From surfing to drinking, Jenny Southan discovers the powerful business city of Munich is adept at balancing work with play
Spring may be here, but on a crisp March day in Munich there are still piles of snow at the side of the road. Still, the chill has not dissuaded a group of men from donning wetsuits and climbing into the churning Eisbach, which flows through the expansive Englischer Garten public park. Running parallel to the Isar River, this manmade waterway is famous – believe it or not – for surfing.
One by one, the men cautiously hold their boards at the base of the permanent roiling wave forged at the entrance to the Prinzregentenstrasse Bridge. And, one by one, they wipe out – their boards whipped from under them by the violent current, ripping them downstream by the ankle. After a short while, a woman plunges in – she catches the wave perfectly, riding it back and forth with ease as onlookers applaud.
Not just a pastime for a few crazy hobbyists, for the past decade international surf contests have been held in the landlocked city – even at the airport in a temporary wave pool. (A 2009 film called Keep Surfing cemented its position as one of the top river surfing spots in Europe.) One guy who grew up riding the Eisbach was Quirin Rohleder – now a pro, he has earned a name for himself on the scene. “It’ s crazy how this river has had so much influence on my life. Some might say this wave is boring. However, it still amazes me,” he says on his Instagram feed.
I first hear about Rohleder at the Flushing Meadows hotel, a small but decidedly trendy 16-room property in the Glockenbachviertel district, about 4km south of the park. Along with ten other collaborators – including local heroes DJ Hell and rapper Michael Beck – Rohleder was tasked with designing one of the hotel’s 11 feature rooms. His cosy loft has a mezzanine sleeping level, a hammock and an oversized monochrome print of him surfing.
“Since the river was cleaned up, people use it to get around. They jump in, flow downstream and then take the ‘bikini’ tram back into town,” says Niels Jaeger, co-founder of the hotel’s parent company, Arnold Jaeger Werner (AJW).
And there was me thinking Munich was all about beer and BMWs. (Which it is – but more about that later.) Opened in 2014, the Flushing Meadows is essentially a long-term pop-up – the owner of the building was looking for someone to take a seven-year lease on the top two floors of a Deutsche Telecomms office building. AJW now has a branch of its Super Danke green smoothie chain downstairs, and the hotel is proving a hit not only among tourists but business people representing industries from fashion to insurance.
Wearing a black T-shirt, grey jeans and black Adidas trainers, general manager Eike Gethmann says: “The whole travel industry has changed – travellers want to meet local people. We are very informal and our bar is buzzing in the evening. People come for the roof terrace.”
With a background in traditional five-stars – Gethmann was previously at the city’s Charles hotel, part of Rocco Forte – he says it’s just as difficult to fill 16 rooms as it is 160, but Flushing Meadows tends to run at 90 per cent occupancy. In an effort to support the community, the Design Hotels member serves Munich’s very own Aqua Monaco glacier water, displays flowers from a nearby florist and publishes its own printed guide to the city, Outside.
STAY IN STYLE
In the past year or so, new hotel launches have included Starwood’s Aloft, Accor’s Novotel Muenchen Arnulfpark and Wyndham’s Super 8, as well as “budget design” concepts from Nordic Pure and Bold. Airport hotels from Ibis and Marriott’s Moxy have just opened, and coming soon is a 287-room property from luxury German brand Roomers, a 25 Hours hotel and a 274-room Andaz from Hyatt in 2017.
At the top end, anyone familiar with Munich will know the Sofitel Munich Bayerpost, Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski and Mandarin Oriental, but the 175-year-old family-run Bayerischer Hof is the grande dame. Wander along the pedestrianised boulevard from Marienplatz and you’ll see its entrance signposted by an unofficial memorial to Michael Jackson. Here, the base of a statue of composer Roland de Lattre has been adorned with photos of the King of Pop. (The musical tastes of Munchners have shifted since the 1500s.)
Today, the Bayerischer Hof is run by Innegrit Volkhardt, who took over operations from her father, Falk, in 1994. Almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, the hotel has been ever expanding and renovating – 2005 saw the addition of a spa, a glass-walled rooftop restaurant and an outdoor terrace. Along with six bars and five restaurants (including the underground Bavarian Palais Keller, Polynesian-style Trader Vic’s and two Michelin-starred Atelier), it has 340 rooms and suites sporting a variety of themes, from floral Laura Ashley to gold-heavy Graf Pilati.
Soren Huber, the property’s director of business development, says the plan for the next 12 months is to rebuild the G wing at the back of the property – it will go from 20 rooms to 28 with the addition of two new floors and a penthouse. The ballroom and event spaces in the Palais Montgelas wing will also be given a facelift. In February, the hotel held the 52nd annual Munich Security Conference, with high-profile attendees ranging from King Abdullah II of Jordan to US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Munich airport is the seventh-largest in Europe, offering direct connections to almost 250 cities. It handles more than 40 million passengers a year but the addition of the new Satellite Terminal 2 this spring will enable it to cope with another 11 million.
