Interview: Norbert Kettner, CEO Of Vienna Tourism

Norbert Kettner, CEO of Vienna Tourism, explains that the Austrian capital, which used to be one of the most successful tourism destination in the world, is suffering dramatically from massive reduced air-connections from all over the world.

Below is a rush transcript of our interview with Norbert.

Kurt Hofmann:              So hello everyone. And welcome to one of our next interviews. My name is Kurt Hofmann, I'm correspondent for Air Transport World. And the interview is part of the Aviation Week Network ATW Leadership Forum, and we speak around the world with many executives from all the airlines. And today I have the pleasure to talk with Norbert Kettner. Norbert is the CEO of the Vienna Tourism. And I'm sure you're all aware, Vienna is a very booming tourism destination. But in these days, a lot of things changed because air traffic is actually stopped, nearly, and this affects a lot of the tourism business. Norbert, welcome to- that you have time for interview and talking to us. It's a great pleasure, great honor. Thank you very much.

Norbert Kettner:           Thank you for having me.

Kurt Hofmann:              Dear Norbert, I just have here the latest figures from Vienna Airport. Minus 70% on passengers for the whole year compared to last year. And many of these passengers are tourists. How many of your guests from all over the world arrive by plane, and how many guests you had in Vienna last year and what do you expect for this strange Corona year?

Norbert Kettner:           Yeah, indeed, it's a very strange Corona year. Yeah. And I used to be one of the most successful tourism destination in the world. Last year, we had 7.5 million visitors in Vienna, 83% from international markets. It does not come by surprise that we have the same loss this year, 70% minus when it comes to arrivals and overnight stays. So it shows the close interconnection between the airport and the city actually in tourism.

Kurt Hofmann:              Which countries you're mostly missing now? Is it Asia, the guests from North America, the middle East? And also I learned from you that you have a lot of incentive tourism in the past, big compress tourism. How is this working now in these days?

Norbert Kettner:           I wouldn't say it's working now, actually. So we came to a complete stop, actually. That doesn't mean that we don't work, we work harder than ever. We are in the so-called always-on mode. We are in contact with our partners worldwide, but obviously we are cut off from all our main markets, especially in the luxury market, without the US and Asia and the UK. There is no chance to survive it actually.

Norbert Kettner:           And what we see and what we saw in this year is that all the factors which are in favor for citizens, city tourism, interconnectivity, a high percentage of international guests, a higher value added and now turning against us because cities are the interconnecting points in the world. And a lot of business, a lot of people going through this channels between the big cities and all these factors are now turning against us.

Kurt Hofmann:              We've seen in the aviation business, a lot of airlines have a lot of difficulties. Some will disappear. We expect during the winter up to 40 to 50 airlines either will go into bankruptcy for the next year, and there is no financial aid maybe available, even more. Tell us how is it with hotels actually and restaurants, when so many guests are not coming?

Norbert Kettner:           There's a study from US that they said that when the first stone, tourism force, in other sectors of the economy, the effects are up to 50% higher. So tourism is always the first stone to fall. And we see this and we see the strong connection to gastronomy. We see the strong connection to culture, very important in Vienna. And right now three quarters of the hotels are open, but we expect actually that some hotels will close down.

Kurt Hofmann:              Yeah.

Norbert Kettner:           We had a study done at the beginning of the pandemic that in which 20% of the Viennese Hotel said they consider closing down for good, actually. So 20% of the hotel companies going out of the market at the same time.

Norbert Kettner:           And this is very cynical, we have a lot of projects in the hotel business and developers who would say, okay, we are planning now new project for after the pandemic. So Mandarin Oriental Florida, for example, they announced that they will open one of the first hotels in Europe, in Vienna, in 2023 I think. So we are in this weird situation that everything is down at the right moment, right? Because we also cut off from our main market, Germany and Switzerland, which is also a very important market for us.

Norbert Kettner:           But still we have an optimism and a belief in the destination because what we all believe is that cities will come back. And with the comeback of cities, the airline business will come back. We don't know in which way actually, as you said, we don't know how many companies were out of the market, but people will travel. People are craving for life experiences, in the meetings industry, in culture. So people will start again to travel. We don't know when. We don't know how at the moment.

Kurt Hofmann:              Yeah.

Norbert Kettner:           And what we see and what is a real critical factor for Europe, I think that we gave up the single market in Europe on day one of the pandemic.

