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Traveling for business in Germany, and enjoying it

NEW YORK ― I practice intellectual-property law in New York, but as a dual U.S.-German national, I have considerable cross-border work, which is why I go back and forth quite often. I have a working wife and a toddler who has developed the ability to be in three places simultaneously; that means I have to keep my away time as short as possible and make every business hour count. But that is still no reason to schedule myself in the expectation of setting a land speed record in order to keep appointments.

Fortunately, years of experience came to my aid this time, and I knew where to spend the leisure time I’d carefully wedged into my meeting schedule.

Frankfurt remains the financial capital of Germany. It so fully plays the part of Germany’s New York to Berlin’s turn as the country’s Washington that Frankfurt, which is on the Main River, is nicknamed Mainhattan. There are good hotels in the center of town, but Frankfurt is relatively compact, which means you don’t need to stay in the middle of it to make effective use of it.
The skyline of Frankfurt, Germany, is photographed across the Main River. (MCT)
The skyline of Frankfurt, Germany, is photographed across the Main River. (MCT)

It was in recognition of that fact that, five years ago, The Rocco Forte Group opened the Villa Kennedy. Built in 1904 as the home of a Jewish banking family, the main building was carefully updated and new wings (built in the style of a traditional Frankfurt villa) were added to form a rectangle around a central courtyard. The interior is contemporary but not self-consciously so, with the result that you aren’t jarred by those overwrought contrasts between the old and the new that can sometimes result when designers try to fiddle with the architecture of the past in order to make a traditional building look distinctive. What you get instead are many neutral and gray tones, giving interior spaces the feel of anterooms to the hotel’s ace in a hole: a soothing spa. It also has two other essentials for business travelers: a very good restaurant/breakfast room (called Gusto) and a quiet bar that can serve just about anything.

On my jet-lag day, I left time in my schedule for a spa visit. I selected the Business Package for Men, a 90-minute caprice of massage, facial and manicure that the spa’s brochure promises will make you fit for your next meeting. (That’s how I explained it to my firm, and I’m not changing my story now.) I followed that with time in the sauna and the steam room, the only glitch being that, after I fell asleep in the rest area, I was awoken by a fellow guest, a woman in midlife dressed in only a bathrobe, who explained that, contrary to German resort custom, the hotel segregates spa guests by gender, and that I had infiltrated in the woman’s area.

In any event, despite the time change, I was now quite at my best for what followed: the note-perfect business lunch that Gusto served a colleague and me.

Frankfurt has an Old Town that is largely a recreation ― a necessity due to the heavy damage the city suffered during the Second World War. It’s a quick cab ride or a brisk walk from the hotel. Because it is a spot favored by tourists ― who are complementing business travelers in the city in increasing numbers ― it is not commonly thought of as a destination for business dinners. On my quieter side of the river, therefore, a short walk from the hotel, lawyers from Frankfurt and I had an enjoyable night at an intimate and relaxed restaurant, Grand Cru. It is one of those deceptively casual-looking places where the food, though pleasant, is subordinate to a world-class collection of wines.

My most interesting interlude with colleagues, however, was a night at the Tigerpalast (Tiger Palace), a vaudeville hall where you are first served a refined meal and are then sent upstairs to a small auditorium for a variety show. There was a huge Russian acrobat who wore a painted face and did most of his work with his hands; there was a svelte Spanish acrobat who wore a body suit and did most of her work with her feet. Both performed while inverted, and one can only hope that they will meet after a show sometime and work up a joint appearance that features all appendages and lets them remain upright. The two-hour show was clean fun (children were in the audience), and it was a nice way to enjoy leisure time with professional associates.

I once flew from Frankfurt to Cologne, thinking it was simple just to change planes on my flight into Frankfurt from the United States and keep going by air. It would have been easier to take the train, which shoots from Frankfurt Airport to Cologne in about one hour and 20 minutes. That is how I arrived this time. In less than five minutes, I rolled my suitcases from the train station to my favorite hotel in Cologne, the Excelsior Hotel Ernst.

I’d spent a few nights in Frankfurt, but in Cologne, my time would be limited. That is one of the reasons that the selection of the hotel ― which is right beside the city’s famous Gothic cathedral and a short walk from anywhere I needed to be ― was so important. Another reason is that the Excelsior Hotel Ernst is staffed with some of the friendliest people in the business in Germany. I come back but every few years, but from concierge to housekeepers, I’m typically greeted as if I’ve been visiting weekly. I got one of the newly renovated rooms this time, which means I had a big flat-screen TV that I only knew how to use after having practiced on a similar rig at the Villa Kennedy.

