Budapest Brand: what is Budapest worth as a tourism brand for the capital itself?
Budapest was one of the lucky destinations (as were Prague and Vienna) that were "self-sufficient", i.e. its geography, history, culture, variety of entertainment options, culinary diversity, which is remarkable even by international standards, and thermal waters and spas were enough to create a dangerous situation of over-tourism in 2019, with prices rising out of proportion to quality.
While the neighbouring capitals, including Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade and Bratislava, which have somewhat fewer international tourist arrivals, and even the buzzing Vienna and Prague, have created their own image and brand, Budapest has fallen asleep in its role as Sleeping Beauty. The neighbouring capitals have become identifiable, have developed a modern image and a competitive tourist offer. And in Budapest, nothing of substance has happened for almost 20 years.
I think it is very important to stress that tourism should operate independently of politics, but it was a premise that the former conservative and not very tourism-friendly city government would be followed by new times. Time stands still - that could be Budapest's slogan at the moment...
Moreover, over the past 20 years Budapest has been slowly losing its domestic base and its Hungarian tourists, who were first squeezed out by foreign visitors due to lack of capacity (and thus rising prices). Then, in turn, the focus of investors turned to what they perceived to be better paying international visitors. The institutions that were able to sustain the flow of domestic tourism to Budapest have disappeared or been restructured, i.e. there are no longer trade union lodgings, corporate boarding houses, the Budapest branches of countryside firms with accommodation, or the guest rooms in student hostels.
For domestic travellers, Budapest has become the 8-hour city, which means that if you get there by 9am, you can be in congested traffic by 5pm and be on your way home. That means all that's left of the capital is work, no eating out, no swimming and no theatre.
In order to manage and coordinate these situations, a tourism organisation at the Budapest level, with official administrative responsibilities, would be necessary, as well as a coordinated regulatory practice of the districts. All this is still to come in Budapest. Right now we are in the process of creating the Budapest Brand...
It is difficult to judge the activities of Budapest Brand at the moment, as there is little of value to speak of, but it is also difficult to catch up with the organisation itself, as well as with other companies in the capital, including BKK, which would rather remain silent in order to not reply to the problems or questions brought up.
The Budapest Brand also contacted us only after we had indicated to the Mayor's Office that we had questions, but even so, our questions, mainly on finance and transparency, remained without a proper explanation or a non-reaction. Thus we did not find out how much Budapest Brand spends on campaigns and actions. We also did not get an information on the budget of the organisation headed by the ex-TV presenter Csaba Faix, nor did they want to give us an example of how and by what methods they measure the effectiveness of their activities and what the indicators are.
Elevate Strategy & Design won the open competition to design the Budapest Brand identity. Looking at the agency's logo for the European Cultural Capital 2023 of Győr, you would expect something equally unique and memorable for Budapest. However, let's be honest, this Budapest image, logo and look is very anaemic compared to the other capitals of the surrounding countries and the Hungarian look renewed by the MTÜ and almost seems to be intentionally out of character and almost incongruent. It is worth looking at how Bratislava, Vienna, Ljubljana, Prague, for example, present themselves, what great identifying elements they use.
It is also surprising that the Budapest Brand and its predecessors have not engaged in any effective cooperation or third market joint action with its neighbouring capitals. Supposedly something is about to happen and change, Budapest has made contact with the V4/C5 capitals.
However, we learned from Orsolya Berkes, Budapest Brand PR Manager, that
"The company organises programmes and events, and we open and fill public spaces with content that offer a true Budapest experience for both residents and visitors. E.g. Rakpart 2021 in cooperation with Valyo (City and River Association), City Hall Park (ongoing), Budapest BonBon-Cultural Bites event series. But in spring we also organised an online Budapest Spring Festival. We are currently preparing the Autumn Festival, which we hope to organise live, offline.
Campaigns: vaccination campaign, Christmas market - online, Restart Budapest Card communication campaign, Welcome to Budapest video for visiting fans, etc.
This year, we have renewed our website (hello.enbudapestem.hu), produced an image video with actor and presenter Dávid Miller, who recommends the Restart Budapest Card to domestic travellers/tourists, and launched a CLP, billboard and radio campaign and a prize draw in rural cities/counties. In addition, we published about the card's services in the press (earned media) and organised a round table discussion with prominent representatives of the industry - for the press. After the merger of the predecessors, the rebranding was done and we are now working on the unification process."
