"Smile! Smile!" The shout sounded almost desperate as it pierced the frigid air in central Berlin on Monday.
"It's too cold," came the answer. "I need to do some sport to warm up!"
The protagonists were Klaus Böger, Berlin's senator for education and sport, and Christine Schoknecht, a player on Germany's women's youth national soccer team. And smiling was the name of the game. After all, Monday saw the kick-off for an ad campaign which will see Schoknecht's face -- along with that of 11 other Berliners -- adorn 465 billboards across the city in the five months leading up to the beginning of the World Cup. The poster's tag line? "The Nicest Smiles for Our Guests."
Germany's reputation is hardly that of a world leader -- neither in friendliness nor in customer service. Indeed, Germans themselves often refer to the country as a "service desert." But with the World Cup offering Germany a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn on the charm for the world, the German tourism industry is desperate not to pass it up. Indeed, with the launching of several "friendliness initiatives," the World Cup has already become a powerful excuse to get Germans, and especially the dour-faced Berliners, smiling early and often.
Once-in-a-generation chance for Germany
The charm offensive started early, with Germany's tournament organizing committee choosing "A Time to Make New Friends" as the official slogan for the soccer championship -- to run from June 9 to July 9. "We won't get this opportunity again for another 50 years so it's worth at least smiling for a few weeks," German soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer, president of the organizing committee, told journalists last month at the launch of a nationwide campaign to encourage friendliness.
The psychological offensive isn't just limited to a few billboards either. Officials are encouraging restaurants, transport companies, airports and even taxi firms to train employees to smile more, to warmly answer questions about the World Cup and Germany, and even speak a bit of English.
In the coming months, there will be road shows at all 12 host cities, followed by a series of TV and radio spots by prominent personalities to make sure the general population is aware of the importance of their role as ambassadors for their country. They've even come up with an official endorsement for excellent service. The goal is to have 100,000 workers turned into a crack friendliness troop by kick-off on June 9.
One of the main worries of tournament organizers is Berlin itself. Much like the reputation New Yorkers have in the United States, Berlin residents are known in Germany for their abrupt, gruff manner. But with the capital scheduled to host six World Cup matches, including the final, a lot is at stake. "Smiles create more smiles," Böger says. "And in this city we need a bit more smiling.... We don't just want to see wonderful games, but also a long lasting effect so that visitors will come back to Berlin many times."
Tourism boom in Berlin
Berlin, of course, is already becoming a European leader in tourism. With a record 15 million overnight stays in 2005, Berlin has become the third most visited city in Europe after London and Paris. Tourists now spend almost €3 billion a year in the German capital. Much of the growth has been fuelled by the city's growing reputation for having top-rate yet affordable nightlife and cultural activities. A proliferation of low-cost airlines across Europe hasn't hurt either. But some in the tourism industry fear the city isn't doing enough to make first-time visitors want to come back.
Nick Gay, head of the tour company Berlin Walks, has been showing people the city since 1994. Customer service, he says, has improved somewhat over the past decade, but it still has some way to go before reaching levels considered normal in the English-speaking world. Tourists continue to complain to him about general unfriendliness. Lack of signs in English, particularly in museums and other tourist spots, as well as the inconvenient museum opening hours are especially annoying to guests.
The city's future as a top tourist destination, says Gay, "really depends to what extent Berlin wants to become a cosmopolitan city and compete on the world stage."
Germany expects over 1 million soccer fans to attend the 64 World Cup matches -- many of them first-time visitors to the country. Between 30,000 and 50,000 jobs should be created and the tourism industry hopes that at least 10,000 will be permanent. Visitors are expected to spend around €850 million on hotels, restaurants, match tickets and souvenirs.
Given the opportunity for a lasting effect -- a la Sydney and Barcelona in the afterglow of the 2000 and 1992 Olympic Games -- the German tourism industry is at the vanguard of the new charm offensive. The boost in profile can ripple on for years and encourage millions of visitors to come to the host nations. The German National Tourist Board is hoping the €3 million campaign ahead of the World Cup can help the country shake off its rather staid image.
Looking for native speakers
Even Berlin's public transportation network -- not particularly known for its plucky and carefree staff -- is helping lead the way to shinier, happier times. It has produced its own English-language brochure and a CD for its bus drivers and ticket-office employees containing frequently-asked questions and the appropriate responses. The company also went looking amongst its workforce for native speakers of the languages spoken by the World Cup nations. It found plenty of Africans, South Americans and eastern Europeans working in various functions behind the scenes. During the tournament, they will be given new roles as guides, answering queries and giving directions.
"We have to improve friendliness to the point that even the Berlin police are smiling," German Economy Minister Michael Glos recently quipped.
Friendly cops? A friendly bus driver? Officially ordained happiness? It's probably all enough to make the average Berliner a bit confused. And a bit grumpy.