Rita Roider, director of marketing and communication for the city’s Department of Labour and Economic Development, says: “Expansion of the public transport system and the airport is of key significance to Munich, as both are straining at their limits. Plans to build a second east-west S-Bahn commuter rail line tunnel through the city centre have already reached an advanced stage.” Munich’s underground U-Bahn system is among the world’s best, with eight lines connecting 96 stations that often sport futuristic interior design.
Although much of the old town is pedestrianised, take a stroll down designer shopping avenue Maximilianstrasse and you will see countless luxury cars cruising by. The automotive industry is a central pillar of the economy, generating sales revenues of e80 billion a year, and Audi and BMW are both based here. The latter was founded in Munich as Bavarian Motor Works 100 years ago and has its headquarters in a quirky “four-cylinder” tower just outside the city centre.
Next to it is the equally eye-catching, bowl-shaped BMW Museum and, on the other side of the road, near the Olympiapark, is BMW Welt, a huge showroom. Built in 2007 and featuring a striking “double-cone” vortex of glass and steel attached to a sweeping auditorium, it welcomes more than three million visitors a year who come to see the latest cars and motorbikes, BMWi electric vehicles, Rolls-Royce and Mini fleets. The company has come a long way since it began building aircraft engines in 1916.
As well as a Michelin-starred restaurant and extensive event space for hire, BMW Welt also houses the company’s European delivery centre, from which 22,000 cars a year are collected by buyers from around the world. As part of its centenary celebrations, designers unveiled the BMW car of the future (pictured above right) but unfortunately for petrol-heads the “Vision Next 100” will be self-driving.
Opposite Welt, the BMW Plant manufactures more than 950 cars a day with the help of 7,700 employees and hundreds of dexterous robots. Down the road in the Milbertshofen district, BMW Group Classic will next month relocate to a 13,000 sqm venue in the former Knorr-Bremse AG factory. It will house vintage cars, workshops and space for corporate functions.
Another striking building – home to Bayern Munich football club – is the 71,000-seat Allianz Arena (pictured on our cover). It is encased in thousands of inflated plastic panels that change colour, and was designed by Herzog and de Meuron.
Frankfurt may be the financial capital of Germany, but in terms of the top 50 companies on the German stock exchange, Roider says Munich holds the largest number of headquarters in the country. “This is a healthy and prosperous market,” she says. “As well as BMW, the biggest players are Allianz, Munich Re and Siemens. LVMH, Microsoft and Google have also moved here.”
Compared with other German cities, Munich has the lowest unemployment rate (4.6 per cent) and the highest per-capita income (30,800 Euros). Other firms located here include Apple, Accenture, Sky, Starbucks, Vodafone, Wrigley, Yahoo and Airbus Defence and Space, just outside in Ottobrunn. In December, IBM set up a global innovation centre in Munich for its new Watson IoT (Internet of Things) business line, creating 1,000 jobs.
The UK is Bavaria’s fourth-largest export partner and its tenth most important source of imports. What does Roider think about the UK’s proposed “Brexit”? “Bavaria in general and Munich in particular have a vested interest in keeping the UK in the EU and, above all, in the single market,” she says. “We value the UK as an important partner within Europe and hope that the British people will decide in favour of keeping their country in the EU.”
The city’s economic strength not only rests on manufacturing, high-tech and large corporations, but start-ups (of which there are 95,000), traditional crafts and family-run businesses. Walking around, I come across the elegant Bohmler family interiors shop, gourmet food court Dallmayr and hip Brot und Butter, which sells kitchenware and home-baked bread (there is a line out of the door). Roider says: “No single industry is so predominant that the livelihood of the city depends on it. A healthy blend of companies of all shapes and sizes – known in Germany as the ‘Munich mix’ – makes the Bavarian capital highly resistant to crises.”
Munich pulls in 70 million visitors a year for both business and leisure, but the annual Oktoberfest (in fact held in September) attracts six million on its own. Last year, revellers glugged down 7.3 million litres of beer. Even if you are here at any other time of the year, “you need to be prepared to drink”, says AJW’s Jaeger. Traditional beer halls such as the lively Hofbrauhaus are frequented by everyone from lederhosen-wearing locals to high-flying professionals. Oompah bands play daily.
My tour guide, Susanna Steensma, says: “Beer is an important part of culture here. There are six breweries in Munich and they are the only ones that can serve beer at Oktoberfest. Hofbrau is the government beer, for example, while Augustiner is a private enterprise.” The other four are Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr and Spaten – you can see their coats of arms on the maypole in Viktualienmarkt square.
In summer, there are plenty of places to sit outside and enjoy a stein. Roider says: “Munich’s beer garden culture is symbolic of the city’s down-to-earth lifestyle. It reflects a basic undercurrent of laid-back conviviality. Visits to beer gardens are not just a great way to end the working day, but also ideal for a relaxed business lunch, or to celebrate the signing of a new contract or the acquisition of an important customer.” If you really want to make an impression, you may also want to pack a wetsuit.