Patrick Bontinck, CEO of Visit Brussels.
Is the upcoming recovery up to your expectations?
Patrick Bontinck – I’m fairly confident that business will pick up again. But it remains to be seen when the recovery will really take off. Among other factors, we are notably dependent on the provisions set by the European Commission and the institutions which are following their decisions to organise meetings again. For the time being, they are tolerated, but not yet officially authorised. The fears linked to the pandemic are still present. Hence the importance of the Covid Safe Ticket, the health pass that will soon be introduced in Belgium and which concerns the hotel and catering sector, events, congress and cultural venues.
So the health pass is one of the key elements for the recovery?
P. B. – It is fundamental. As soon as it was announced that it would be introduced, which will be effective in mid-October, bookings started to come in for the month of October. Faced with the pandemic, we had already introduced the Brussels Health Safety label, whose criteria go beyond the legal obligations, in order to guarantee visitors the safety of the reception areas. The health pass has now been added to reduce the risk of contamination to a minimum. This need for reassurance is still very present, especially in the organisation of corporate events
However, the recovery is likely to be slow?
P. B. – For sure, we will be deprived of intercontinental business tourism for some time to come. As the airlines have not yet re-established all their services, certain long-haul destinations are still difficult to access. On the other hand, air connections in Europe are almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Trains are also beginning to return to more frequent service. All this is positive. For Brussels, this is an essential basis.
What role will hybrid meetings play in the future?
P. B. – This is a fundamental element. During the pandemic, the sector support fund that we developed with the help of the government enabled us to equip our congress and event venues with hybrid solutions. Our industry is going to change dramatically in the coming years and we need to be ready to provide all the services our clients require. Organisers are still apprehensive about the future of hybrid solutions.
-to the hybrid. But you have to get used to it, you have to be ready to open up this new paradigm. Tomorrow, taking a long-haul flight for a one-day meeting will be a thing of the past, especially since the quality of the transmission made possible by the hybrid is relevant. On the other hand, I am convinced that people have an essential need to meet in person. We’re going to see more and more disparate models.
Organizers are still a little apprehensive about hybrids. But we have to get used to it, be ready to open up this new paradigm.
In this context, how is Brussels positioning itself?
P. B. – The city has a great card to play. Brussels certainly does not have the same hosting capacity as Paris or London, but it is home to all the European institutions and a large number of international associations. In one way or another, in many areas, decisions are taken in Brussels. So when people organise large international congresses, they have an interest in being close to Brussels and the Commission. That is why the development of these hybrid meetings is very interesting for us. For example, a medical congress of 15,000 to 20,000 people cannot be held in Brussels. On the other hand, a congress of 3,000 to 4,000 people in person and the rest of the attendance at a distance is now quite feasible. We see this change in trend as a positive thing, opportunities are being created.
Do you also see the rise of multi-region or multi-continent events?
P. B. – Definitely. We are in contact with a few large companies specializing in event organization and we see this emergence of meetings that are held on several continents, sometimes simultaneously. Of course, the problem of time differences still poses some problems, but little by little, people are getting used to this possibility of organising small conferences at different times, for shorter periods. The way to distribute content on digital platforms is becoming more natural. Fashions are changing. Virtual or semi-virtual trade shows are developing. This evolution of the sector is exciting because, let’s be honest, we have shown a cruel lack of resilience during this crisis. Our industry collapsed overnight.
But how could it not?
P. B. – That’s the whole point! It’s not normal to have had to stop our activities completely overnight. Our sectors were not ready for that. Little by little, we saw the emergence of take-away sales in the catering industry, the development of hybrid meetings in the MICE sector, the proposal of coworking spaces in protected bubbles or even remote cultural shows. It’s taken time, there have been things done anecdotally. We have learned, but now we have to be self-critical and build more resilient business models, knowing how to switch from one thing to another from one day to the next.
What are the projects underway in Brussels?
P. B. – Among the major projects, we will have the opening of the Beer Palace in 2023, which will be the first of its kind in Belgium.
has an experience centre similar to what has been done in Bordeaux at the Cité du Vin. Then, in 2024, you’ll see the Kanal Centre Pompidou museum appear, as well as another dedicated to the Cat, Philippe Geluck’s character. At the same time, we also have quite a few hotel openings planned, particularly in the pedestrian zone in the city centre. The brands have not yet been revealed, but there are two or three hotel projects with 200 to 250 rooms to come. We are also expecting the reopening after renovation of the former Sheraton Place Rogier, where a DoubleTree has just opened next door
. Finally, there are still plans for a conference centre at the Heysel, but it will be smaller than what we had originally imagined (editor’s note: the Neo 2 project, designed by Jean Nouvel, was abandoned at the end of 2020). Studies have shown the need to deploy something more integrated with the Brussels Expo park, whose complete redevelopment is expected in the coming years. Everything should be ready for the real return of the big congresses, around 2027-2028. Train World, one of the main MICE venues in Brussels © Train World Heritage
I’m Michelle, and I love to travel. As a former hotel expert for one of the world’s largest hotel chains, I’ve stayed in nearly every type of room imaginable (including many that were not so desirable!). Nowadays, I am fortunate enough to be able to explore the world on my own terms. From international flights to learning different languages, there is nothing too far out of reach!