Sydney Paulden of ITCM wonders where Leipzig has been hiding itself all these yearsLeipzig was a major centre for European trade and culture for centuries, but it seemed to become almost dormant for about 50 years. It is now making very positive strides towards regaining its place on not only the European scene, but the world scene. ITCM, in the shape of Sydney Paulden, was one of a group of specialist MICE journalists invited to see a sample of the wide range of facilities that should attract association and corporate events to Leipzig. Other members of the hosted party flew in from the USA, Brazil and China.
It was only a 3-night trip, but I was able to take in a visit to a zoo with a difference, a hair-raising ride (if I’d had hair) on Porsche's own mini-Grand Prix track, a classical music concert, a visit to an artists' co-operative in a former cotton mill and a unique location that is simultaneously a railway station and a micro brewery. And during our whole visit we also took in frequent samples of Leipzig food, beer and wine.
Our hosts were two tiers of convention bureaux - Leipzig Tourism & Marketing and the national German Convention Bureau that is based in Frankfurt. The extent to which Germany works on a co-operative level was evident in the hospitable welcome and service offered all along the way from hotel, airline and even the municipal transport service and taxi companies. We truly felt we were the guests of the whole city and of the nation.
Clusters created to suit business sectors
Whilst visiting the futuristic, but nearly 20 year-old Congress Center Leipzig, we were treated to a presentation by Professor Dr Manfred Kirchgeorg on how Leipzig, the state of Saxony and several other German federal states are working together on a cluster strategy to attract conferences in specific sectors of industry and research.
Two very significant 'cluster' themes frequently emphasised during ITCM's visit to Leipzig were ‘Automobile' and 'Bioscience'. Automobile follows from the presence in the region of BMW, Volkswagen and Porsche. Bioscience is a sector in which there are scores of SMEs operating. And, of course, there is the Leipzig Zoo which has created its own Tropical Rainforest, Gondwanaland. Here visitors can take leisurely boat rides during which they catch sight of African, South American and Asian species in their recreated environment and habitats.
Events contribute to protection of endangered species
Dr Jörg Junhold, Director of the Leipzig Zoo, gave us a fascinating account of how the zoo was founded and how quickly it has become a leading light on the world stage for animal management and conservation. He is also currently President of WAZA, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and was able to provide an insight into the important work by major zoos in raising and protecting endangered species not only in the zoos but more importantly in habitats on site round the world.
He confirmed to me that organisers who hold events in the Leipzig Zoo, for example, would in their own way be contributing to funds that would help in continuing this valuable work.
ITCM is always keen to encourage organisers to integrate social responsibility aspects into their events and there could be no better way than this. The zoo has its own event spaces and superb new facilities are being created immediately alongside in a totally restored vintage Congress Hall.
Leipzig has a whole gamut of very contrasting experiences to offer at every turn. The city streets at night seem like a permanent Carnival, with more people eating and drinking at tables on the sidewalk than inside the restaurants and bars. In fact, many of the side streets are simply impassable by vehicle because the dining and talking and singing overflow into the roads and take over completely.
Then there is the sophisticated cultural side of the city and the carnival style of fun dovetails with it remarkably. We spent a never-to-be-forgotten evening in the Auerbachs Keller (a wine cellar). This is where in the 18thC Goethe (Germany’s Shakespeare) spent more time than in the next-door university where he was supposed to be studying law.
We ate well in a candle-lit cellar surrounded by murals depicting scenes from Goethe’s Faust, one of which takes place in a cellar very similar to Auerbachs, and then we descended even deeper into the catacombs where a magic wine is reputed to rejuvenate you. At that stage of the evening we were ready to believe anything and everything.
Transported by tram
When being shown what a destination has to offer, it is not unusual to come across a surprise r two, but in Leipzig it was one surprise after another. We were taken to see the grandly impressive Congress Center Leipzig, but we didn’t travel by coach or car. The city provided us with a brightly decorated tourist tram. Arriving at the conference facility, it looked as if we had travelled into the future, only to find that the ultra-modern conference and exhibition centre dated from 1996.
And of course in Leipzig culture and history constantly go together. A former Lord Mayor of the city resigned from office when the Nazis ordered the destruction of a statue of Felix Mendelssohn who wrote much of his music in Leipzig and who is buried there. Because he was Jewish, Mendelssohn’s works were banned by the Nazis.
There is a so-called Music Trail in Leipzig. On a 5-km walk, a music lover can pass the home of the St Thomas Boys Choir that has produced many famous singers, a museum dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as mementoes of other famous composers and musicians, including Wagner, Mahler and Edvard Grieg.
The Gewandthaus is a world-renowned concert hall. We first toured its function facilities and then stayed to enjoy not only a buffet supper but also a concert of orchestral music by Ravel and Mozart.
The hall has many intriguing features, not least the air conditioning that filters cool air through the backs of the seats so that the guests sit in comfort without any distraction from noisy pipework.
Diet in advance of a visit
It might be an idea for organisers who choose Leipzig as a destination to advise their delegates and guests to go on a diet for some time prior to the event. Food and drink played a central part in all our site inspections. Continuing the theme that the city is full of surprises, we found that the Bavarian Railway Station was on our itinerary. In the early days of rail, lines were laid to link Leipzig with important destinations and there was a different terminal for each line. The Bavarian Station (Bayerischer Bahnhof) was the end of the line from Munich to Leipzig and it became redundant when a central station was eventually built to serve as the terminal for all the lines from each part of Germany.
Why were we going there, then? Well, it is now a beautiful if quirky micro-brewery that has maintained the tradition of Gose beer, a brew that contains herbs and salt and can also boast added flavours, such as elderberry. The brewery has a restaurant and an attractive leafy beer garden, and, rounding off the story very nicely, the Bayerischer Bahnhof is shortly to become a working station once again. Just alongside we saw the developing shape of one of Leipzig’s first underground stations. The first five are due to start serving the populace later this year.
Conference hotels galore
There are literally scores of hotels in Leipzig that are classified as ‘luxury’ and which can provide facilities for events. The main groups have not been slow to make their presence known there, so you can find a Steigenberger, a brand new Westin, a Radisson Blu, Marriott, Mercure, NH and so on. I was pleased that Leipzig Tourism had chosen for our stay a hotel that was not only in the very centre of town but which represented the essence of the city’s former glory. Hotel Fuerstenhof was built in 1770 as the townhouse of a wealthy family. We were welcomed with a cocktail party in a palatial room that had been the family’s dining room.
The 5-star property, a member of Starwood’s ‘Luxury Collection’, has the Villers Restaurant, the Wintergarten piano bar, the remarkable Vinothek1770 festooned with bottles of wine from floor to ceiling and the 7,000sqft Aquamarin Mediterranean spa. The meeting salons (‘rooms’ would be too plebeian a term for them) lend a sense of importance and history to any event being held there, especially in the lush red velvet-upholstered chairs and silk-covered walls of the Serpentinsaal. Restored to its original 1865 condition, it is renowned for its sculptures in the rare dark serpentine rock that is known as ‘the marble of the Saxon Kings’.