17th October 2019 Vienna, Austria
Discovering Austria through Hiking in the Fog
“Are you getting out?”
“Yes”, I replied. “I’m getting out of the cable car. And the Prime Minister has made clear we will leave the EU on 31 October.“
I never thought I would have to explain British Government policy whilst trying to jump out of a moving cable car. But perhaps it helps.
Part of our job as diplomats is to understand, and influence, Austria. That means meeting, and understanding, Austrians. That is why I recently accepted an invitation to join a group of diplomats, politicians and business leaders at the 10th Wirtschaftswanderung (business hike) in Kitzbühel. In its first ten years, the hike has also raised over Euro 200,000 for the ‘Netzwerk Tirol hilft’, a regional charitable organisation that provides immediate emergency support to those in need in Tyrol.
Diplomats are no strangers to networking. But something extraordinary happens when you change the context, from the grand rooms of Vienna to the side of a mountain in Kitzbühel. The Austrians even say that “above 1,000m everyone is “Du”” – in other words, no-one stands on formality.
Our hike takes us from Hotel Rasmushof at the foot of the Hahnenkamm to St.Bernhard Kapelle. As we set off, heavy fog cloaks the surrounding mountains and it starts to rain heavily. Unperturbed and in high spirits, we are united by one desire – to hike together.
We jump into the rotating cable cars. The ride up, in damp, foggy conditions is another great opportunity for contact-building. Before we know it, it is time to jump out again and meet someone new.
We reach our first stop on our hike. It is still around 11 a.m. “Beer?” one of the organisers offers. “Is there anything else?” I ask. “Schnapps!” my fellow hikers chorus. I opt for the sports drink, which claims to have all sorts of reviving qualities. These do not include yodelling; yet before I know it, Iam given an impromptu yodelling lesson by two local musicians: a great opportunity to introduce myself to the representatives from the Alpine emergency services. I tell them about how the Consular team in the Embassy use social media to help raise the awareness of British visitors to Austria of how to stay safe on the slopes – a message which will become vital again as soon as the first snow falls.
Soon, it is time to start hiking again. As we climb higher, the format provides excellent scope for in-depth, unhurried conversations. I have interesting discussions with representatives from Cafe+Co (a regional vending provider), and ABB AG (who employ 3,000 people in 20 locations in the UK).
By now our entire party is soaking wet – including me, despite my excellent rain-gear. We exchange soggy business cards. But if the weather is chill, the atmosphere is warm. We have all long bonded.
I hadn’t known what to expect when we started the hike. I ended the experience understanding why Austrians love the Alps so much and feeling honoured to have been part of the wonderful tradition of the Wirtschaftswanderung. I also learnt how important it is to change the context every now and again and to do things differently. This applies to diplomacy as much as to business and politics. “Vui dabei” [totally involved], as they say in Tyrol.