The Munich Oktoberfest is the Davos of the hoi polloi, an orgy of globalism for the masses. By the time it ends this coming weekend, as many as 7 million fans will have passed through its gates, which are as heavily guarded as the roads to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps. (In 1980, a right-wing terrorist set off a bomb at Oktoberfest, killing 13 as they streamed into the Munich fairgrounds with its cathedral-sized beer tents.)
Today, celebrants come from every corner of the world, from as far away as Japan and Australia. Even the foreigners are decked out in Lederhosen and Dirndl dresses. When it’s over, they will have spent about $1.5 billion.
For what, apart from the rides? Last year, they gulped down 8 million liters of beer with an alcohol content of up to 6 percent—about twice as much as delivered by watery Budweiser. This year, a Mass (measuring one liter) was €11.50, about $13.50; in the store, the same quantity runs to a meager two euros. This is more modest than that legendary hot dog at Davos that sold for $43 a few years ago. At the Munich fair, the price of a beer is 5 percent higher than the suds last year—more than twice the official German inflation rate. So globalism doesn’t come cheap, whether in Davos or in Munich.
In Davos, if you want to be a “strategic partner,” you have to shell out half a million dollars per annum, not counting the private planes and the overpriced hotel rooms. In Munich, there is no admission fee, but they’ll get you inside the huge tents (actually temporary wooden structures) put up by the local breweries. Half a roast chicken can go for 20 bucks.
Getting in is just for starters. At both the World Economic Forum and Oktoberfest, the true measure of status is where you get to go next. At Davos, it is the private parties and dinners. Have you been tapped for the ultra-exclusive Goldman Sachs dinner, or do you have to slink off to the “Mongolian Night” to which everybody and his brother are invited? Will you be allowed to join a smallish breakfast meeting with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron? If you are on the A-list, you can go all day without spending a single Swiss franc on Dover sole and champagne.
In Munich, status differentiation begins at the overcrowded beer tent. If you are a nobody, you patiently stand in line outside, awaiting the nod from the bouncer. If you are an important person, you show your personal invitation at a side entrance. Thence you are escorted to a private area where your friendly CEO will treat you to filet steak and Bordeaux—and all the beer you can drink, of course.
As at the WEF, business is informally conducted amid the upper echelons of Oktoberfest society. For big business, good will is worth whatever it costs. Nobody will be able to overhear your confidential chat amidst the hammering oom-pah music. There is still a price to pay, though, because you have to suffer folks jumping up on the tables and dancing to oldies.
This year, in the shadow of the upcoming Bavarian state elections on October 14, politics unfolds as well. Forming a coalition promises to be complicated, as the eternally ruling CSU, Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, has been hemorrhaging votes. So have the Social Democrats in a fractured system where the outlier parties on the Right and the Left have been making hay.
Never mind the shells lobbed back and forth between political rivals outside the beer cathedrals. Here in the Schottenhamel tent, the bigwigs are carousing at adjoining tables. Trial balloons are being floated between schnapps and bratwurst; coalition scenarios are being tested under the influence. United by the alcohol-fed bonhomie and Bavarian national pride, political enemies can clink mugs and tell the prying press: “We are just talking, not saying anything,” as a classic Bavarian line has it.
I once asked the CEO of a top U.S. investment bank why his company would drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on Davos, given the carefully vetted pap served up during the official programming at the Congress Hall. “Why would you want to invest your precious time, not to speak of the vast expenses?” He shot back: “Are you kidding? I have 30 back-to-back bilaterals here, saving oodles of time and money. Who wants to fly to Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo, or Moscow if he can wrap it all up at Davos in three days?”
Despised by Donald Trump, that’s globalism in action—at least for the chosen few.
Davos was started in 1971 with a few handfuls of thinkers who gathered for a high-powered intellectual talkfest. Today, it is a party with a cast of thousands taking pride in being able to catch a glimpse of the world’s Great and Good—presidents, movie stars, and business leaders.
Oktoberfest goes back to 1810, to the wedding festivities of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Theresa. Custom demanded that the royals treated their subjects to food, music and beer. Bavaria’s kings were deposed a hundred years ago; now, the millions from around the world have taken over.
Why do they flock to Oktoberfest every year? “Because it is there,” as Edmund Hillary famously explained when asked why he climbed Mount Everest in 1953. Even in our digital era, where anybody can talk to Ouagadougou on FaceTime for free, sociability demands a place and physical proximity. Plus the kick of adrenaline-drenched rides on a towering roller coaster. Seemingly classless, the Oktoberfest brings together the masses—folks who would not fraternize without those 8 million liters of beer that loosen tongues and inhibitions.
Trade is global; fun and camaraderie are local, be they ever so fleeting. Oktoberfest is also the place where boy meets girl without recourse to Tinder or fear of #MeToo. The convivial atmosphere tends to make legitimate what might be deadly in the workplace. So just like Davos for the global elites, Oktoberfest opens enticing vistas for ordinary folks. Both Davos and Munich are brilliant business models profiting from ever-rising demand.
The Chinese may have Alibaba, but they won’t have an Oktoberfest like Munich’s. The kings of brew and joy rides have been honing Munich’s advantage since 1810. You can’t copy tradition. Next year, the price of a liter of beer will rise again, faster than inflation. Still, the mass of revelers will not shrink. Seven million from around the world can’t be wrong, as they lift their glasses and shout Prost—“bottoms up!”