Oh Dear: A How-To-Not Guide For ITB Berlin

MikeachimThe Everyday14 Comments

I’m handed a leaflet on Egypt. (Thanks). I pass suits, hotdogs, more suits, and enter another well-lit carpeted cavern. I’m handed a leaflet on Germany. (Uh, thanks, yes, I’m somewhat aware of the place). I thread between suits and skirts, deeply self-conscious of my hoodie and rucksack. I’m handed a leaflet on…I don’t know where, since I pop it into my travel wallet which will be stolen a few days later. I try to look friendly, but my lack of a smart suit – or, I guess, smart skirt – is making eyes slide off me.

For every animated conversation there are two faintly desperate-looking individuals manning their stands, scanning the crowd for someone interesting to talk to. Seems I don’t qualify. I move on. More hot dogs. A dreadful tie…

An exit! This must be it. Past incongruous greenery arrayed on the carpet and out from under the lights into a connecting corridor, through a huddle of besuited people and, then, at last….

Hall 7(c).

Hadn’t I just left Hall 8? So I’m going the wrong way?

And…”(c)”? There are sub-halls?

ITB Berlin is the world’s largest tourism convention, and it’s spread over the full expanse of Messe Berlin‘s 160,000 square metres in 26 fair halls, many of them vast.

Here’s one way to get in. Disembark the metro at Messe Nord, walk up the road until you find a hole in the ground, stroll down it and into a pillared underpass with multiple exits (above), take at least one wrong exit, back up, eat a peanut bar to calm yourself, find the correct way out and emerge into daylight at the other side of a road you could have jaywalked in seconds. Then it’s through the massive metal doors – normal height, but with the kind of inertia you normally associate with oil tankers – and into a colossal plush corporate-style space, like a luxury hotel lobby mapped Inception-style into ambitious geometries. This is the ICC Berlin. It’s really damn big.

Then you need to take the stairs or moving staircase on the right – no, not that one, and no, not that one either. Then you suffer confusion because you’re still not there, as you need to pass through a long connecting corridor where your visitor’s pass will be scrutinized, as (politely) will your hoodie and rucksack, and then…

Then you’ll still be nowhere. You’ll still be miles from where you want to go.

This was my first tourism convention. I wasn’t approaching it from a professional travel-blogging sense – I just wanted to attend, get a feel for what goes on at these things, and meet a bunch of travel industry friends for the first time. (I didn’t expect to fall in love with Berlin – that was a bonus). I was underprepared to the point of being vocationally invisible, and that proved more fun than expected…

As Yvonne of Just Travelous says here, travel bloggers were anything but invisible. The tweetup organised by Keith Jenkins and Melvin Boecher at Tomsky (an east Berlin bar) the night of my trans-Berlin walk was packed. At ITB, I saw more than a few important-looking faces light up when they realised they were talking to travel bloggers. Keith, Reine of Visit Jordan, Katja Hentschel  of Travelettes and Daniella Dear of Visit Florida (below) spoke charismatically at the “New Kids On The Block” presentation on the Friday, even if Michael Buller of VIR appeared to be asking unfocussed-sounding questions as they occurred to him. (Nicely recovered, guys). German TV followed Yvonne around. Travel bloggers were decidedly present – and that energy was everywhere.

But ITB Berlin is too big to turn up and expect to just bump into the right people. Prior to last year’s World Travel Market in London, Adventurous Kate had flown the flag for super-preparation – booking appointments with key people well in advance, knowing where everything is and generally following a tight script of your own devising. At ITB, the wisdom of that approach was undeniable. It’s an overwhelming event. There are 10,000 stalls to get round. 10,000. And you have 5 days.  That’s 285 stalls an hour, if you’re feeling up to the challenge (discounting the utterly vast distances between many of them). But really, don’t bother. Pick carefully. You’re simply not going to see everything there is to see, or even a decent slice of it. Just forget it.

If you’re visiting ITB Berlin for the first time – and I’m presuming I’m only talking to travel-blogging readers here – I have a few suggestions.

1) Familiarise Yourself With A Map Of Messe Berlin. Particularly the front door. Note the Sommergarten and the smaller square with the tower in it. Note the way most of the halls wrap around these two squares. If you traverse them instead of following the escalating hall numbers, you can save shedloads of time. From Hall 7(c) to Hall 23, the long way, took me the best part of an hour. Coming back I cut across both squares, and it took ten minutes. It’s such an obvious thing, and yet I saw so few people using both squares that it makes me wonder how many people were actually doing it. That said, there were so many exits and entrances that it’s hard to make any such assessment. (So learn the entrances and exits).

2) Be Laser-Focussed. Know where you’re going, who you’re meeting and when. Make sure the bare bones are pre-arranged, so you can stick to your schedule. This is the only way you’ll make the most of this event. It’s not for sight-seeing. That’s not what it’s for.

3) Eat Outside. If ITB 2013 is like ITB 2012, the food on offer will be something of a missed opportunity. What better way to sell your country than to use the full range of the senses, including smell and taste? Good food is an amazing salesman, and if food halls had been on offer, stalls selling regional cuisine that slyly promoted the countries promoting them, I reckon that would have been magnificently effective. I’ve no idea what ITB’s license is regarding food, but hey, this is the biggest tourism convention in the world. This is the number 1 place to do something like that. Surely?

Anyway, the food on offer was more or less nationally anonymous. And barring a restaurant area right at the top of the complex, it was fast food, and not terribly filling, which meant a good meal wasn’t cheap. You can only have so many waffles slathered in Nutella. (Yes, really).  So? I suggest taking a walk out front and finding a good cafe or restaurant. I wish I’d done that.

4) Put Your Business Cards In Something Other Than Your Travel Wallet, Just In Case That Gets Stolen A Few Days Later. I may be guilty of being a little too specific here, but….yeah. True story.

5) Why Are You There?  This is intertwined with 2), but it also underpins everything. Why attend an event like this? It’s a week’s earnings you’re putting on hold, and unless you live in Berlin, it’s going to cost you money to get there as well. It’s important to know what your schedule is in advance, but your schedule should also have a purpose – even if that purpose is “get a feel for how completely unprepared I am for this” (I don’t recommend this approach). Do you want to learn how to work with tourist boards? Do you want to watch travel bloggers promoting themselves in an admirably professional manner? Do you secretly long to be given flyers by grown people dressed as fruit? There’s three good reasons to go.

Perhaps I’ll see you there next year?

Images: Tobias Mandt, Ray Kippig, mueritz and Mike Sowden.