eTN: Please tell us who you are, what your company is, and in what capacity you are at ITB.
ANN LOOTENS: My name is Ann Lootens, and I come from Brugge in Belgium, and I am an independent hotelier and in Brugge I have a hotel called Hotel Portinari, which is a 4-star hotel with 40 rooms. We are located right in the middle of the city, and we would like to welcome people from all over the world. Aside from that, I am also a member of Skal International, an organization of tourism professionals, and eTurboNews [eTN] is a partner of Skal. Last year during the World Congress is Sydney, I had been elected to the executive committee; I am the director of business affairs of Skal International. I am here at ITB in both capacities, in fact, I had several meetings with tour operators, and it was quite successful – we’ll see in the future. I was also here in the capacity for Skal International, because trade fairs are also under my portfolio as business affairs.
eTN: From eTN’s perspective, we were very much saddened by Jim Power’s passing. How has Skal coped with his sudden loss?
LOOTENS: It has been very difficult, especially in the beginning. It came as a big shock to all of us. To me, for example, personally, one month before he died I was in Canada for the North American Congress and the Media Counselors meeting, because at the time I was international counselor for Belgium, and I was actually at a table with Jim Power, then 4 weeks later he was no longer with us, so I was also very personally saddened by it, and it has been a bit of a challenge. But we hope in the next couple of months that we will have a new secretary general. I have to say that people in the head office have been working tremendously, and I have to commend them for all the work that they have done, and also in the absence of Jim.
eTN: So no one is at the moment is leading Skal?
LOOTENS: They have an acting secretary general who is Yvonne Mansell, and she has been working for Skal for over 30 years, and she was already working for Skal when the head office was still in Brussels, so she really knows Skal inside and out and has actually been working for Skal longer than Jim had.
eTN: When are you going to elect a new secretary-general?
LOOTENS: We are going to hire a new secretary general. It will not be an election between our members, because that’s just not possible. Our members have their own businesses, either that or some executive position in another business and so we have to hire a new secretary general, which I hope will happen in the next couple months. This is really a long process to find someone to do this particular kind of job.
eTN: For anyone who’s interested in maybe applying for the job, please tell us what you’re looking for.
LOOTENS: We are specifically looking for someone who is very good at public relations specifically. This person also, since the head office is in Spain, it is necessary to relocate to Spain. There is also various other things which have to be taken into account; also the knowledge of several languages, including Spanish preferably since that’s where they will be living and that’s where they will be working. There is actually a variety of things which have to be taken into account, and we prefer really to take our time and look for the right person other than just go quick, quick, quick and then jump to the conclusion that this person that we hire is not fit for the position anyway.
eTN: Then it becomes a revolving chair, and that’s not good for Skal.
LOOTENS: Yes, that would actually be a few steps backwards rather than forwards.
eTN: How long have you been a member of Skal?
LOOTENS: I have been a member since 1998.
eTN: How has your affiliation with Skal helped your business as a hotelier?
LOOTENS: Oh, it has. Skal is, as we all know, the only organization which has all the sectors of the tourism industry under its umbrella, and that is actually, as a hotelier, a very big advantage. By going to the World’s Congresses, we have an enormous advantage in that we can network with all these people, and we can network for five days in a row, because the World Congresses meet for five days in a row. I have made a lot of personal friends also, but also quite a few business contacts. I have already received several groups in my hotel which I would not have had, had I not been a member of Skal. So I think for me it’s a very big advantage.
eTN: In what capacity are you more representing yourself here – more of a hotelier or more of Skal member?
LOOTENS: I am representing myself actually as both. Now, of course, the very big reason for me to come here was, of course, the possibility to do business, and I’ve had several business contacts and several meetings here during this fair; I’ve been here since Wednesday, and it’s really been quite successful for me. Also the last few weeks before I went through the exhibitors and the participants; actually I contacted them in advance, obviously, and I think I will get quite a few new clients actually out of my visit here.
eTN: Messe Berlin, which is the organizer of this event, said last year they generated about 6 billion euros in business transactions. Can you quantify your business dealings for this year’s ITB so far?
LOOTENS: That’s difficult to say. Of course, when we are talking about a hotel of 40 rooms, we are talking about quite different figures, but I think the private sector has been put in place, but I also see that I think that I will really more within 5 or 6 months what this has brought for me, because like group reservations and things like that is something that you can sell several months in advance. So we’ll see, but I think it will be successful, but exactly how much or to even given an approximate figure, I can’t tell you that right now.
eTN: That’s understandable. Have you felt the impact of the global economic meltdown, based on your hotel alone?
LOOTENS: We have. Though, the euro remains to be very strong, the economic situation has impacted just about every country in the world, including Belgium. The thing is, because of the economic situation, going on a trip is the last thing in people’s mind. Even people who have saved money are going to make sure they are spending their savings properly. I think the economic situation has impacted all of us; has also impacted in Brugge. Now, we are slowly climbing out of it, I think. The last year was already better than the year before, and this year is looking much better.
eTN: So your forecast for this year is going to be a lot better?
