Steep rocks and wild waters
About the revival of the former center of European alpinism
Toni Ecker after days of perseverance in the rock wall in the midst of his rescuers – a cinematic looking invincible bunch of Djangos, all a little torn, but grinning happily, and each puffing a hell of a cigar: a stinky finger for the mountain death!
»The magnificence was almost terrifying – walking lonely between the high mountains of the Damischbachthurm, the Hochthor, the Buchstein and the Reichenstein, along the rushing Enns river, which breaks milky-white, pouring like sparkling wine, thunderously through the rock, digging and rolling between massive blocks of stone, tearing apart the constantly germinating roots of the forest – a raging water«
Peter Rosegger, 1880
Perhaps this is why Admont Monastery was founded almost 1.000 years ago – an oasis in the middle of the wilderness and still today a place of faith, knowledge and culture in the region. Humility, however, is not only needed in the monastery, but is a universal quality in the Gesäuse. This begins with mountaineering and continues with the handling of the strictly protected nature.
The construction of the Kronprinz Rudolf-Bahn in 1872 made the Gesaeuse mountains an early center of European alpinism. Numerous great names in alpine history – from Prussia to Kasparek – have learned and perfected alpine climbing here. This has earned the Gesäuse the title of “University of Mountaineering”, because anyone who can climb in the Gesäuse can do it anywhere else – this is the old premise. But then as now, the mountain is not a piece of sports equipment with tested safety. This and the necessary humility towards the Gesäuse is manifested in the Johnsbach Mountaineers’ Cemetery, where mountaineers from all over the world have found their final peace.
The natural consequence of all this is the consistent protection of nature in the Gesäuse along the Enns and Salza rivers. It is not for nothing that there is a National Park, a Nature Park and numerous small nature reserves in a very small area. The National Park stands for strictly protected and unspoiled wilderness, the likes of which can hardly be found anywhere else in Europe. The Nature Park, for its part, is a synonym for life and economy close to nature and, with its geological features, is also a UNESCO Geopark. What unites both, however, is the absolute humility towards nature.
Perhaps this has always been the destiny of this region, since Fritz Benesch wrote as early as 1918: “The Gesäuse with its mountains belongs to the province of Styria, which guards this little piece of land, the most beautiful thing it possesses, like a jewel. It is a kind of Styrian National Park.”
One of the flagship products of the Gesäuse destination: the Gesäuse Hüttenrunde! Sunrise at the Haller Mauern ©TVB Gesäuse/Leitner
The heart of the Gesäuse destination: The Gesäuse National Park! The partnership of protected area and tourism have made the revival of the Gesäuse possible! ©TVB Gesäuse/Leitner
Wild water – steep rock: The core brand of the Gesäuse destination, loaded with bookable, attractive lead products ©TVB Gesäuse/Leitner
Stop and marvel: The Gesäuse destination is the charming answer to the hustle and bustle of so many touristic illusory worlds ©TVB Gesäuse/Leitner
as the number one concern
Whoever comes to the Gesäuse is right in the middle of it – in the breathtaking natural area, in the centuries-old high culture and in the traditional life of the Gesäuse people.
First and foremost is the issue of depopulation and the associated over-aging of the region, as the average age in several towns in the region is over 60.
A further challenge is also the creation of the necessary infrastructure, which is particularly relevant in view of the growing number of day tourists. Visitor guidance and mobility concepts play an important role here. How can a natural environment be best preserved and still be made accessible to an increasing number of visitors? Is there a way to find sustainable solutions to this contradiction?
External influences also play a role in the preservation of the region’s natural resources. The demands of modern tourism, the growing amenities for guests, make sustainable management a major challenge. The question inevitably arises: How can everything be brought under one roof here?
But two regional actors, one large and one (supposedly) small, did not want to accept this. Firstly, there was the Gesäuse National Park, which had fought vehemently for the cohesion of the region since its establishment in 2002.
The second and true hero in the story was and is a crazy confectioner from Admont, Günter Planitzer. At the decisive general meeting in 2014, which was about the liquidation of the association, this man stood up in the truest sense of the word and, against all odds of regional politics and co., had himself elected as the new chairman of the tourism association. But the extent of the challenges was not clear to that man at that time. There followed a radical financial restructuring to avert the insolvency of the Tourism Association, disputes in a disunited region and a new call for applications for the management, which was supposed to pull the literal cart out of the mud.
In all these tasks, the National Park management stood behind the new chairman and supported the Tourism Association in all situations. And that is why a member of the National Park team was chosen as the result of the hard-fought hearing for the management of the Tourism Association. Coming from a (nature-)protected area, David Osebik took over the steering wheel of tourism in the Gesäuse region from December 2014. His job was to reposition everything on new and especially strong feet.
