After experiencing the glitz, glamour and drunken antics of their customers as Hamburg nightclub owners, twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun decided 15 years ago to channel their energies into a more sedate business – building a model railway. An unlikely hit, it has become the German city's most popular tourist attraction with over 1.2 million visitors a year, outgunning Hagenbeck zoo and Merlin Entertainments, whose Hamburg Dungeon sits below it in the same harbour-side building.
Here, in his own words, Frederick shares the Miniatur Wunderland story, telling us how he won his brother round to his “uncool” idea, how they made it more female-friendly, and why he’s pleased to be making money with his hobby but doesn’t want to live in a castle.
Frederik Braun: The idea came in the year 2000. We had done the nightclub for eight years, and for the first four years I loved it, but then I realised this is not my life – people are always getting drunk, they hug you but they do not know you, and so on. My brother Gerrit loved it until the end and it was not in his mind to do something else; I gave him some ideas but he always said no.
The best ideas always come when you do not think about them. I was on holiday in Zurich, and I came across a model railway shop near the train station. Something happened that moment and it evoked childhood memories within me. Five minutes later I phoned Gerrit and told him we are going to build the largest model railroad in the world. He was quiet for a few moments and then asked me if I had sunburn or something like this. All the DJs, the bar girls, everyone in the nightclub said it was uncool, but I was really sure it was a great idea and there was no question in my mind that we should do it when I came back to Hamburg.
Then I started thinking abut how much money we would need, about 2 million Deutsch Marks (this was the last year of the Deutsch Mark). My bank manager laughed really loudly, but I went to him a week later with a business plan and some market research.
At that time it was possible to send e-mails to thousands of AOL users without it being spam. It's crazy to think about that today! About 3, 000 people answered my questions asking what kind of attraction they would like to see in Hamburg. For the men the model railroad was number three, for the women it was last out of a list of 40! This said to me you shouldn't build just a model railroad, it should be a whole model world where trains are just one of many highlights. And I believe that is the attraction of Miniatur Wunderland, it is different to all these “dusty” exhibitions that are made only because of trains. I wanted to make something modern, fun and a little bit crazy. That's why we've got lots of amusing little things hidden in the displays. Then every 15 minutes the room goes dark and everyone can experience the change from day to night.
The building was luck. Hamburg was developing the HafenCity (Harbour City) warehouse district, and to attract people it began as a tax free zone. We were not in position to pay a high rent, so this was perfect because it offered a lot of space for not much money. It was still a risk, but it's worked out very well for us as this has become a hot spot of the city.
We opened on 16 August 2001, and less than one month later there was 9/11. It happened on a Tuesday afternoon, German time, when we had 1, 500 visitors in. On the Wednesday we had less than 100, because people didn’t want to do something where they could laugh. It took a few weeks to grow the numbers back up again, but we finished the first 12 months with 300, 000 visitors. My hope for that first year was 100, 000. Then we got 500, 000 in the second year, 800, 000 in the third year and so on. Getting to 1 million was really a great feeling. As we have grown, Hamburg had grown as a tourist destination too, but unlike Berlin or London there are not so many things to do with the children if it’s raining, and that's good for us.
I also have the luck that I have a twin brother. The German press loves twins! It makes a story; I don’t know why. Gerrit is more the technical freak, he developed the moving car system that you see throughout the displays alongside the trains. I have tried to make some models, but you do not want to see them! Since day one our head model maker has been Gerhard Dauscher, he masterminds the layouts and has a great idea how the landscapes are all going to look in 3D. And then there is Stephen Hertz, my business partner, but he does not like to be out front. Some of the first sections to open were Harz and the imaginary town of Knuffingen, plus a miniature version of Hamburg and the Austrian Alps. Then we did an American section, which is really small but people like it, followed by Scandinavia and Switzerland. Knuffingen Airport, which we finished in 2011, was the biggest project and has been very popular.