Kurt Hofmann:              Yeah.

Norbert Kettner:           The single market means you are free to travel. Single market means the goods are free to be transported all over the continent. So we gave this up at the first day of the pandemic.

Kurt Hofmann:              With the travel restrictions, what we have everywhere else.

Norbert Kettner:           Yeah. Yeah. So now the situation is we all know the numbers all over Europe, now the European traffic light system came into action. Actually, it's a red parcel because the numbers are almost the same all over Europe. So we have to leave this thing of single travel restrictions allegations across the boards. We have to leave this behind us. What we need, we need a European travel regime.

Kurt Hofmann:              Yeah.

Norbert Kettner:           Forget about travel restrictions and forget about closing borders, but introduce the travel regime for all travelers. Rules are applicable. And if you tell the Europeans, if you obeyed to these and these rules, I'm not a doctor, so somebody else has to develop these rules, but if you do obey to these rules, you're allowed to travel. And this would be the re-introduction of the single market.

Kurt Hofmann:              What could be a part of this regime? You mean pre-corona tests, for example, or that we have reserves for some countries that we have a kind of healthy permit to travel within Europe. Something like this.

Norbert Kettner:           This will be very significant in tourism of tomorrow.

Kurt Hofmann:              Yeah.

Norbert Kettner:           Safety.

Kurt Hofmann:              But tourists, as we learn, tourists will not give up traveling, as you said. And there will be one day, a big demand is coming back. I know that you and Vienna airport are very close actually in the past looking to attract airlines to come to Vienna, how is this doing? Can you do, during this time, connect, talking to airlines because they're also busy to survive themselves, you know?

Norbert Kettner:           Yeah.

Kurt Hofmann:              So how are you surviving this to attract airlines to come to Vienna?

Norbert Kettner:           Actually, we do this, as I mentioned before in this always-on mode. So we give the signals that we are working, we are open and we are open for business at the moment when it's possible again. It's like driving on a very foggy road right now. And our planning period is about two weeks, also for the airport. This is our realistic planning period we have now, but still we keep in contact with the airlines, here and abroad. Telling them, "Okay, there will be a day when this is going to come back." I think we are, in January again is on a good track for recovery, but it will take some time. We don't know how many partners will survive. We don't know that yet. So this brings us back to our two weeks planning periods.

Norbert Kettner:           We are in a strong contact with the airport. We had a regime of identifying underserved routes, and so on. This now is all on-and-off mode, actually.

Kurt Hofmann:              Yeah, it's all history now.

Norbert Kettner:           We keep contact with our partners in the airline industry, because, and I forgot to answer your question before, in the normal times, 50% of our guests come by aircraft and 75% of our participants of Congress has come by aircraft. And Vienna is one of the leading Congress and convention citizens of the world. And just to illustrate the wow-you factor, an average Congress, guests spends 540 euros a day in the end. And every average Viennese guest spends 270. And an average Austrian guest spends 180. So you see how much varied in every aspect, Congress and convention businesses for us.

Kurt Hofmann:              And what is missing now? Final question now, Norbert. Well, there are a lot of challenges, a big list on challenges. What's the main challenge for the Vienna tourism business?

Norbert Kettner:           I think the main challenge is to bring back the trust of the people. We think that traveling is an accomplishment of civilization. You cannot turn this back and we need to come back to this state of mind in the people. Of course, staying safe, staying healthy. That's an important thing. To find a way to live with the virus. It will not go away. So how are we arranging a society where we can live with the virus, where we can protect the health care system, where we can protect the vulnerable people, but still are aware that traveling cannot be turned back. And I think this is the biggest challenge right now. We are ready for business. We know that city tourism will come back. We know that city tourism will come back together with the airline industry. And we know that Vienna will remain one of the most beautiful cities also after the pandemic.

Kurt Hofmann:              It is one of the most beautiful cities, I can agree with you. Norbert, thank you very much for your time….

Norbert Kettner:           Thank you very much, stay safe.

Kurt Hofmann:              You too, all the best to Vienna, your business. And ladies and gentlemen at home, thank you very much for watching our interview today. Thank you and bye-bye. Bye, Norbert.

Norbert Kettner:           Thank you.


Kurt Hofmann

Kurt Hofmann has been writing on the airline industry for 25 years. He appears frequently on Austrian, Swiss and German television and broadcasting…