So often the Canadian market takes a backseat to our neighbours to the south. But that’s not how VisitFlanders sees us. “Relatively speaking, the Canadian market is even more important than the U.S. market for arrivals into Flanders,” says Marco Frank, Trade & Partnerships Manager, VISITFLANDERS. In this edition of Take 5, Frank talks about the importance of travel advisors and about the many passion points that attract Canadian travellers to this part of Belgium, from castles and gardens, to arts and culture, Michelin-starred dining and so much more.
How did the Canadian market perform in 2022, according to VisitFlanders’ stats, and what are you hoping to see from this market in 2023 and beyond?
“Indeed, the Canadian market opened a bit later than other markets which had an impact on the arrivals in our destination.
“The final numbers for 2022 are still pending but preliminary figures seem to indicate that arrivals from Canada were roughly at 60% off pre-pandemic, that is 2019, levels. We expect to see a further recovery in 2023.
“Relatively speaking, the Canadian market is even more important than the U.S. market for arrivals into Flanders. New flights to Brussels that will launch this year underline the growing confidence in our destination and the return of the Canadian outbound market.”
VisitFlanders is more about destination development than destination promotion. What does that mean for Canadian travellers? What new in-destination travel ideas and themes can they look forward to from VisitFlanders for 2023?
“VISITFLANDERS, unlike many other destination management organizations, invests a lot of budget in infrastructure and destination development. Our promotional budget and activities only constitute a small portion of our overall activities. We are in the process of looking at changing travel behaviours that have occurred in the wake of the pandemic.
“One of the new product lines that we are working on is an exciting array of castles and gardens. Flanders is full of historic castles, some of them ranging all the way back to the Middle Ages.
“In the past we have never looked at the international potential of our castle product line, but we have started to develop this new product line over the coming years. There are several very interesting castles and gardens that will appeal to a wide international audience. Some of these castles feature magnificent gardens, art collections or have been converted into hotels.
“Another focus of our destination development will continue to be on the painters of the Renaissance and the Baroque, our Flemish Masters. In addition, painters from the 19th and early 20th century will be in the forefront, in particular James Ensor, the accomplished 19th century artist of expressionism and surrealism, who lived and worked predominantly in Ostend.
“In 2022, infrastructure development in Flanders Fields, the site of many World War I commemorative experiences, focused on the ‘Names in the landscapes’ project, an experience specifically for the Canadian market.
“We also launched nine new iconic cycling routes and kickstarted our nature experiences.”
It’s a bit of a balancing act for destinations and tourism boards, catering to inbound visitors and generating business for tourism operators, while at the same time staying mindful of the needs of residents. What are VisitFlanders’ thoughts on how to strike that balance in a sustainable and equitable way?
“Sustainable destination and tourism development is very important for us. It is even a government policy.
“We’ve developed our ‘Travel to Tomorrow’ vision that outlines how a destination can attract visitors in a sustainable and balanced way. It can be accessed at https://www.traveltotomorrow.
“It is all about considering the interest of all involved stakeholders, visitors, residents, and tourism organizations.
“Flanders has moved away from a traditional, old school tourism measurement system of merely counting arrivals and bed nights. We now include quality factors in our performance matrix. Our residents are regularly being surveyed about the impact that inbound tourism has on them and if they feel that it contributes in a positive way to their lives. We also execute face-to-face interviews with tourists to inquire about their in-destinations experiences.
“Finally, we regularly survey and meet with our local tourism partners to gauge their satisfaction with the tourism arrivals. Then we take all inputs and combine them into a quality score.”
What can you tell us about VisitFlanders’ tried-and-true draws for Canadian travellers – like the arts, culture, food, history and commemorative travel?
“You are hitting on the many of the passion points that attract Canadian travellers to Flanders. It is a destination with a variety of destination experiences.
“Pre-pandemic, commemorative travel accounted for a large portion of travel interest from Canada due to the centenary of World War I. Now with the anniversaries are behind us, other travel themes will move again into the foreground.
“A destination that features a rich European art and cultural history is bound to be among the top travel destinations for Canadians wishing to see the ‘traditional old Europe’. Well preserved medieval cities, places, squares, castles, cathedrals, and cobblestones invite the culturally curious traveler to explore more.
“Culinary experiences, coupled with a UNESCO world heritage beer culture, keep attracting many foodies. The level of sophistication of the Flemish cuisines is still unknown to many travellers. It is noteworthy that Belgium is home to 133 Michelin starred restaurants, underlining our culinary heritage and level of sophistication.
“I would also like to point out our cycling culture. We call Flanders the heartland of cycling. A dedicated cycling road network that stretches over 12,000 km invites cyclists of all skill and interest levels. You will find a range of cycling experiences that will appeal to both the casual leisure cyclists and the hard-core cyclists.
“Finally, our central location in the heart of Europe, less than two hours by train from London, Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne, makes our destination attractive and easy to reach for travellers seeking multi-country experiences.”
How does VisitFlanders work with travel advisors and what’s your message for agents interested in promoting Flanders to their clientele?
“We recognize the importance of the travel trade in bringing Canadians to our destination and as such we are eager to work with travel advisors in helping them promote and sell Flanders to their clients.
“First, we do offer a dedicated training website where all advisors can find out and learn more about our destination. The site will also be hosted on Travelweek’s Learning Centre platform starting Feb. 20.
“A dedicated travel trade section on our www.visitflanders.com website provides the trade with additional tools. Our redesigned website launched in December 2022.
“Through regular newsletters and webinars, we continue our advisor training and engagement. FAM trips are the ultimate destination experience and training. We did not host any trips during the pandemic but we will resume later this year and we will communicate this through the Travelweek channels.”
“Please reach out to us with any questions and requests for help. We are here to support you, simply email trade4americas@visitflanders.