Why is the world’s largest Travel Trade Show in Berlin?

……. And, why did it start there?


We all believe we have a global wingspan.  Yet not everyone understands that International politics and industry news has an instantaneous effect on our lives and the hospitality business. Each year the ITB (short for Internationale Tourismus Börse) welcomes around 10,000 exhibitors from more than 180 countries and regions. The ITB is the world’s largest travel trade show and provides a unique opportunity to learn about diverse hospitality groups from all over the globe all in one place.

If you travel and attend investment and trade conferences, you always acquire intelligence that helps you personally and your business acumen. I enclose a history of Berlin ITB. This retrospective is to set the stage for my observations on the ITB starting next week… In the coming months, I will then share further news and scuttlebutt acquired at the “Annual Hotel Investment Conference” which commences in Berlin IHIF and the ATM in Dubai. Both (May 2023).

Yearly, there are a few conferences for hospitality that major brands and their CEOs attend. The ITB conference is one of them.

Here is why “ITB is the World’s Largest Travel Trade Show and why did it start in Berlin?”

When the Second World War ended, West Berlin was an island surrounded by East Germany. To help stabilize and make West Berlin self-sufficient (as they were afraid it would be taken over by the Russians), the West decided in 1965 to start an overseas import trade show. The original participating countries were those who participated in liberating West Berlin, the USA, France, and England.

In the early days of the ITB, West Berlin had all the intrigue of a 1940s Casablanca. I remember going there for the first time and expecting Humphrey Bogart to walk into the hotel anytime. It was near the end of the cold war and there was a wall dividing East and West Berlin. During those early ITB days, we would hear about those who tried to escape unsuccessfully from East Berlin. West Berlin taxi drivers who had roots in East Berlin were afraid to drive to East Berlin, as they weren’t certain they would be allowed to return to West Berlin.

In 1966, 57 years ago, the first ITB trade show opened and there were 250 trade visitors. That has now increased to almost 210,000 trade visitors in 2019 and the Exhibition space, which was 1966 just about 600 meters in 2019 is over 200,000 meters. In 1966 five countries and several hotel chains participated; in 2019… the last year before ITB was canceled due to the Covid pandemic – 185 countries participated and hundreds of hotel groups.

I had attended the ITB for 44 consecutive years before covid! On my first trip to the ITB, there were only 6 halls; in 2019, there were 28 halls (ITB provides buses to take you from hall to hall). Each hall is as big as a normal convention center. On my first visit to the ITB  in West Berlin, if you walked around the city you would see a building and then a space between, and another building. This was a result of the fact that the building that was not there had been bombed and destroyed during the war…there were still buildings with bullet holes marking them! At night if you went to the top floor of your West Berlin hotel, ( if you get a hotel room!!) you could see where East Germany started as it was all black while West Berlin was all lit up. Also on that first ITB I attended, I lost my passport in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin.  Luckily someone found it and returned it later. I learned that they could have sold a Canadian passport in the black market for US$10,000 to an East Berliner!

In 1973, I was with the Canadian Delegation where our booth was in a hallway between two buildings. This space was shared by Canada, the USA, and Holiday Inns. At that time, the airlines that could fly into West Berlin were limited to the airlines from countries that liberated West Berlin-Pan Am, British Overseas Air-lines, and Air France. During the Cold War era (1945–1991), the West Berlin air corridors were regulated for the civil and military air traffic of the Western Allies between West Berlin and West Germany passing over East Germany’s territory by the East German Air Traffic controllers only.  This corridor only is used by USA, UK, and French-registered, non-combat aircraft airlines operated by pilots only holding these countries’ passports… East German traffic controllers were responsible for letting these flights pass through the East German air space into West Berlin, which meant that they at their leisure could keep planes on the ground for hours without permitting them to fly to West Berlin.

With the lack of hotel rooms and the growth of the ITB, many exhibitors and business travelers had to go to East Berlin to find accommodation. This was challenging as they had to enter through East German police checkpoints and “checkpoint Charley” (quite scary and very intimidating). Returning to West Berlin from East Berlin was also quite a challenge as cars were inspected very closely as were the passengers to ensure that they were really who they said they were on their passports.

The hotels on the East Berlin side were not luxury 5* hotels, built generally by the Russians and most were many years old and poorly managed, but people who needed rooms for the ITB stayed there.

Now almost every country in the world is represented at the ITB and some spend their entire 100% tourism budget for one trade show, especially those who do not have access to internet reservations perhaps due to political reasons. Saying that any hotelier who works in our industry and who hasn’t been to the ITB is missing a great opportunity to see who their competitors are, be educated.. and of course, be entertained.

In the past, the ITB was held from Wednesday to Sunday. This year, the organizers got smart! Historically, Wednesday and Thursday were busy, on Friday most Europeans left for home, and Saturday and Sunday were public days. So, there were only two days of business in a five-day show, and no real business was achieved on the other three days.

This year, we start on Tuesday to Thursday (March 7th – 9th). Hoorah! We get 3 solid business days and no waste of time sitting at an empty show. After this year’s event, I will share my observations.

Hope to see you at the ITB 2023. Please come visit us for a coffee or a chat at Hall 8.1, Booth 102

(This article is originally written by Stephen J. Renard, President of Renard International Hospitality Search Consultants)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *