Germany's Christmas markets, collections of festive shopping stalls and mulled wine stands in city centers, are shuttered because of the pandemic. But a company in Cologne is trying to do what little it still can.
It's been a pretty grim year for event organizers and hospitality businesses, with the crucial Christmas period looking little better amid continued lockdowns and high coronavirus caseloads in Germany heading toward December. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs are trying to find ways to do what they can in these difficult times.
In the Lindenthal district of Cologne in western Germany, the Schulte & Schulte events business has set up a mulled wine and Christmas snacks stand outside the four-star Leonardo Royal Hotel am Stadtwald. The Schulte brothers only decided to set up shop here on Wednesday, but they say the hotel was quick to support the plan.
Consciously avoiding the term Christmas market, their little stall is called the "Lindenthal Winter Village."
"This is private property that we are permitted to use. That's why we can set up our mulled wine hut here; it's not currently permitted in public spaces given the situation," Timo Schulte tells DW from behind his bar with its plexiglass shield, while "Jingle Bell Rock" plays over the loudspeakers. "We chose to set up here because the location is ideal, it's beautiful and it's perfect for walking. So passersby can pick up their 'to go' mulled wine here, then walk on with their family."
The site is suitable in many senses, as the hotel backs onto a picturesque park. Several benches set up in a semi-circle survey a lake and a fountain at the entry to the Stadtwald wooded area in the southwest of Cologne, providing seating and pleasant vistas for anybody who stops to buy a warm beverage. The area is also a popular haunt for people walking their dogs or getting some exercise, so there's a reasonable amount of footfall most days as people wander past. The area is only accessible to pedestrians.
"It's nice here, a different type of Christmas market. With these great views — and without all the crowds," says Claudia, who lives across town in a different part of Cologne. She had read about the stall in the local newspaper but enjoys walking in the area, so she came on opening day specifically to have a look. "The only thing I did ask myself is, what happens if too many people come? Because large gatherings aren't a great idea right now. That's one reason I came earlier in the day."
Little wonder this thought enters Claudia's mind. Considering that it's lunchtime on a Friday and a chilly 5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit) outside, business is pretty brisk — a mixture of pleasantly-surprised passersby and people who'd heard about the initiative through the grapevine.
Farina and Budo had even traveled from Bonn for the day.
"Just because of this!" they joke in unison, when asked what had brought them 30 minutes' drive up the Rhine River. "We read about it this morning. It was in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger [newspaper] and on Facebook, so it was a spontaneous idea to come."
"It makes sense that the larger Christmas markets can't take place," Budo continues, but he says he thinks "smaller solutions like this are worth supporting."
Farina says it's given her an early taste of Christmas cheer, though she adds that "the music really could be cranked up a bit so that we can hear it back here too."
An extra outdoor room to rent, of sorts
The Leonardo Royal Hotel chain is one of those that has elected to stay open during the coronavirus lockdown in Germany. Hotels are allowed to operate, but only to cater to business travelers, not tourists. Many have chosen to close as a result.
Assistant front office manager Max Ormanns said he couldn't comment on precisely how busy the hotel was, with only around a dozen cars visible in its parking lot at the time, but said it was still doing a combination of daytime events and overnight lodging.
"You can assume we're doing less business, seeing as we have no tourists as guests," Ormanns said, in a reception area containing two members of staff and myself.
In the conference room also overlooking the lake, a business event is taking place. Masked participants take notes (and in some cases stare out of the window at the mulled wine stand) as a man gives a PowerPoint presentation to an audience unable to read his lips.
Bars, hotels hit by pandemic
'You do notice that people want to go out'
Customers at the mulled wine stall are required to wear face masks, as does Schulte behind the bar. A separate entry and exit are clearly marked with arrows on the ground. A bottle of hand sanitizer rests on the counter for customers, alongside multiple signs urging people to play by the coronavirus rules. People are asked to move well clear of the stall itself to enjoy their food or drink.
After a highly unusual 2020, Schulte isn't surprised at the relatively fast start to trade.
"You can't help but notice that people really want to go out at the moment," he says.
Not unlike operating a hotel, few businesses are less well-suited to a pandemic than event organization and management.
"For nine months now we've been hit really hard. Almost all our business has stopped. We're still planning for next year and for 2022 — trade fairs, industry appointments and the like — but it's particularly difficult at the moment to see the horizon," Schulte says. "We don't really know what will come next. But we're trying to stay positive. And we're looking for ways to hold events that can be reconciled with the current rules from the government."
The Schulte brothers also have plans for a hot mulled wine delivery service for businesses or homes, with drivers dressed as Santa Claus and his helpers.
Asked whether passersby have objected to his small stall, Schulte says that so far, feedback on this "little shimmer of Christmas" has been "overwhelmingly positive."