You cannot understand Europe without an appreciation for its Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, and in the space of little more than a day, I managed two short visits to Cologne Cathedral. I’ll also submit that you can’t really understand contemporary Germany without knowing its art of the past century, and the Museum Ludwig, just behind the cathedral, contains one of the best collections of modern and contemporary works from Germany and elsewhere. Although always crowded, the main shopping district is never inspiring; but along the Rhine, which is also just a short walk away, there are some charming restaurants. I met with professional contacts at Holtmann’s, which services traditional food in a folksy setting and where, at the door, I was greeted with a cautionary message on a pasted sign that said, in English: MEAN PEOPLE NOT WELCOME. I wasn’t sure if the restaurant posted that warning or someone else did it for them, but it so started the experience on just the right note, I’d urge them to keep it.

Dinner was with a colleague, and I couldn’t leave town without dining again at my hotel’s gourmet restaurant, the Hanse Stube, so I invited him to join me there. I advocate gourmet restaurants for business dinners, if your expense account can manage it. You have time to sit in a decorous environment to indulge your senses, everyone is put into a good mood, and you usually come away feeling that you know each other better.

The following afternoon, after some four hours (and a bit extra due to weather delays), I was in Hamburg.

I live in New York, so I don’t have a German home town. I feel that gives me the right to pick one for myself, and so I’ve adopted the port city of Hamburg. I have friends there, and the city, with its liberal, forgiving attitude, suits my temperament.

In Hamburg, as in New York, no one cares what you do, who you are or who you keep company with as long as you keep busy. The city’s mercantile energy is recognizable to any New Yorker, but its low skyline, pedestrian passageways and many canals give it a relaxed appearance that is inviting and engaging. (I grew up in part in New Orleans, another port city where the attitude, although not the work ethic, was much the same.) I’ve stayed at about a half dozen different hotels in Hamburg over the years, but this time I went back to the one I first tried, long ago ― the Fairmont Vier Jahreszeiten. Located on the Inner Alster, the lake around which the center of town bends like a horseshoe, the hotel is favored by bankers, businessmen and lawyers.

It is a place with such tradition that the breakfast room has original Biedermeier chairs of many different styles ― meaning that, for the breakfast meeting I held on my first morning, my client and I were sitting on furniture that was nearly 200 years old. And yet my own hotel room had been so carefully modernized, I again had to rely on my training gained at the Villa Kennedy to get the television to work.

A spa with Asian-style touches had been added since my last visit in town, but another tip for the business traveler: At your last stop (and only then) buy things to bring back to the people who work for you and who keep things going in your absence. So instead of the spa this time, I went to the main shopping area, which was steps away.

Dinner with colleagues on my first night was at the hotel’s Haerlin restaurant, which has a Michelin star and which serves one of those sybaritic meals that, in Germany, tends to start early but can go on for hours. A meal like that for two to four can exceed the nightly price of your room, but that’s standard in much of Europe.

On my last evening, I had a guys’ night out with a couple of friends. We went to Rive, a seafood restaurant along the riverfront. Great ships steamed by, grandly lighted in the dark. It was a Friday night. Ordinarily, I’d have stayed to take in the street theater of the fish market that goes on just near the restaurant, starting before dawn each Sunday, but the family was waiting back home this time. Early the next morning, I had room service bring in breakfast and then pushed on for home.

Professional work had gone very well on the trip. And I’d had quite a good time whenever possible ― just as anyone should.

Business travelers

The secret to making a business trip enjoyable ― as opposed to merely successful ― is to be sure never to spend too much time in the company of others or too much time alone. Bring along a device that contains Skype software and allow a few moments in your schedule in order to play the tourist, and you’ll feel as fine as can anyone can be when far from home in the service of commerce.

Choose your hotel carefully, and don’t scrimp on the choice: Call it your home away from home or forward base camp, but if the hotel isn’t giving you what you need, you’ve handicapped yourself from the start. It should, if at all possible, be the kind of place to which you feel comfortable inviting others.

Inviting clients to your hotel is like inviting them to your club ― it settles up front who will play the host and foot the bill. When extending invitations, work from the strengths of your hotel; if it has a sophisticated bar (like The Carlyle, in New York), invite people for cocktails; if it is known for a brilliant breakfast (like the Sacher, in Vienna), feel free to schedule your first meeting at 8 in the morning.

By Alan Behr

(McClatchy-Tribune News Service)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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