Flanders: Pioneering craftsmanship in the meeting industry | Conference Matters
Evelyne Bardyn

Flanders: Pioneering craftsmanship in the meeting industry

Evelyne Bardyn is Meeting Manager of Visitflanders Convention Bureau, the umbrella convention bureau of Flanders. She believes  that Flanders has everything required to make any meeting, incentive trip, conference or event an unforgettable success.

Recently, Flanders has been investing significantly in conference tourism. Why is this?

As a result of the economic crisis, growth in the tourism sector was lagging behind a bit. As such, the Flemish minister of Tourism Ben Weyts decided that the economic opportunities in the field of tourism needed to be investigated. This research revealed that in particular conference tourism to Flanders had a huge potential. The study indicates that the number of meetings, conferences and incentive events can certainly increase by 12 percent in the long run, up to around 84,000 events each year. The biggest potential for growth is with international associations. This is surprising, since Brussels, the home of the European Commission, the European Parliament and NATO was already a top destination for conferences for associations. However, the research reveals that the real ‘super conferences’ can still increase by 51 percent, in the other art cities too, up to about 300 prestigious association events per year. In order to enable this growth, the Flemish government is making targeted investments in conference tourism.

What shape do these investments take?

Action is being taken on three fronts. Besides the infrastructure needed to be able to host the somewhat larger conferences, work is being carried out on the professionalisation of the conference product and the experience itself. In addition, a specific marketing plan has been drawn up, which contains concrete objectives, and the markets that will be focused on have been established. In concrete terms, this means that the conference office is looking for conferences within the economic growth sectors on the one hand and conferences that relate to Flanders’ assets on the other hand. In that case, it’s about conferences that reinforce Flanders’ identity and that will improve the positioning of Flanders as a tourism and conference destination. Work is also being focused on hubs such as Brussels, Geneva, Paris… as other regions where there is a concentration of economic growth sectors.

With reference to the infrastructure, the minister has launched an leverage programme. What does that involve?

For the infrastructure, the minister has launched an leverage programme with a focus on special venues. This is about installing or improving meeting infrastructure at unique heritage locations. ‘Our heritage distinguishes us from our competitors’, the minister explains. ‘We offer businesspeople the best possible setting for a conference: the wonderful Flemish heritage’.

Examples here include cities of art like Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, where the art is virtually there for the taking. Taking a stroll through the historic streets, across the squares and bridges, you’re transported back hundreds  of years in time. To a time when the old masters were painting, the brewers were stirring beer in their copper vats and the blacksmiths were forging railings. But there’s even more: think, for example, of the abbeys, industrial sites, mine buildings, castles… how great is it to get together in such settings?

The leverage programme gives support to the construction and expansion of conference facilities in those types of heritage locations.

How about the promotion of Flanders as a conference destination? Are investments also being made there?

The investments, as mentioned above, also relate to promotion. The workforce of the Flanders Tourism conference office has been reinforced with four extra members of staff. These employees will work full-time on attracting international conferences. Colleagues in the foreign network of Flanders Tourism are also going to be focusing more on this lucrative market. In order to be able to work more successfully and efficiently, partnerships are being set up. Collaboration with Flanders

Investment & Trade is being intensified, for example. In addition to that, the promotional budget has also increased progressively. We’re now working on combining forces within the convention bureaus in Flanders to form a single Team Flanders in order to tackle the association market together.

What are the key industries in Flanders?

Many of our cities are close to water. The global port of Antwerp is probably the best-known port city in Flanders, but other cities that rely on water such as Ostend, Bruges and Ghent shouldn’t be ignored. Port logistics, the chemical industry and blue energy are key industries in Flanders, as you might expect. Other fields of expertise include the diamond industry, green energy, healthcare, nano tech, bio tech, life sciences, ICT, digital health, pharma, mechatronics and more.

Which ‘touristic factors’ do you use to tempt the conference industry? Flanders has a large number of key assets. Belgium is known for its chocolate, the Flemish masters, fashion, beer, universities, craftspeople and creative types, comic books, design, Bourgundian cuisine, art, culture and historical mementos such as the Fields of Flanders (First World War).

Specifically when attracting conferences, we focus on the experience in and around the heritage venues of historic cities and sites, such as with ‘Dining in Flanders’, art and culture. In addition to conferences that tie in with our economic strengths, we also make use of our touristic assets to attract conferences related to beer or a UNESCO conference, for example. In this regard, with all of our local experts, we are certainly one step ahead of our competitors as a destination. At the same time, these conferences reinforce our reputation and position Flanders even more firmly as a worthwhile conference destination. We’re loading the brand ‘Flanders’ with all of these unique selling points and are noticing that our message is beginning to gain a foothold in the meeting industry.

You mentioned that investments were being made in special venues in particular. Can you provide an example?

A good example is the brand-new Flanders Meeting and Convention Center in Antwerp, which has just opened. The conference centre is located in Antwerp Zoo, the most attractive and best preserved 19th-century zoo in the world, right in the heart of Antwerp, next to the central station. The architect, Ian Simpson from Manchester, created an inspiring, strong and flexible building, which combines an existing historical building with hyper-modern architecture.

The building alone is reason enough to come to Flanders: a fine example of urban renewal that will inspire many people. With a surface area of 25,000 square metres, 30 rooms, a large state-of-the-art hall with 2,000 seats and a total capacity of 2,500 guests, who can all spend the night within walking distance, the new conference centre is a world-class player. The conference experience in the Flanders Meeting & Convention Center Antwerp can be optimised in a whole host of ways, with an exclusive VIP aquarium dinner, for example, or a ‘morning run’ through the zoo while the animals are waking up… an experience you’ll never forget.

What can conference organisers expect from Meet in Flanders?

Our team has in-depth product knowledge and offers professional advice and guidance free of charge. We provide tailor-made proposals and put organisers in contact with all the right suppliers on the market. We also organise site inspections and familiarisation trips to bring meeting planners to our wonderful destination.