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The tourism relaunch of the major European metropolises : Brussels

The health crisis has had a profound impact on the entire tourism industry worldwide, preventing people from travelling at will for months. The major cities are among the most affected destinations, but not having welcomed tourists for several months has allowed them to take stock of their tourist activities. After this time of reflection, each major city decided to reinvent itself to boost tourism in its destination. Some have changed direction completely, while others are continuing the actions already undertaken before the crisis began, which were aimed at renewing themselves. Several European cities have agreed to be interviewed by HospitalityHON to share their experiences of the health crisis and how they plan to revive tourism in the coming months.

Tourism before Covid

Tourism in Brussels in 2019 performed very well, as was the case for many global destinations, with 4.12 million arrivals, an increase of 5%, and 7.80 million overnight stays recorded, equivalent to an increase of 6%. The European countries were the main source of tourists, with France in first place, representing 11% of the total number of visitors, followed by Spain and Germany with 7%, and the same number of tourists were from the United States. Nevertheless, the domestic tourist clientele was the main market since it represented 22% of the total attendance during that year.

Leisure and business tourism are two equally important segments for the destination, according to a Visit Brussels activity report the former accounted for 47.4% of arrivals in 2019 while the latter accounted for 52.6% of arrivals, with more or less similar overnight stay figures. Both have seen an increase in their activity, +8.2% of arrivals for the MICE sector and +2.3% for the leisure sector. In addition to its emblem, the Manneken Pis, Brussels has many tourist attractions such as the Atonium, the hemicycle of the European Parliament and the mini-Europe site, which contribute considerably to the popularity and attractiveness of the city. Its cultural offer is also very developed with 122 museums including the Comic Strip Museum, the Magritte Museum and the Palace of Fine Arts. The number of visitors to these various attractions and cultural venues exceeded the 5 million mark in 2019, a record figure thanks to an increase of about 14.5%. As for the MICE sector, Brussels is one of the leading European destinations for the organisation of international congresses and meetings, thanks in particular to its status as European capital, which has enabled it to reinforce this image in 2019. The richness and quality of its infrastructure and services also contribute to maintaining this coveted first place, with no less than 199 meeting venues and 82 mid-range and top-of-the-range hotels able to host events.

Visit Brussels, the organisation in charge of tourism in the city, plays an important role in the development of activity in the destination and has put in place a number of measures to satisfy tourists and residents as well as local professionals in the sector. One example is the "Coucou Brussels" initiative, a simple and original concept that combines tourist information offices and an open-air bar. These spots are present only in summer and are spread throughout the city in the following locations : Mont des Arts, Place Poelaert, Atomium Square, Parvis Ste-Gudule, Carrefour de l'Europe, Parc du Cinquantenaire and Flagey. Numerous services are also offered as a complement, such as a catering service offering snacks made exclusively from natural products and as often as possible from short circuits. The leisure offer of these places consists of various and varied events adapted to all age groups, it is created with an awareness of the environment and sustainable development, values dear to Visit Brussels. This scheme has been a great success with both visitors and Brussels residents and confirms the importance of having delocalized information points in urban destinations.

Tourism during the crisis : Brussels inhabitants seen as assets

The health crisis has had a considerable impact on tourism professionals due to the closure of many establishments that welcome the public as well as travel restrictions between territories. In this unprecedented and complicated period, Visit Brussels was committed to supporting the local tourism industry. To this end, the organisation launched an immediate support plan during the year 2020 in collaboration with 360 partners from the tourism sector. This plan included an economic component with the creation of 5 support funds intended for professionals in the tourism, events and culture sectors in Brussels with a total budget of 5 million euros, and also a promotional component with the "Visit Brussels, Visit us" campaign which has the slogan "No Br__sels without us". This campaign does not focus on the city's famous tourist sites but rather on its inhabitants, who are, according to Visit Brussels, the real wealth of the destination. It invites the people of Brussels to become ambassadors of their own city and to share their favourite places in Brussels with the rest of the country and to put a stop to simplistic and sometimes negative prejudices about Brussels. The aim is to show that Brussels is the product and reflection of the characteristics of its inhabitants: their humour, their self-deprecation, their multiple origins and their open-mindedness. This campaign started just after the first deconfliction in June 2020 but it should remain a sustainable and flexible concept for the time to come.

 On the 2020 tourism recovery plan, we based ourselves on the recommendations of the UNWTO and on the different axes which were proposed: support for the sector, preparing for tomorrow... Where we have been the most active is the direct support, even emergency support, to the different sectors. For example, support funds to help the players in terms of health and safety and also to allow virtual visits. It was more support for short-term actions.

Elisabeth Van Ingelgem, Strategic and International Director of Visit Brussels

This period also served as an accelerator for certain subjects, notably digitalization. As a result, Visit Brussels took advantage of this time to completely rethink its website and gave it a thorough overhaul to make it more flexible but also more modern. Websites are an integral part of the customer journey, they are the showcase of what a destination can offer. And the organisation also offered help to its partners who wanted to develop their digital strategy to better face the challenges brought by the crisis. Digitalisation was also applied to the field of reception, as the health measures prevented any physical contact for several months, so tourists benefited from a digital reception during this period. Despite this, the notions of welcome and exchange remain of paramount importance to the members of the Visit Brussels team, and this digital device was an obvious solution in their eyes to maintain a minimum of contact with their tourist clientele.

