Csaba Faix: Reinventing Budapest

Telling stories has always been in focus for international marketing executive Csaba Faix, who, since 2020, has been head of the Budapest Festival and Tourism Centre Ltd., so it’s no surprise that he’s now focused on destination storytelling.

Csaba began his career as a broadcast journalist, working as a political correspondent for nearly a decade – telling people’s stories. Then, in 2012, he switched to corporate communications, telling stories about Hungary’s presentation software company Prezi, where he learned how to build a global brand. In the meantime, he started his own consultancy, which coaches and trains people how to share their stories.

Csaba Faix: Luring domestic tourists back to Budapest

“Its objective,” he explains of his current position in charge of the Hungarian capital’s city branding strategy, “is literally to share the story of Budapest, both to people that live here and to people who are planning to visit – it has both internal and external communication faces.”

But in this case, Csaba says, building the Budapest brand (and reviving Budapest tourism in the time of Covid) involves more than just sharing stories: “We need to find activities, to create events, to give experiences to people, activities which my company is providing. We are trying to create a coherent brand, which you can also experience.”

One of the first stories produced by Csaba’s agency about Budapest to emerge from the tourism fallout of the coronavirus was an excellent image spot featuring a modern dancer swaying back and forth in the city’s empty icon squares, accompanied by a driving, dynamic cimbalom rhythm. The tagline at the end of the video is “When we all make it through… Budapest awaits you.”

In the second of a series of interviews with some of the most intriguing people in marketing and communications in Hungary, Sounds Serious’ Drew Leifheit spoke with Csaba Faix about his strategy for luring tourists back to Budapest, how the target group has changed, and capitalizing on an unprecedented chance for reinventing the entire touristic experience of the Hungarian capital.

Csaba, you took this position in the calm before the storm. What are your thoughts on tourism marketing strategies for Budapest and what it has become in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Everyone has seen the income from tourism melting away and the industry taking a big hit. Also, the events that we are involved in have had to be cancelled. One of the most prestigious events we organize is the Budapest Spring Festival, which had to be cancelled just one week prior to its start, which is a terrible thing to live through because we had put a lot of work into it.

On the other hand, speaking about income, what has happened has really created an uncertain future for us.

I also see it as an opportunity to stop for a second and think; we don’t really have any other choice. So we’re giving thought to, what kind of city is it that we’d like to build? What kind of tourism would we like to support? Who are the partners we’d like to work with? And what is the story of Budapest we’d like to share?

So, obviously, if I’d been able to choose I wouldn’t have chosen to have this event happen, but now that this is the situation I would say that we’re trying to use it in a way where we can see the benefits of this situation and we are trying to recreate Budapest up until a certain point.

As an example, Budapest has been becoming more and more popular among tourists and the number of guests arriving has skyrocketed. On the other hand, people from Hungary – domestic tourism – are not making much of a showing. It’s not because of the coronavirus; historically, too few people are travelling to Budapest from within Hungary domestically.

So now we’ve unveiled a new Budapest card, which we call the “Restart Budapest” card. It’s mainly aiming for people in the countryside, inviting them to hotel rooms at special discounts. If they buy the card they can book their room at a very reasonable price, plus we’ve added certain services to the card, for example they can go to Lupa Beach. 

And, just today, we’ve started a campaign showcasing the spots of Budapest to the people in Hungary, that it’s not only the administrative capital of the country but also a very attractive tourist destination where you can go hiking, discover caves, swim in or canoe on the Danube, plus you can go to fabulous restaurants at a very reasonable price.

We’d like to invite people from across Hungary to come and discover their capital. We feel like it’s a very noble pursuit and that we have the chance to start a discussion with people living in Hungary.

In connection with what you’ve been telling me, I’ve noticed in the media, for example, that the Italians are now visiting their own museums because there are so many fewer international tourists visiting their famous cities. Could you talk a bit about how tourism was going – the pluses and minuses – in Budapest before the COVID-19 pandemic? And do you think the mass tourism we’ve seen in the last few years has driven away a lot of domestic tourists?

It’s a natural evolution. Budapest had reached the threshold of being overwhelmed by tourism, where people couldn’t enjoy the experience in a way that gives you a good impression. So we see this trend – it’s a double-edged sword: on one level, the city and the people living and working in tourism are happy to see that more people are coming because they spend more money; on the other hand, we as a city have few tools for dealing with the situation. 

My concept, considering that Budapest as a city has reached this point, what we need to do through telling stories is to show other districts of Budapest and position them as potential tourist destinations for visitors coming abroad and from within Hungary as well. 

This is where telling stories comes into the picture. We’ve just started a website called “My Budapest” – EnBudapestem.hu – where we share stories from Budapest and have also reshaped BudapestInfo, putting stories from the city there, because everyone knows the Castle District, everyone knows the 5th district, places which have a lot of sights, places to party, but there are so many other exciting parts of the city, so that’s our purpose: to show what other exciting assets that Hungary’s capital has, other districts or squares, people or restaurants a visitor can discover as part of their experiences in Budapest.

