Turning the crisis into an opportunity for Brussels tourism
In 2020, the global tourism sector was hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, and Brussels was no exception.
Two major projects dominated 2020 at visit.brussels: an organisational reshuffle into four pillars to strengthen transversality, and the activation of a recovery plan to face of the health crisis. The future holds many challenges and Brussels’ tourism sector is preparing for them, with one unchanged moto: We make you love Brussels.
Patrick Bontinck, CEO of visit.brussels, and Sigurd Vangermeersch, Deputy CEO, take stock of this unprecedented year.
What were visit.brussels’s objectives for 2020?
Patrick Bontinck: “visit.brussels’s mission is to increase the attractiveness of Brussels as a diverse whole, with a particular focus on culture and heritage as well as short breaks. For the 2010-2020 period, the objective was to increase from 5 to 10 million overnight stays per year, an objective metric that allows us to compare ourselves to other destinations. Without the COVID-19 crisis, after a record 9.3 million overnight stays in 2019, we were on course to meet or even exceeded our target for the decade.
Furthermore, while our sector must make an economic contribution to the destination, it is also essential to preserve the balance between tourists and residents. Ten years ago, this was far from obvious. The Brussels-Capital Region has, therefore, worked to spread tourism across the 19 communes, rather than concentrating it solely in the city centre. The development of the European Quarter, which in ten years has become the capital’s second largest tourist centre, is a good illustration of this desire.”
And today, what are the challenges?
Patrick Bontinck: “We are faced with two major challenges: our need to develop sustainable tourism and our aim of reaching the 10 million overnight stays mark. These two objectives will be achieved through a return to the same number of visitors from neighbouring countries in 2022 and by attracting a new type of tourist to compensate for lower numbers of visitors from more distant countries, which will most likely not return to normal before 2024 or 2025. This is a unique opportunity for Brussels to redeploy its tourism offer, particularly towards sustainable means of transport, but also to increase the lengths of stays in order to reduce the environmental impact and maximise encounters between visitors and inhabitants”.
Sigurd Vangermeersch: “Internally, visit.brussels has grown a lot in a few years and has had to adapt to new challenges. Already in 2019, but especially in 2020, we set up a new organisational structure, in four pillars. This will ensure greater transversality of projects, encourage team collaboration, and bring us even closer to our partners and customers. At the same time, we pushed forward with the company’s digitalisation to meet its needs and those of its partners, as well as the expectations of the market.”
Why strengthen digitalisation?
Sigurd Vangermeersch: “The new digital and collaborative tools put in place make it possible to systematise a series of tasks and make the organisation more agile, while responding to the new realities of promotion. During this crisis, our anticipation really helped the transition to working from home for our employees. The teams had the necessary equipment and functionalities and were able to adapt very quickly to the required working methods.”
And what does the organisational reshuffle involve?
Sigurd Vangermeersch: “As with digitalisation, the transformation meets the current needs of our organisation, our partners and tourists. At the heart of this new organisational structure, two teams are responsible for relaying the needs of our partners via a single ‘point of entry’, and for defining the needs of end customers. A series of transversal departments revolve around them: contact with conference and event organisers, media, international, finance, etc.
This approach helps us to better understand what any visitor is looking for. With regard to our partners, it encourages co-creation to meet their needs as closely as possible, using new methods of operation and consultation. A such, the development of our 2020 recovery plan is the result of a real joint creation process, for which we brought together 360 people digitally. In the same vein, we have held more than 200 individual meetings with stakeholders in the sector to prepare for 2021.”
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, visit.brussels has implemented a plan to revive the sector in 2020. What exactly is the situation?
Patrick Bontinck: “We have developed a vast plan to support and relaunch tourism activity. This plan has been developed with our partners and in accordance with the recommendations of the World Tourism Organisation.
The budget released by Brussels’ regional government has enabled us to put in place various tools. We have created and managed several funds to help the sector’s stakeholders to equip themselves in terms of health, safety and touchless services, to strengthen their digital development, to deal with the crisis in the events sector, etc. We have also set up various projects to support the booking and digitalisation of Brussels’ venues (for meetings, conferences, etc.). In June 2020, we launched a massive image campaign to relaunch the destination and encourage cultural consumption. Unfortunately, after good results in July and August, the health situation deteriorated, leading to a further drop in tourist activity.”