»The concept of conservation is a far stronger sign of civilization than what we once confused with progress: The plundering of a continent.«
Everything starts with a picture in your head. The journey began with a universal paradigm and ended with a comprehensive brand and marketing relaunch. But how do you get a positively transformed image into the minds of locals (internal perception) and guests (external perception)? In the case of the Gesaeuse, it was the one-year photo project “Human & Nature” in 2015 that provided this mirror for both sides. While still being developed in the National Park, this major project was initiated with the aim of developing a unique imagery for an entire region. Man and nature were to be portrayed in harmony and in the right proportions – away from tourism and landscape kitsch. The photographers were given all the artistic freedom and a driving permit for the National Park’s forest roads.
The world of images is one thing, the brand is another. After the first pictures of the new iconography were available, it was time to develop the brand and design. Although a tourism board is responsible, the claim was not to develop a pure tourism brand, but an all unifying regional brand, which should accommodate the entire regional development and regional spirit. The whole thing had to be in perfect harmony with the pictures of Stefan Leitner. This artistic masterpiece was achieved by Simon Lemmerer, who was born in the Ennstal valley. At the beginning of the process was his rock-solid commitment to develop a monochrome and handwritten logo, as strong and memorable as Coca Cola. For everything else, he said at the time, we should look for somebody else. After a short but intensive cooperation with David Osebik (only 4 people were involved so far) the “Markenwelt Gesäuse” was born and conquered the hearts of the locals and guests in a very short time. Today, everyone voluntarily sticks a Gesäuse logo on their car for 7€ and wears our fashion line with pride. Even the confusion of different, regional brands has stopped with one blow. Everyone wants his spot under the Gesäuse brand umbrella and that’s great.
Around the two milestones imagery and brand, intensive work was also done on the linguistics. Away from the touristic speeches, towards a more relaxed and entertaining use of language. The collective EatWriteLive by Vera Bachernegg and Katharina Zimmermann was the initial spark in this area. To this day, the Gesäuse texts, although now written by several authors, are characterized by their playful and accessible tonality.
That’ s all fine, but how can outstanding pictures, a coherent brand and appealing texts be of any use if all of this is not shared with the world? Yet there is no way to spread the word if Gesäuse does not have the necessary budget. One thing was clear: the Gesäuse will not get far with classical (tourism) marketing. What it needs is a clever online marketing game plan that allows for a special quality content marketing with few resources. Initial partner in this area was the company TOWA from Bregenz, which won the tender to find a digital partner. The marketing success story began with the at that time small, fine troop of 7 committed employees, above all our project manager Johannes Terler (now an employee of the tourism association). To put it in a nutshell: The Gesäuse has developed a social media strategy on the basis of a modern website with outstanding design and online marketing that is unparalleled within the available budget. 365 days a year the Gesäuse accounts inspire people on the social web with great content. It is a combination of content (tourism board) and technology (TOWA) that has brought the Gesäuse back to life with a small budget. And as “Low-Budget-Iceland” we are lucky that we don’t have to seek influencers for our cause – they are coming to us by choice.
The peak of the return of the Gesäuse brand was the launch of the new Gesäuse brand on April 21, 2016, when all of this was presented to the public. From then on, things not only went steeply uphill, but became a tangible reality in numerous follow-up projects. Today the Gesäuse, with its own media house and 7 employees, is independent and well established in the tourism sector of Styria.
Those who call the Gesäuse their home know what it has to offer and are also a bit proud of it. The authenticity comes naturally.
Let’s start with the hard facts and in a tourist destination these usually include arrivals, overnight stays and other official statistics. Behind these figures there is ongoing (online) communication work, tough management of destinations and stakeholders, work on domestic and foreign politics and, let’s not forget, the day-to-day work of our hospitality businesses. So, regarding the change from 2014 to 2019, what do the numbers tell us?
• The bad news first: we lost 2% of our businesses and 6% of our beds during this period. No major investment activity has taken place in our destination.
• At the same time, however, our overnight stays have increased by no less than 25%. And so far this has been achieved with an almost identical growth in arrivals (28%), with arrivals in 2018 and 2019 decreasing.
• In our online communication, our contributions now reach over 10.000.000 people per year (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest combined). If you add to this the accounts of Stift Admont and Gesäuse National Park, which the Tourist Board helped to set up, the number of people who use our services is even twice as high.
• With over 100.000 fans on Facebook, 16.000 followers on Instagram and 3.000 monthly viewers on Pinterest, our accounts are in the league with the big players.