 It's a job to be a receptionist, they really have this love of finding information and helping the visitor. You realise that, whether it's via a chat or in person, it's the same sense of service. The channel changes but the service remains the same.

Elisabeth Van Ingelgem, Strategic and International Director of Visit Brussels

We do want to help as many partners as possible to develop digitally and in fact, in this support there was the idea that they should be careful to choose tools that will allow them all to be interconnected at one time or another.

Bruno Bin, Marketing Strategy Development Officer of Visit Brussels

Visit Brussels is also constantly looking for ways to improve its tourism strategy and to this end, the organisation has launched a "customer journey" survey to better understand the behaviour and habits of its visitors. This survey focuses on the contact points that tourists encounter during their stay in order to identify elements that could be improved in the aim of perfecting the customer experience. Similarly, the optimisation of the physical and digital channels used by visitors is a relatively important topic as this again relates to the customer experience. The organisation has also sought to strengthen its relations with its partners in the tourism and cultural sectors by setting up monthly meetings from the start of the crisis in order to find out their feelings and get their feedback on the situation. These exchanges allow Visit Brussels to have a realistic vision of what the tourism sector is going through in this period of crisis and thus to better respond to the needs and expectations of professionals in the sector.

The crisis has rather led to the acceleration of things that were already in place, for example strengthening relations with our partners in tourism and culture. From the beginning of the crisis, we set up monthly meetings to co-create all these recovery plans with them.

Elisabeth Van Ingelgem, Strategic and International Director of Visit Brussels

Tourism after the Covid

As for the year 2020, Visit Brussels has developed an action plan for 2021 that has the ultimate goal of rethinking the future of tourism, after it has suffered the full impact of the health crisis. Nevertheless, the organization claims that there are no real changes in its tourism strategy for the coming years due to Covid, on the contrary, it has rather played an accelerating role. Visit Brussels imagines a more resilient and inclusive tourism, a vision in line with current societal developments as reflected in the growing interest in sustainable and responsible tourism by international travelers. Brussels intends to be part of this trend and become an urban destination that cares about its environment and is accessible to all. To achieve this goal, the organization is launching several calls for tenders on various topics such as sustainable tourism, inclusive tourism, digitalization and customer experience. These calls for tenders are addressed to consulting companies as well as to tourism professionals who have a relatively deep experience on the subject in question with priority given to the expectations of the territory's stakeholders.

The 2021 recovery plan tries to look further ahead, to project ourselves more into the future to see how we can reinvent tourism in Brussels with the idea of developing a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient tourism. See how we can better respond to the new expectations of visitors and Brussels residents.

Elisabeth Van Ingelgem, Strategic and International Director of Visit Brussels

Tourism, both leisure and business, is essential for Brussels as it represents 8.1% of local employment, and the destination wants to increase its attractiveness in order to become a key destination for leisure and business tourism. As far as the leisure sector is concerned, the city would like to welcome more "quality" tourists such as cultural tourists who would visit the city to discover its rich heritage. These tourists would consume more and stay longer than regular tourists, and they would also be more respectful towards the city and its locals. Visit Brussels hopes that this will also apply to business tourists, who are usually very numerous in the city. The development of the MICE sector is also an objective stated by the organization, so the city wants to host more congresses and seminars and for this purpose it carries out active prospecting and supports local members of European and international associations in the process of applying for events. Visit Brussels wants to strengthen the bridges between the cultural offer and the participants of congresses and fairs as well as to develop an Ambassadors program aiming at federating a network of experts. The 2021 action plan includes many other actions to support the expansion of the MICE sector in the destination.

MICE is an essential market for Brussels, it represents 50% of overnight stays and it remains a segment that we want to continue to develop. There are many questions about how this sector will reinvent itself, it's quite complex. Will hybrids become the norm? We are really trying to listen to this sector.

Elisabeth Van Ingelgem, Strategic and International Director of Visit Brussels

This crisis has also been a gas pedal on the subject of sustainability, which is now of paramount importance in the field of tourism in view of the emergence of sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. Brussels has long been committed to sustainable development and is a pioneer participant in the European Green Network (REVER), the Bike Route Network and the Green Route. Many local tourism actors have obtained an eco-label and Visit Brussels is constantly encouraging professionals in the destination to obtain the Green Key label, which is the first international sustainable tourism label for tourist accommodation and restaurants. Public transportation is also well developed in the city to avoid tourists and residents from using cars. Brussels hopes to soon be included in the GDS Index, a performance improvement program aimed at making the business tourism and events industry more sustainable.

 

The crisis has had an impact on the number of international visitors to Brussels, but it has not affected Visit Brussels' strategic vision for the coming years. On the contrary, it has strengthened and accelerated the implementation of this vision. The city intends to meet the expectations and needs of today's tourists by becoming a sustainable and accessible destination of reference. Nevertheless, Brussels wants to see its tourist clientele evolve to welcome more qualitative visitors who will participate more in the local economy and bring added value to the destination. The city has reacted quickly to the crisis by coming to the aid of various professionals in the tourism field and intends to develop a better relationship with them in order to optimize this sector of activity

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