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Brussels bends but doesn't break, the capital's hoteliers are getting back on their feet, albeit belatedly compared to their European neighbours

The Belgian capital has suffered greatly from the consequences of the Covid 19 pandemic. A look back at three years which, although they have strongly shaken the Brussels hotel market, do not call into question the fundamentals of one of Europe's two capitals. Analysis of the performance data since 2019 and exchanges with Brussels hoteliers through their representatives of the BHA (Brussels Hotels Association), to better identify the underlying factors that have shaken the European city.

2019 a record year like the rest of Europe

With 59 days when hotels were more than 90% full (including 16 days with more than 97% occupancy), 89 days with more than 80% OR and finally 81 days with more than 70% OR, hoteliers in Brussels were riding the wave of events, the European agenda and corporate clients to fill their properties. That is to say, more than two thirds of the year with a occupancy rate that would make some other European cities green with envy, the city will only have spent 14 days below 50% occupancy in 2019. The Belgian capital ended the year with an average OR of 75.4%.

The performance profile demonstrated its business-oriented customer mix. Record occupancy rates were recorded on Monday 21 October 2019 (98%), Wednesday 26 June (98.2%), Wednesday 25 September (98.4%), Saturday 20 April (98.6%), Tuesday 15 October (98.6%), Tuesday 18 June (98.8%), Wednesday 20 November (98.9%) and Tuesday 19 November (99.1%).

The city was able to capitalise on the many institutions present in its vicinity and alongside the European Commission. For example, the record crowds on 19 and 20 November corresponded to a NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting held on 20 November and the European Commission's General Affairs Council held on 19 November. An extremely favourable political agenda for the Brussels hoteliers.

What was a strength of the Belgian capital turned out to be a weakness during the lockdown period when all outbound markets were blocked and travel was reduced to a minimum.

2020, a year of suffering and solidarity

The year 2020 had begun under the best of auspices with the months of January and February recording occupation rates of between 34.1% (Monday 4 January 2020) and 92.2% (Thursday 18 February 2020), the date of the European Union's Council of Ministers of Economy and Finance. 
The arrival of the virus in Europe and the awareness of its consequences have progressively eroded the frequentation of the hotels. A scenario that can be seen in many European and global cities with activity schedules punctuated by successive lockdowns. The year ended with a 24.2% occupancy rate in the hotel sector.

Yves Fonck: "To describe the years 2020 and 2021 I would necessarily use the word catastrophic, as in the whole of Europe. Belgium and Brussels have recorded some of the lowest occupancy rates on the continent. We have a very small domestic market and our business depends on our border countries."

The BHA stresses the importance of government support to keep hotels afloat in these unprecedented times.

Rodolphe van Weyenbergh, Secretary General of the Brussels Hotels Association: "We were undoubtedly one of the most affected sectors in our country, but we were also the one that was most supported by the public authorities. The dialogue that our organisation was able to have at both regional and federal level was strengthened as a result of this crisis."

2021 ups and downs

In 2021, there were 38 days with ORs between 40 and 50%, 19 days with ORs between 50 and 60% and 10 days with ORs above that. But the recovery was simmering, symbolised by the night of 30 October when hotels were 91.6% full. This was an unusual filling date for Brussels, as 30 October 2021 was a Saturday. It was the last night of the Festival des Libertés, which was more than satisfactorily filled on Friday (65.7%), Saturday (91.6%) and Sunday (72.8%), including the eventful concert by Catherine Ringer on the evening of the 30th. Events are undeniably a way of attracting people and encouraging them to stay longer in the city for one or more nights.

Rodolphe van Weyenbergh: "Unlike other activities, an overnight's stay that is not sold is lost and we do not have the possibility of transforming the product like a restaurant that can offer take-away food.
The BHA launched a media action that we called "close contact" to encourage Belgians and even Brussels residents to sleep in a hotel. People often have more empathy with their shopkeeper, café owner or restaurant owner than with a hotelier who is not part of their daily life. No one has a favourite hotel in their own city."

2022, the year of recovery

In 2022, the Festival des Libertés ran from 13 to 22 October, again boosting occupancy levels. The average daily rates clearly indicate that hoteliers were welcoming a leisure clientele:

The capital experienced 41 days with occupancy rates below 30% in 2022 and 49 days between 30 and 50% occupancy in hotels. However, it will have returned to occupancy rates above 80% (33 days) and even 90% (16 days) over the year (until 18/12/2022), with an occupancy rate of 60.3%. 15.1 points below 2019 but 33 points above 2021. This is enough to reassure operators and investors in Brussels about the depth of the market, which benefits from the presence of the European institutions and the many players that gravitate around them. With the restrictions lifted, lobbyists, politicians, humanitarians, journalists and businessmen & women are travelling again to boost the European machine. The challenge lies in the need to win over domestic and leisure customers. This challenge is all the more complex for a country of 3,688 km². The territory's hotel supply is particularly homogeneous with very few properties positioned on the budget hotel market, mainly intended for a leisure or corporate clientele with a lower contribution capacity (workers, sales representatives). The development of this supply has been shaped by the destination's historical customer mix.

Yves Fonck: "Until April [2022], performance was negative. In May-June the situation improved. Since September, RevPAR is approaching 2019 performance thanks to average daily rates. Hoteliers have large revenue losses to make up.
Business is clearly driven by leisure customers. Apart from a few seminars and conferences, corporate and key account customers have not yet reached 50% of pre-Covid 19 attendance.
For 2023, we therefore anticipate an evolution in terms of turnover. The growth we anticipate will only allow us to make up for the shortfall in the first six months of 2022. To date, we have no clear visibility on the first quarter of 2023. We have opened up all the channels for the corporate markets but for the moment these markets are not very receptive."

Pricing power

In line with its European neighbours, the Brussels market has increased its average daily rates from €115.4 excluding VAT in 2019 to €124.50 excluding VAT in 2022. This is a step taken by all hoteliers to recover cash flow after two complex years and to cope with the increase in expenditure. It is also a conscious choice to limit the impact of staff shortages by relying more on turnover per customer than on occupancy.

For the time being, customers are responding favourably to this new pricing policy, agreeing to pay nearly €200 on average during peak periods when the market is close to saturation.

The sector's professionals are counting on the public authorities to support them during this period of adaptation and to restore Brussels' position as a leading tourist destination in Europe, whether for leisure or business.

Rodolphe Van Weyenbergh: "The recovery has taken place earlier than expected and at an intensity that was little anticipated, which is a positive aspect. These projections were surrounded by uncertainty due to the health situation. Another positive observation is that we did not record a decrease in activity in December. Despite the energy crisis, demand remains present. On the other hand, we are wondering about the future and this new crisis is undoubtedly having a huge impact on the costs for companies with variable energy contracts and their profitability.
We also note a return of investors and investments that are now taking shape, which demonstrates the attractiveness of the Brussels market and the solidity of our fundamentals that encourage investors to have a presence in Brussels.
The Brussels Region is launching a city marketing project, which for us is a very positive signal. This is a real approach to revival based on a desire for total renewal. This work is underway and should be finalised next year. Of course, we intend to be a partner in this initiative alongside the public authorities. It is also very important for the destination that there is always investment, not only in city marketing but also in infrastructure."

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