For many in Mitteleuropa, the Vorweihnachtszeit (lead-up to Christmas) means just one thing: Christmas markets. These huddles of traditional-looking huts found in historic squares and along pedestrianised streets have a history that goes back at least as far as the 14th century, when traders took advantage of the chilly weather to offer meat that couldn’t be sold on warmer days. They are the perfect remedy for cold and dark winter nights, providing hearty food and drink, suitably kitsch last-minute gifts and a reliably festive atmosphere.
Yet they are also big business. Europeans are obsessed with Christmas – and they are some of the biggest spenders. In Germany, the leader in the Christmas-market game, these seasonal pop-ups collectively turn over more than €2.5bn each year by attracting millions of visitors. But to be successful they have to be done right – and this is no simple task, with logistics, intense working hours and running costs all daunting.
Fear not though, Christmas-lovers. We’ve asked Katja Weber, who headed the launch of the popular Wienachtsdorf (Christmas village) at Sechseläutenplatz in the heart of Zürich, to share some of her secrets. Hers is a prime example of a Christmas market that surprises with a thoughtfully curated selection of retailers, a well-balanced level of kitsch and some of the best mulled wine you’ll ever taste. But don’t take our word for it: just ask the 500,000 people who stopped by last year.
Placing the huts
“Make little food clusters and put shops in the narrower passages. Make sure there is extra space around the food stands for seating, and for people to queue for their mouth-watering helping of raclette. Retail stands should be placed on tighter stretches to ensure shoppers get close enough to discover what’s on offer.”
Fire it up
“Christmas markets are places of conviviality, made for people to gather in. Place a big bonfire at each corner of the market – they are not only an eye-catching addition but also keep those waiting for friends warm. Plus the soft light they emit and the smoky smell they create will add to the cosy atmosphere.”
The overall layout
“When placing the huts, be sure to create a nice village-like set-up that allows people to walk through the stands and discover all the offerings easily. A well-thought-out layout distributes people evenly without cramped spaces or gusts of wind blowing through.
Ensure that there are multiple small gathering areas so that people can huddle together and keep warm, and have some canopies for people to shelter under if it starts to snow. Though you should pray for good weather: a sunny day can see profits double.”
Offer preferential rates
“To keep things interesting be sure to lower the entry barrier for smaller and more interesting brands – after all, nobody wants to see the same woollen socks everywhere. Offer flexible renting periods and start the rates at about chf1,000 [€860] per week.”
Mix it up
“Ideally you want visitors to come more than once during the Vorweihnachtszeit, so it’s a good idea to change the tenant mix and bring in new brands and stalls. This also gives you the opportunity to have multiple spikes in marketing activity.”
Getting the balance right
“You should have 60 per cent shops and entertainment and 40 per cent food and beverage. Don’t just have knick-knacks though: Christmas is a time of parties so why not have huts selling chocolate-covered almonds and bottles of grappa? As for food, bratwurst, raclette and a fondue chalet are a must.”
The Glühwein cash cow
“Glühwein is what drives profits so ensure that 10 per cent of the stalls focus on serving it. But do serve a decent wine that won’t leave your customers feeling worse for wear the next day.”
“Christmas markets need a good helping of kitsch so don’t be shy with the decorations. Lighting is important; we have more than 6,000 light bulbs in Zürich. Opt for warm white lights and the occasional red and green (save disco lights for New Year’s Eve though). Add candles, decorations and a few bonfires too.”
Staff it properly
“You’ll need about 100 people to ensure everything runs smoothly in a market of 120 huts, from logistics and facility management to running the back office and bars. You’ll also need between four and eight cleaning staff (along with plenty of bins) to make sure it always looks spick and span (nothing kills the festive spirit like a piece of yesterday’s half-eaten bratwurst on the floor).”
The Christmas tree
“A big Christmas tree should be the focal point of the market, right in the centre. It also makes a very visible meeting spot and allows people to navigate their way through the huts. Plus, a sizeable pine tree will add a wonderful festive fragrance to the air.”