar near the old red light district.

Our group of nine seemed perfect for the petite shops, though Bers’ gallery groups stretch to 20. Yet success requires flexibility, as when a happy client recently called again.

“He wanted 80 top managers to see the same galleries and boutiques,” says Bers. “So he booked five GoArt! guides, and everyone did the same program in a different order.”

CULTURE + CUISINE Also in the Kulturbrauerei, Berlin on Bike offers 300 bikes, 40 guides and an itinerary for everyone from WWII buffs to culture vultures. Our 4-hour “Berlin’s Oases” ride amazed us with lush greenery and water parks. We cycled along the bike lanes of Karl-Marx-Allee toward the Badeschiff, a pool in the middle of the Spree River built from a recycled river cargo container. Then we swung by the Berlin Wall, showcasing some 100 paintings by international artists celebrating freedom.

The one absolute must in Berlin is Museum Island. The UNESCO World Heritage site rising from the Spree houses five monumental museums including the recently reopened New Museum, with a staggering collection of Egyptiana and German archeological finds. We approached the bust of Nefertiti unsure of what to expected, but none of us were prepared for the absolutely vital presence of that chunk of painted limestone. A whole empire pouring from that face.

When it came time for dinner, our ebullient guide Henrik Tidefjärd introduced us to a techno-club-cum-restaurant called Sage, housed inside a massive brick warehouse. We started with homemade pizza and finished with crème brulee and fresh fruit served on outdoor dining beds. That was followed by Weekend, a slick rooftop nightclub perched 15 floors above the city for cocktails and people watching.

SCANDIC BERLIN Raising the bar on green meetings, the new 565-room, practically plastic-free Scandic Berlin Potzdamer Platz has banned bottled water, installed hi-tech filtration systems and provided recycled glass bottles to reduce 160 tons of carbon emissions yearly. Individual bathroom amenities have been dumped for bulk dispensers, reducing waste by 11 tons annually. All rooms have 3-part recycling bins for trash, paper and organic wastes for composting. Finally housekeepers rely on five benign detergents rather than the 13-20 chemical cleaners used in most hotels.

“We want to be the first German hotel to get the EU Flower,” says GM Thomas Borsbach, referring to the EU’s top environmental award. “When we say sustainability, it may be a question of the small things, things we can do day by day.”

Borsbach points out that 80% of each hotel room could go straight back to nature. Poly carpets were skipped in favor of wood and parquet floors, and water-based paints and natural fibers edged out acrylics and nylons. And the hotel uses only renewable sources of electricity.

As for meetings? “At Scandic, every meeting is an environmental conference,” says Linda Deppe, marketing manager. “Our philosophy, the respectful use of resources, attracts an international following.” Meeting space includes 20 conference rooms and a 550-seat ballroom.

DUSSELDORF’S “MEETROPOLIS” A lovely combo of old world charm and 21st century style, Düsseldorf is a wealthy city on the Rhine with a wellspring of easily accessible and cultured venues for planners.

“Home to 312,000 companies and 11 million people, our German lifestyle metropolis is number one for convenience,” says Andrea Baule, head of business travel for Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourism. Indeed, all meeting sites are within walking distance or quick cab ride from an excellent airport and 223 international and domestic hotels.

Düsseldorfers love their rep for having fun after business is wrapped. Party HQ is “the world’s longest bar”—actually 260 bars in Altstadt, or Old Town. We quaffed local Altbier fresh from bar-breweries like Brauerei zum Schiffchen, a stained-glass pub where Napoleon celebrated his Rhine victory. Groups can book the 440-seat Hausbrauerei zum Schlussel (Brewery of the Key)—named in 1850 when city keys were stowed at the main pub. We saw, smelled and tasted the brewing process from malted barley to wooden kegs, then retired to the private rooms (max 180) for “Alt,” schnitzel and, for the brave, black pudding.

Aside from the beer gardens, Baule reminds us, “Düsseldorf is ranked top for quality of life in Germany with true international flair.” The real action is divided among the stylin’ Konigsallee, Germany’s high fashion district, and the MediaHarbour, an urban planning wonderland where old harbor warehouses rub shoulders with three iconic Gehry buildings arranged in waves.

For larger groups, DüsseldorfCongress hosts groups from 24 to 15,000, and it just earned a Green Globe Certificate for sustainable practices. What’s more, a recent pairing with Cologne, Düsseldorf’s sister city on the Rhine, yields a total of 300 event facilities and a punchy slogan: “The Meetropolis.”

The region’s largest convention hotel is the 530-room Maritim Hotel, where Dirk Jordens, marketing manager at Düsseldorf International Airport, is a fan. “Connected to the airport terminal building by a walking bridge, the Maritim offers 33 conference facilities for up to 5,000,” he notes.

For top tier groups, the 95-room Breidenbacher Hof, a Capella Hotel has been a historic playground for international royalty for 200 years. For groups, 19 duplex and penthouse apartments are available, and three conference salons host 65. Brasserie “1806” offers private dining for 16, serving lunch items like papardelle in lobster sauce with mini prawns and melon.

Meanwhile, the airport also holds trade and fashion shows a 5-minute taxi ride from the trade fairgrounds and 15 from Old Town. “You can walk from your conference to gate check-in in two minutes,” explains Jordens, citing 24 conference rooms and the dramatic Station Airport in the attached rail station. “What’s more, we’ve got jazz concerts in the hangars, and families shop here on Sundays, when town is closed.”

Low-fare prizewinner Air Berlin has its main international hub here. US gateways include New York, Miami and San Francisco, and they’re steadily building their American clientele via quick connections to cities all over Europe.