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City Guide: Frankfurt

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Business is booming in Frankfurt, which offers international business travelers big–city action coupled with a small–town vibe.

Frankfurt may not be the first German city that comes to mind when you think of global business centers. In terms of sheer size, it has little on fellow cities Berlin, Cologne or Dusseldorf, yet Frankfurt—or Frankfurt am Main, as it’s known within German borders—has been a bustling commercial hub in Europe for centuries.

“Frankfurt has been a business center since nearly the beginning of the last millennium,” says Hartmut Schwesinger, president and CEO of FrankfurtRheinMain GmbH, an organization responsible for marketing the business strengths of the town and its surrounding region. “Back in medieval times, it was the city for international trade fairs, a place you’d go to exchange money and goods from all over Europe. Those fairs have been a core business of Frankfurt for 1,000 years or more.”

Today, Frankfurt remains such a thriving seat of industry that, even with fewer than 700,000 inhabitants, it has earned its share of clever nicknames: Bank-furt, Main-hattan and, in German, die heimliche Haupstadt, or the “secret capital city” of Germany. A strong competitor of financial powerhouses like New York City, Paris and London—with an impressive skyline to match—Frankfurt suits all those monikers quite well.

“We are at the center of the banking, telecommunications and pharmaceutical industries,” says Schwesinger. “Nearly all of the big banks and large business-to-business consultancies are headquartered here, as well as many name brand companies that any American would recognize. And they all feel right at home.”

More than just easy to access

Yet another nickname for Frankfurt is “the crossroads of Europe.” The city’s prime location in the center of the continent has always been a boon, so the government has invested heavily in transportation-related infrastructure. “Through the airport, the train system and our motorway system, you can reach any other place in Germany or in Europe—not to mention the rest of the world— very easily,” Schwesinger says. “Frankfurt’s location is a great advantage. For 1,200 years, it was called the crossroads of Europe. Now, I’d say Frankfurt is the crossroads of this global world.”

But the town is more than just easy to reach. Its real draw may be that it is a genuinely international city, welcoming visitors from all over the globe with open arms.

“Frankfurt is an incredible place: vibrant, multicultural, with a lot of diversity. It’s truly a melting pot of cultures, languages and lifestyles,” says Fred Irwin, chief operating officer of Citigroup Global Markets Deutschland and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany (AmCham Germany). “There are 2,000 companies with American capital in Germany as a whole, and over a third of those are in the Frankfurt area. Yet despite all this business capital, it’s a very small, very accessible city. The more you explore Frankfurt, the more you understand it’s really a village.”

Doing business in Deutschland

With a few exceptions, English is the mother tongue of business in Frankfurt am Main. Though your German neighbors may appreciate your trying your hand at a few phrases auf Deutsch, you may not find German to be of much use in the office.

“If an American comes to Frankfurt hoping to learn the German language, he may be a little disappointed,” says Mark Hilgard, an attorney with U.S. firm Mayer Brown, LLP, and the Frankfurt regional chair of AmCham Germany. “If you try to pose a question in German, you will often receive a response in English.”

But even if the finer points of German grammar are unnecessary for successful business relationships, consideration of cultural differences does prove valuable. “The basic foundation of values [between Germans and Americans] is the same, but there are cultural differences,” says Irwin. “The big one is formality. Germans are definitely more formal in the business world.”

Schwesinger says that the German formal word for you (Sie) is used almost exclusively in business environments, even between friendly colleagues. “I think that many Americans also are surprised that we use family names instead of Christian names in the office,” he says. “There are people I’ve worked with for years, and I would never refer to them by their Christian names. It’s just our way, and I think it is difficult for some to understand.”

Irwin adds that privacy is also important when conducting business in Frankfurt. “Americans like to ask questions when they meet people. ‘What do you do?’ ‘How long have you lived here?’ ‘How many kids do you have?’ We do it to establish some commonality with our colleagues. But Germans really don’t go into their personal lives or the personal life of the person they are speaking with.”

And don’t expect that formality to let up with the addition of a few social lubricants. Despite the alleged German fondness for alcohol, rumors of business over beer are exaggerated. “You don’t find that here any more than you do in the U.S.,” Irwin says. “I’ve been in business here for 40 years and attended a lot of events and dinners, and it’s really no different than the U.S. in terms of alcohol consumption.”

But maybe the most important thing to understand is that if you come to Frankfurt for business, you need to come with your best game. “Frankfurt has a very competitive business environment,” says Irwin, “and the competition between other European financial centers in Europe like London and Paris is quite fierce. You have to be ready for that—but most Americans are used to competition and manage quite well.”

Frankfurt: Where to stay, where to dine

Getting to know Frankfurt

Both Hilgard and Irwin emphasize that Frankfurt, ultimately, is a global village—with an emphasis on the latter. Its diminutive size and excellent public-transit system mean that visitors can easily get out and explore. For the lay of the land, hop a ride on the Ebbelwei Express (ebbelwei-express.com), a historic tram tour of the city. To meet other visitors to the city and learn more about its many cultural offerings, head to the English Theatre for the monthly Stammtisch event (Regular’s Table, newcomers-network.de/stammtisch).

If you prefer to wander on your own, make sure to explore the Zeil, Frankfurt’s mile-long pedestrian shopping street, check out where the Holy Roman Emperors held their parties in the Römerberg (City Hall Square) and revel in the amazing art collection at the renowned Städel Museum.

No matter how you choose to get familiar with the city, Irwin offers the following simple advice for a successful stay: “Have fun. Be friendly to the people, because they will be friendly right back to you. And make a profit for your company, so you can stay longer. Trust me, you’ll want to.”

KAYT SUKEL, based in Germany, writes about travel and business.


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