Concerning the Restart Budapest Card, Budapest Brand only wanted to say that "We are currently continuing our cooperation with the partners of the previous management, and we are also working on establishing a new group of partners and developing a new concept to increase the value of the Budapest Card. We are using a commission plan, the level of which is determined by our contracts."
In other words, Budapest Brand has not exactly elegantly avoided answering the question of how they cooperate with their partners, what share they hold and under what contractual terms. But it would be good for the operators of the attractions, the hotels, the discount offerters, if this were publicly and transparently visible.
Our impression right now is that Budapest Brand has no interest in getting as many quality service providers as possible to participate in this programme, which may seem like a good project, or that the company does not have the human resources to cope with the task.
If you look at similar initiatives in Bratislava, Vienna or Prague, there are significantly more high quality operators in capitals beyond our borders.
It is also a mystery to us why the older, less successful Budapest Card and the new Restart Budapest Card, which also has no serious track record, are running in parallel. The information of the Budapest Restart Card is only available in Hungarian, on a website that is not even remotely similar to the new look, is not user-friendly and is 20 years behind the current trends, as well as the websites of competing capitals. It's like asking my great-grandmother to put together a website in a hurry. I don't even dare to ask about the costs...
Not to mention the sales of the cards and the distribution channels... It's like the website that is associated with it. Moreover, it is also unclear in this case why this could not be replaced by a well-functioning app.
Although Budapest Brand's public business plan for 2021 includes a very substantial sum for the development of various applications and websites, the summer is almost over, which means that they are not ready for the high season. The costs set for these are extremely high. Besides, Budapest cards could be integrated into applications that are already working well for other operators (e.g. Mobiljegy) and the increasingly better sales channels of MÁV and Volánbus (online, vending machines) could be used or even combined with them (Restart Budapest Card and Budapest Card together with a return rail or bus ticket to Budapest).
I am sure that the change of attitude that is currently in progress at MÁV and Volánbusz, including their management, their attitude and their media/social media presence, would also be beneficial for the Budapest Brand, not to mention the active use of these platforms. MÁV, for example, has recognised that in addition to the traditional online channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), they also have a role to play on LinkedIn, where József Kerékgyártó, the CEO, himself can be heard and even addressed and he can reply (unlike the Budapest Brand managers).
Budapest Brand could certainly use some major training in modern marketing and sales, because the visitor traffic figures of Budapest Brand on youtube are so disgraceful that even a seniors' club of amateurs without any previous training can quickly achieve spectacularly higher visitor numbers: the weakest of the Budapest Restart episodes had 131 views, the best 841 at the time of writing (20.07.2021 - 3pm). The campaign film "Nyaralj Budapesten", shot with Dávid Miller, has more than 126.000 views, but we don't want to talk about the quality and content of the film, because it is too unpretentious and uncharacteristic, its target audience is unidentifiable, unimaginative, and the direction is lousy. I would be very curious to see how effective the campaign is, we have not heard of a single hotel that reported a full house generated by the Restart Budapest Card and/or the campaign.
Budapest Brand would also be responsible for operating the Budapest Info Points, two of them located at Liszt Ferenc International Airport, on the arrivals level in both terminals. We have been to the airport several times in the past, one of the counters always had a sign saying "I'll be back in 10 minutes, go to the other terminal", and the two points in the city centre are actually only one. It is an outrageous waste to leave an expensive commercial space on Sütő Street lying unused. Is the real availability then less than 50%?
As I was writing this post, my mood got worse and worse, the more I wanted to understand how Budapest Brand works. The organisation is not excused by the outrageously low budget they have. Nor are they exempt from the fact that government subsidies have been cut. It is possible to run a company with this kind of function profitably, but this would require real sales, making conscious use of existing premises, info points and maximising human resources.
Pointing the finger at the past, at Tarlós, does not move us forward, it hinders us. I'd rather look around for good examples, but then we'll end up again in Vienna, Bratislava, Ljubljana and so on... It might be worth getting on a train and visiting the experts in the neighbouring cities...
I'm eagerly waiting for Sleeping Beauty (aka Budapest Brand) to get up and act. It would be a shame for Budapest!
About the author:
Tamás Pakuts has been actively involved in aviation and tourism for almost 35 years, and in the hotel and catering industry for nearly 20 years.
As a manager and consultant, he has had an insight into the operations of several airlines, as well as hotels, hotel chains and cruise lines, successfully taking part in their operational management, crisis management and development.
He and his colleagues are now present in many countries around the world as experts, consultants and trainers in the hotel and air transport industries, and are working with colleagues to develop a number of new projects of international note.