The Italian job
Up until now we did most of the research from our own experience, not on the internet. Most of our staff have already been to the USA, Scandinavia, Switzerland etc. Last year we went as a huge group to visit Italy, our next big expansion, which will be complete in spring of 2016. It’s a demanding project because of the architecture. If I mention Switzerland, you have landscapes in your mind, lakes, mountains; and it’s similar with Scandinavia. But if I say Italy to you, you have pictures of Rome, Venice and many famous buildings. We have to get it right. It's the same with France, which will come next, but we won’t build Paris. Then, if we have luck, we will build a bridge over to another warehouse. The canal below us will be like the channel …and on the other side will be England! After we finish that we will start on Asia or something, but for these next three areas we will need maybe 10 years.
We have been asked hundreds of times why we don't build another model exhibition somewhere else in the world. Gerrit and I are workaholics; I love to work 60-70 hours a week, but I don't know how to be in two places at one time. People have asked us to do it as a franchise, but Miniatur Wunderland is unique, and you have to come to Hamburg to see it. The one offer I really thought about was Times Square in New York. That would have been very good for my pride, my ego, but finally we said no.
Where other people have tried to do it on their own, they have not had success, and I don't know why. In Berlin there was a copy, directly opposite the Alexanderplatz in the middle of the city. It was a very nice exhibition but they had only 80, 000 visitors a year. The same in Rotterdam and the south of Germany, not many visitors, so we must be doing something the other guys aren’t.
Queues and competition
The Hamburg Dungeon opened I think half a year before us. It was funny because at first they had the queues and we thought: “Great, if there are people who don’t want to wait perhaps they will come to us instead”. Now it’s the other way round! But we work well together, and have a great relationship. Last year we introduced a waiting area, where people can sit and watch some films, read some books, and there is free drinks and ice cream for the children. But the solution if you do not want to wait is to book in advance, and around 60% of our guests now do. We also offer fast tickets for people that want to return in the afternoon, without extra cost. Have you seen how much you have to pay if you want to take the fast lane at Madame Tussauds? That's not nice, it creates two different kinds of people.
Once you know what you don't like somewhere else, it is easy to make good customer service yourself. I was in Scotland on holiday some years ago and my mobile phone was empty. There was no opportunity to charge it anywhere, not in a restaurant, not a museum, nowhere. So when I came back we built a charging station with free chargers for every kind of phone and camera (our visitors take a lot of photos).
The price to enter Miniatur Wunderland is quite low, €13. The last time we increased the price was when we opened the airport in 2011, and I think we will put on €1 when we finish Italy. Maybe if we had 500 employees then we would have to put it up to €20 or something. Gerrit and I are very pleased with the money we are earning, it is good money, but I do not need a Porsche or a house with 10 rooms.
We employ around 300 people, and recognised very early on that we couldn't do all this with volunteers, even though lots of people ask to come and work for free. Volunteers only want to do what they like. Some of our work is fun, but some of it is boring. One of our displays features a field of sunflowers – more than 20, 000 sunflowers – you cannot imagine how long it takes to make this. Try telling volunteers to make this for eight hours a day, they run away. Pay the people, they are glad about it. It has proved much more expensive this way, but it was the right decision.
There are three people each night who stay behind to clean the displays. The team changes, but we all have to do it sometimes. You need one month from the beginning to end to clean it all, and if you look carefully you can see where they cleaned the night before. Dust is our worst enemy!
One thing we do not have a big problem with is people stealing things from the displays. OK, a few figures maybe, but nothing major. I think the quality of the layouts is so good that people have the respect not to take things. Before we opened someone asked me, “What about the glass in front, when will you put that up?” I said to him if I have to do that I am leaving. I love to see the people going inside with their eyes, pressing the switches, and looking over the top of the displays.
In fact, I love this job, and I can’t wait to be here in the morning. My wife is a musician, and if she is away at the weekend playing the violin in some concert, it's great because it means I can have a whole weekend at Wunderland! Just like the discotheque, it has been a dream come true to earn money with my hobby.
- Floorspace leased: 6, 400 sq m
- Model layout area (before Italy section): 1, 300 sq m
- Construction time: Approx 580, 000 hours
- Construction costs: €12.5 million
- Number of sections: 8
- Number of model trains: 930
- Total track length: 13km
- Signals: 1, 270
- Number of model cars: 8, 850
- Model aircraft (moving): 40
- Buildings and bridges: 3, 660
- Trees: 228, 000
- Lights: Approx 335, 000
- Figures: 215, 000