What were the other highlights of the year?
Patrick Bontinck: “In terms of activities, 2020 started very well, with the Bright Brussels festival in February attracting some 400,000 visitors – an all-time record. Then, like everywhere else, projects had to be cancelled one after the other. We were able to organise the Comic Book Festival in museums in September and prepare the opening of Solvay House to the public at the end of the year.
In the absence of activities, our organisation has tried to maintain Brussels’s presence on the tourism market, particularly with professionals (tour operators, conference organisers, etc.) who work on a long-term basis. To be ready for the years to come, we have maintained our business-to- business activities and continued to promote the destination virtually, with trade fairs, press trips, negotiations, etc.”
How is visit.brussels starting 2021?
Patrick Bontinck: “To get back to normal, we need to work on three things: reviving tourism, maintaining the offer, and developing and diversifying our customer base. With the products and services it generates, tourism is the main source of employment in major European cities. For the Brussels-Capital Region, it is an essential economic core which accounts for 12% of GDP, i.e. the leading sector of activity and leading provider of jobs, particularly those which require lower qualifications. Maintaining this offer - and therefore employment - will be a priority and a major challenge in 2021. Last but not least, the current crisis is a global one and so the response must be collective, particularly at a European level. Our 2021 Recovery Plan will, therefore, be aligned with the European Tourism Manifesto.”
Sigurd Vangermeersch: “In 2021, the visit.brussels teams will have to continue to adapt to the specific expectations of the destination’s stakeholders, in this ongoing spirit of co-creation. On the customer side, travel habits will change, our customers will change and we need to be ready, putting them at the heart of our concerns, more than ever. Finally, with the prospect of the end of this crisis nearing, it is essential to reassure both the Brussels population and our visitors, when it comes to health and safety. In this sense, the implementation of the Health Safety Label is a 2020 achievement of which we can be very proud.”
Which strategy will you deploy?
Patrick Bontinck: “The situation is developing very slowly, so we are preparing for 2021 and 2022 simultaneously. We have defined four scenarios according to the possible changes in the health situation: from complete lockdown to international reopening, with flexibility of campaigns based on these scenarios. With this in mind, we will continue to involve and support our partners through sectoral and multi-sectoral meetings, as well as through training and tools.
As far as communication is concerned, in 2020 we focused our efforts on a generic image campaign to maintain the reputation of Brussels as a destination. In 2021, we will further develop campaigns aimed at attracting visitors and persuading them to enjoy our tourism offers. And public reassurance will remain key.”
Sigurd Vangermeersch: ”In terms of organisation, we will be moving towards hybrid working methods, combining teleworking and face-to-face work, with a focus on our employees’ work-life balance. We will also finalise the redevelopment of our premises, which began in 2020, with workspaces that fully meet today’s needs.”
How do you see the future?
Patrick Bontinck: “Since March 2020, our sector has been experiencing the biggest crisis since the end of the Second World War. Our only option is to turn this situation into an opportunity, the opportunity to create a new paradigm for tourism, culture and Brussels in general. We have made good progress in this transformation and the development of visit.brussels should enable us to overcome the challenges ahead.”
Brussels, a tourist destination with a unique position
As an international capital and a great place to live, Brussels is uniquely positioned on the European and world tourism map. It has a real balance between business and leisure tourism.
The presence of the European institutions, NATO and more than 2,200 international associations means that the city has a particularly intense conference and meetings industry for a city of 1.2 million inhabitants.
Moreover, with 183 nationalities present in the region, Brussels is the 2nd most cosmopolitan city in the world and the most cosmopolitan in Europe. A true laboratory of cultural diversity in Europe, its creativity is an attraction in itself and it has become a hub of contemporary art. If you add to this its UNESCO World Heritage Site city centre, the Belgian capital is particularly attractive for short breaks.