• This was followed by over 80 national editorial reports in print media from the Stern (6 pages) to the Zürcher Zeitung (4 pages) and the Süddeutsche Zeitung (2x 2 pages), to name only the most prominent. At the same time, since 2015, 5 television documentaries and several small contributions have been made about the Gesäuse. All this is in exchange of only proper service and taking over of accommodations.
• Gesäuse has achieved all this with a Mickey Mouse budget of €150.000 for the entire brand relaunch (one-off) and around €20.000 media budget per year.
A lot has also changed internally in the tourism association. From the 2 part-time employees and a managing director in the first 3 years, first of all a brilliant marketing manager has been added in 2018 and with the beginning of 2020, the Gesäuse was able to establish its long-awaited Mediahouse with a brand new marketing manager and a photographer. So we can – and this has paid off in the Corona crisis – work out almost everything in the destination. Gesäuse has always been an advertising agency itself. In the meantime, it has 7 employees – and the trend is upwards.
The most gratifying results, however, are not the official figures. It is the visible proof that the Gesäuse has arrived in the hearts of the people, whether locals or guests. But there are figures for that, too. Let’s start with the smallest and end with the largest:
– 1 person had the Gesaeuse logo tattooed on his upper arm – a greater proof of love is not possible.
– Since 2014, our guests have become younger by about 10 years, the majority of them are women and they are much more international. In the meantime, about half of the arrivals are guests from abroad.
– In 2016, Gesäuse developed high-quality T-shirts together with the company Hyphen Sports – costing between 29-30€. In total, more than 4,000 pieces have already been sold.
– In 2020, the Gesäuse even developed its own fashion line “Unversaut und Schweißtreibend” with the well-known climbing brand Chillaz from the Zillertal. Whether the thing will catch on on the catwalks of the world remains to be seen.
– In total, around 20,000 high-quality foil stickers (costing 3-7€) are out there in the world, decorating cars, cell phone covers and laptops all over the world. The sticker has even been spotted in Australia and Costa Rica.
Last but not least, we arrive at the product level and thus at the Trail Angels. In addition to our Gesäuse BaseCamps (training courses from ski touring to fly fishing), the Gesäuse lives exclusively its own lead products. And these are closely linked to the Trail Angels in Obervellach and the Gesäuse National Park. First and foremost is the Luchs Trail, which in recent years has become one of the best-known long-distance hiking trails in Central Europe. Close on its heels, and this may be hard to believe, is the Gesäuse Hüttenrunde, which connects the 8 Gesaeuse huts in the region.
As is well known, you don’t need money or fear in the Gesäuse. What you need is passion and a deep conviction to do the right things. The rest then follows almost as if by itself.
You won’t only find it here on the steep cliffs or in the sacred abbey walls, but above all on clear nights under the darkest sky in Austria.
What is our vision for the Gesäuse?
Let’s take a look at the year 2030!
Through the efforts of the past decades, important initiatives for ecological sustainability have already been created over a wide area in the Gesäuse. On the one hand, this refers to the careful treatment of nature on the part of the National Park and the Nature and Geopark, as well as in the development of tourist products with the smallest possible ecological footprint. The greatest focus is currently on the continuous optimization of regional mobility concepts in order to further reduce the impact on the environment in the area of visitor guidance.
Since the region lives primarily from family businesses, an important basic prerequisite has already been created in the area of social sustainability. No external large investors and no artificial staging meant a large measure of independence and thus focus on an organic internal development. Of course, this is also felt by the guest and thus increases the quality of life in the region in the long term. Here, the lived locality must be communicated even more clearly to the outside world and the stakeholders in the region must be supported in the best possible way. Accordingly, in the Gesäuse not only the local but also the guest should be sustainably transformed.
Only when the economic component shows success will it be proven whether holistic sustainability actually works. The aim here is to generate greater added value in the region with the products developed and the existing infrastructure. Developments in recent years show that the seed is falling on fertile ground, but further work needs to be done here, particularly in the area of pricing and capacity utilization.
If an increasing number of young people, who were perhaps once guests in the Gesäuse, decide to settle here, this is a very good indicator that the holistic orientation is having an effect. And that is exactly the vision: to establish the Gesäuse as one of the most livable and opportunity-rich places in the Alps for the next generation. A place of respectful exchange and encounter, between new and old locals, temporary locals and interested guests from all over the world.
»The revival of the Gesäuse is one of the most amazing revivals in Austrian tourism! We are proud to have been able to make our contribution to this with Product Development and Booking Management. A success story that will certainly continue.«
This article was written by: David Osebik; Johannes Terler; Sarah Vierthaler
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