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Germany's Carnival, A Billion-Euro Bash Where The Beer Flows Aplenty

Carnival season has just kicked off in Germany. In Cologne and Düsseldorf, hotel and restaurant owners are raking in millions from the beer-fueled festivities, which seems to be getting bigger – though maybe a tad more commercial – with each passing year.

The Cologne Carnival in 2009 (RuckSackKruemel)
The Cologne Carnival in 2009 (RuckSackKruemel)

DÜSSELDORF - At the Füchschen, a private brewery in Düsseldorf, it's elbow to elbow. Costumed guests push, shove, laugh and raise their glasses with a loud "Prost!" The place is bursting at the seams, and its 40 staffers are having a hard time keeping up with orders – they can't tap the Altbier, roll in new kegs or clear empty glasses fast enough. Peter König, the owner, is delighted: "We have a huge turnover during Carnival," he says.

Just 40 km down the Rhine, it looks pretty much the same except that here the beer is light instead of dark. At the Früh am Dom, a pub near Cologne's iconic cathedral, "between Altweiber Thursday before Ash Wednesday and AschermittwochAsh Wednesday we sell 300,000 glasses of lager," says Dirk Heisterkamp, the bar's head of sales.

Cologne and Düsseldorf are two of Germany's biggest Carnival cities – a fact that escapes neither German nor international attention. As hundreds of thousands stream in to celebrate, hotel and restaurant receipts surge. The Boston Consulting Group estimates the economic power of the Cologne Carnival at 460 million euros, while the organizers of the Düsseldorf Carnival estimate the take for each big event (called a "session") in the annual celebration at roughly 240 million euros.

Making millions on costumes and medallions

During the past few years, Carnival in Rhine country has escalated from being a local custom to a full-blown international attraction. A whole industry has grown up around it that isn't just limited to sales during Carnival period. The money, in fact, comes in year round. According to the umbrella organization of German toy industries, over 330 million euros worth of costumes, hats and make-up were sold in 2011.

"It provides a good living," says Hans-Jörg Bornheim, general manager of Party Clowns, a specialized store in Cologne. No wonder, when nowadays no dancer would dare show up for a parade or performance without a professional costume. "Practically every session costs money these days, so obviously people also want to see dancers wearing good costumes."

Bornheim specializes in making Carnival outfits and uniforms: there are costumes for all the traditional roles, from Funkenmariechen (red-coated dancing girls) to the "princely couples' that represent the German states. What began as a hobby has, for Bornheim and his wife, become a full-time occupation. Now they sell year round, Bornheim says. A hand-made costume costs 1,200 euros. According to Boston Consulting figures, 1.5 million costumes and 460,000 accessory items are sold in Cologne alone every year, making up a fifth of the total annual carnival turnover in that city.

Not surprisingly, two of Cologne's largest costume purveyors, Karnevalswierts and Deiters, are expanding. By next year, Deiters is planning on increasing its sales surface from 5,000 to 8,500 square meters – which means costumes filling a space larger than a soccer field.

Add to that the orders (pins, medallions etc.) that are handed out – 104,000 in Cologne alone, amounting to 5.1 million euros worth. Orders, which can cost around 10 euros each for the good quality variety, are big business in Düsseldorf as well. "The princely couple alone ordered some 2,500," says Hans-Peter Suchand, press speaker for the Düsseldorf Carnival Committee that organizes the Rose Monday Parade in the capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Many of the orders are manufactured in Wuppertal, where Adam Donner GmbH is headquartered. The company produces 120,000 pins, medallions and more per year, each one hand-painted so that it is virtually a unique piece. For general manager Sylvia Schäfer and her husband Wolfgang, who are enthusiastic participants in Düsseldorf, carnival is a bit of living culture. It also proves year after year to be a huge source of both German and foreign contracts. Since 2009, there has even been a Chinese Carnival princess who represents her country in Cologne.

Parties come in all shapes and sizes

Many traditionalists say the Carnival has become far too commercial. The trend, however, is hardly going to be reversed. In Cologne, they say that mega-parties like the ones held in the huge Lanxess Arena take the sheen off the smaller traditional "sessions." But organizer Eberhard Bauer-Hofner says the success of the arena extravaganzas shows that Carnival can be more than just a street event.

"Whether they're in their 20s or their 70s, people love them the mega parties," he says, adding that when tickets go on the market in April – 10 months beforehand – they sell out within two days. "And I heard from the Cologne Carnival Committee that the smaller sessions were full this year," so the big events aren't crowding out the smaller ones, he adds.

Hans-Peter Suchand in Düsseldorf says he doesn't fear competition from the Lanxess events. "Attendance of sessions always varies, and depends more on program, location and which carnival group is organizing," he says. He doesn't think the bigger, more commercial events diminish the more traditional ones. On the contrary, "in Düsseldorf we're finding that some events are far better attended this year than they were last year."

Attendance is one problem the breweries don't have. From Carnival Thursday to the following Tuesday they are full to bursting. The Cölner Hofbräu P. Josef Früh KG, for example, has a higher turnover in February alone than it does during the entire summer season.

But due to overcrowding and the onslaught of tourists, some Cologne locals have started to avoid the big breweries during Fasching. They prefer to go to their usual pubs instead. Back in Düsseldorf, the Füchschen is so jammed you can't see the floor. "The biggest day is Thursday, when everybody's still fresh," says owner Peter König. But over the past couple of years, week-end sales have been strong as well. "Sometimes we sell so much we don't have enough beer left to make deliveries to our regular customers."

When Carnival is over, König gives his staff a day off and closes shop. As for his turnover, some of it gets re-invested back into the business right away: the celebrating hordes do so much damage to his establishment he has to renovate every year.

Read the original article in German

Photo - RuckSackKruemel

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