How It All Started

The idea for a newsletter about travel in the German-speaking countries had simmered in my subconscious for several years until one day my brother Tom, a free-lance writer, told me two things: first, that he had read in Money Magazine about a successful newsletter on France and, second, about a computer software program called PageMaker. Tom's computer, one of the first of Apple Macintoshes, could run PageMaker which would allow us to produce camera-ready pages without expensive and time-consuming typesetting and paste-up. Of course, we would still have to write it and then, hard part, find somebody who would pay to read it.

Tom came up with the name which, in one way, is perfect: its German meaning exactly fits what were trying to do and it almost never fails to bring a smile to the face of Germans, Austrians and Swiss. From another standpoint, however, it's probably a liability. Conventional marketing wisdom says that, at the very minimum, a product's name should be immediately recognizable and meaningful to potential customers. To most people, however, Gemütlichkeit is simply a word that is very difficult to pronounce.

Tom was also responsible for the basic look of the newsletter which is still much the same as it was when we started.

After a couple of years, Tom bowed out when he discovered he had a very bright future as a writer and creative consultant to companies in the exploding Silicon Valley (recently he was creative director on the video Microsoft's Bill Gates used as the centerpiece of his keynote address to the annual Comdex conference in Las Vegas).

So we produced a first issue and then went in search of readers, which is just the reverse of how successful publications are born these days. (First comes a mailing which invites potential readers to send in subscription orders. If enough paid orders are received, publication goes forward. If not, the money is returned and the newsletter never gets off the ground.)

Even though we did things a little backwards, it was clear from our very first direct mail solicitation we had a product that was of interest to a certain sort of traveler. (Obviously, you are one of that "certain sort" and we thank you for your subscription. )

At the beginning, the dollar was very strong versus European currencies and we were more inclined to cover the best hotels. At three marks to the dollar a double room at Munich's Vier Jahreszeiten could be had for about $136. At the nearby An der Oper, a fine little three-star hotel, rooms were from $33 to $58. It was even cheaper in the countryside.

But as the dollar declined over the years we had to lower our sights and so Gemütlichkeit began to look for less expensive hotels and restaurants. While we still review four and five-star hotels, everybody likes an occasional splurge, we now present a more balanced range of accommodations, including pensions, self-catering units and one and two-star-hotels.

Our current policy on restaurants reflects our personal tastes. Once in a while we don't mind putting on a coat and tie to drop a large number (but then, baby, it had better be good). We mostly look for simple restaurants that can execute well the traditional recipes. I wish there were more of them. And, I am sorry to say, the cuisine of far too many of Germany, Austria and Switzerland's grand restaurants is stuck in the past, serving thick, salty, artery-clogging sauces, huge portions of meat and overcooked vegetables.

As to our bias toward auto travel over train travel, we're coming around. Earlier this month we went by train from St. Gallen, Switzerland, to Prague. Then from Prague to Weimar and from there to Frankfurt and then on to Zürich. Except for one incident about which you will hear later, but for now just remember to not, under any circumstances, check your bags when traveling by train from one country to another, it was pure delight. Germany's new ICE (Inter-City Express) trains were particularly comfortable; they'll even bring food and wine or beer, and not just bottled beer but Bier vom Fass, to your seat.

The past 10 years have brought three major changes for traveler's to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The first, of course, is the fall of communism. It opened up whole new territories for us to explore. The second is the fall of the dollar. It changed where we stay, where we eat and how long and how often we visit Europe. Fortunately, car rental prices have fallen in the last 10 years and, on an inflation-adjusted basis, so have airfares. The third major development is the Internet. The respected Value Line Investment Survey says the Internet's development "poses a change in the environment that is analogous to the displacement of the telegraph by the telephone." How does that affect travelers? One example: prior to the trip referred to above, I accessed the Net and was able to easily locate and print all the train schedules related to our specific itinerary. So, for instance, in our hotel room the night before we were to depart Weimar, we simply dug out the single sheet of paper that had the Weimar to Frankfurt timetable and selected our departure time. No fat books to carry, no phone calls to make.

In looking over the first 119 issues of Gemütlichkeit, rereading many of them for the first time since their month of publication, I began to feel a real sense of accomplishment. There's a lot of solid information in those 956 pages (the December, 1989 issue had 12 pages), if I do say so. And all of it based on firsthand observations. We set out to be the publication for independent travelers to our three countries and I think we have succeeded. There have been more than a few misspellings and misuses of German (and French and Italian) words and phrases, but the heart of the matter, the advice on where to stay, where to eat, how to get there, what to see, how to save a buck here and there, where to drive, what to drive, and so on, has been pretty much right on.

And we're still on the case: still excited about travel and still enjoy talking about it and writing about it. RHB

December 1996