We, as the official company designated to promote tourism, have the goal to showcase these places to other people, so that they can rediscover the city, spread tourism across the city in the hopes that it will ease the pressure from tourism that the city has felt.

It’s been a while since I’ve been downtown, so I’m wondering if you could give us an idea of how many international visitors have been returning to Budapest.

Just a few. We’re seeing that most of these visitors have come by car rather than by plane, which is obviously a big change. Speaking of overtourism, if I were you, someone thinking of coming to Budapest, I would show up now, because this is the perfect moment to see the city without it being too crowded, noisy or too touristy. It’s rare to be able to see a city like Budapest in this state: super liveable and discoverable, definitely not overcrowded. (See evidence of that in the cool video produced by Csaba’s company, below!)

We are seeing some signs of tourism and people returning to the squares, but the contrast between what we saw one year ago and today now is quite big.

It sounds like it might offer a much more personal experience for visitors as well. Tourists are fewer so they might be much more appreciated.

Sure, if there’s a super crowded restaurant where the waiter doesn’t have a second other than to give you the food and drink that you’ve ordered compared to a restaurant which is half full where the waiter has more time even to have a very brief chat with you. If you ask two questions and are able to talk to your waiter, it’s a very different experience compared to when “bam, here’s your food, here’s your drink, your bill, so thanks for coming.”

This kind of slower approach, more personal approach is important to experience. I have to tell you that this is our secret goal at some level, to somehow maintain this approach to save this kind of more local, more personal experience and maintain it for the future.

In terms of travel it was interesting that you brought up earlier the fact that people are arriving by car and I understand that the airlines are having such a tough time, as are their customers, in dealing with the uncertainty that goes with the COVID-19 pandemic. What kind of communication strategy is involved to deal with, for example, the risks of attending a crowded festival?

We are paying a lot of attention to this, and we’re trying to stay on the safe side and be able to provide the most accurate information. We’re not doing any sort of independent communication – we’re always referring to what comes from the central government, because we think that we need to put all of the faith and the trust on the authorities. So we’ve avoided being more easy going in that sense, not saying “these are the restrictions, however it’s totally okay to attend a festival or something like that.”

I think it’s crucial to have trust because if the situation becomes more severe it has to be the government that shows us the way, so we’ve been placing really high priority on this and divert any queries on these matters to the websites maintained by them because they have the most up-to-date information on their website and we strongly recommend that everyone follow their recommendations and rules in some cases and behave according to that.

How difficult is it to get restaurants, cultural institutions, etc. on the same page? Is there some sort of internal strategy for that, to reassure visitors, for example, on any health safety concerns?

I think it’s pretty obvious and everyone is doing a great job with that, for example if you see how people are wearing their masks on public transport, or when they put them on when entering a museum. Everyone understands the situation and are doing their best to follow the protocols.

We obviously have internal discussions about these topics and don’t want to take a third way or do anything that would divert from what is being said by the health authorities.

It seems like it would be incredibly difficult to plan any big events. What are some things that we can hopefully look forward to or that may be enticing for visitors, whether they be domestic or international?

Despite what’s going on, our planning is business as usual. We worked hard on our contemporary art festival called “Cafe”, scheduled for October (Editor’s note: Some events on the agenda have been rescheduled for later dates). Of course, we are implementing some measures and actions in order to make events “corona proof” – that’s what we’re saying internally, so again if we need to cancel the festival, how can we save some elements of it and put them either into the online sphere or make the events for a smaller audience. 

This kind of thinking is already integrated into our planning, but we’re still doing our job like normal, preparing for this festival, and we are also preparing for the Christmas fare at Vorosmarty Square, which is super famous – we’re even planning on extending it and have a bigger one, adding a “Town Hall” park, which is close to the central squares of Budapest, and to provide varied experiences of Christmas.

So we’re hoping that by Christmas we’ll be able to have this fair in a way that we have in the past 20 years, but of course while we’re planning it we also have it in mind that things may come up and we need to be aware of them, but let’s not let the coronavirus tear us down: we’re planning on all of the activities and all the events and hoping for the best.

When you personally have people visiting you in Budapest, where do you like to take them or what do you like to show them?

I’m in love with the Danube River, so I would definitely want my visitors to see the “Romai part”, a river bank area that is in the northern part of the city. It’s amazing to see this wilderness area within a 10-minute drive of the city center, you can canoe there, sit by the shore and enjoy a beer or wine spritzer – it’s incredibly tranquil and peaceful space, my favorite.

Thanks, Csaba!

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A freelance communications consultant, Drew Leifheit is the founder of Sounds Serious, which specializes in content for B2B/B2C businesses including blog posts, feature stories, c-level interviews, podcast production, voiceovers, and internal newsletters.

His areas of expertise include professional services, brand management, energy, international affairs, SaaS, and the airline, travel, and dental tourism industries.

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