LOOTENS: I think it will be better.
eTN: That’s good to know. With the marketplace convoluted with seemingly so many organizations, how is Skal finding a way to stay relevant?
LOOTENS: With regards to membership, we have, I have to be honest, we have lost some members worldwide in the last couple years because of the economic situation, and because of the various things which happened worldwide. But I think Skal is still very relevant, because really, if you counted all the advantages that we have when you become a member, you have access to a network of 20,000 people and businesses worldwide. The current membership is 19,500 or 19,600, something like that; it always fluctuates a little bit. There is a good chance we will get to 20,000 by the end of the year, because we are only at the beginning of the year now. So it’s approximately that; it’s a fairly accurate figure. But I think being a member of Skal is, for me personally, very, very good for business, and I don’t think I’m the only one. It gives you access to a network of 20,000 people related in the tourism industry, so 20,000 possibilities to do business with. So I think it will always be relevant. You have other tourism associations, of course; you have travel agency associations, hotel associations – every other sector has their own association, but that is only that, not everything else.
eTN: And you also have a yearly congress, isn’t it that right?
LOOTENS: Yes, this year it will be taking place in Turku, Finland, and it will be in September [18-23].
eTN: Let’s talk about your hotel… what is it called?
LOOTENS: Portinari – it’s an Italian name.
eTN: That’s why I was confused, because it’s in Belgium.
LOOTENS: It’s a historical name … Portinari was a salesman from the — in the 16th century, and he was very important for Brugge. He was a trader and also a banker, and he was also related, if I’m not mistaken, to the Medici family, the Florentine bankers, and they founded the stock exchange. So he was a very important person for Brugge, and so the hotel has his name.
eTN: That was going to be part of my next question – what sets your hotel apart from – now you said historical value – what sets it apart from other hotels in Belgium?
LOOTENS: We are at a prime location in Brugge, and Brugge is also geographically very accessible from all other areas. We are one hour away from Brussels, one hour away by train, also only 300 kilometers from Paris, and in a couple of hours you are in London, so it’s kind of like geographically in the middle between many big European cities. And it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been for the last couple of years. And in 2002, Brugge was the cultural capital of Europe. And with regards to my hotel, it is at a prime location. We have business people staying in our hotel. We are also large enough to accommodate small groups. Also we are just a couple minutes’ walking distance from all the sites, from the tourism sites, and the old buildings and all that. And I think it is a very big advantage [that] we are also in an area which is quite a lively area – there are lots of restaurants and so forth. And there is one other big thing, there is a big underground car park in front of the hotel, which can take approximately – it’s a public car park – and it can take approximately 2,000 cars, so that is actually also a big advantage for Brugge, because it would be a little difficult otherwise. But Brugge was pretty much preserved during World Wars I and II. Of course, every city in Europe was a little bit touched at least, but all the cathedrals, the Church of Our Lady, city hall, and all that – so it is pretty much still existed without too much damage.
eTN: What are your well-known tourism attractions?
LOOTENS: We are nearby the North Sea, so if people want to go to the beaches and all that. But the city itself is a very well known city, and I’d say the big attraction points for Brugge is really the art and the architecture. All of those architects and art lovers, please come – it’s very well known for that.
eTN: So you’re more a year-round tourism facility. Like say, Andorra, the tourism industry really picks up in the winter, because of skiing and snowboarding and such.
LOOTENS: We also have a high and a low season, but it is not as pronounced like it would be, for example, say on the French Riviera or ski resorts and all that which are then completely dead in the summer. Of course, we also have a high and a low season, but still you can visit Brugge year round. And a lot of people, because it’s less crowded, prefer to come in the low season, because they like it better.
eTN: Right – with less crowds, you get to see more sights. Describe what pop culture means in Belgium these days? What are the young people into?
LOOTENS: Actually, the young travelers, well, the younger ones in Belgium are interested in quite many things with regards to travel. A lot of them now, for example, this time of the year go skiing and all that. But I think this is something really that they have in common with all the other youth also from the countries around us. What is now the case, is that many 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds that go away on a trip with their friends and all that, and it’s no different really in Belgium than it is in other countries; it’s something that they have in common.
eTN: Who are your clients? Who comes to Belgium, and how many visitors do you get a year?
LOOTENS: Brugge, specifically, has visitors from all over the world. Of course, our main visitors are from neighboring countries like Germany, for example, UK, also to some extent from the Netherlands and France and all that – the neighboring countries – that’s really the main group of tourists. But aside from that, they are from all over the place – we have a lot of Americans, Japanese, other Asians; other Asian countries now have also started coming. We have Eastern Europe, which I think is very upcoming as a market, but that is something which is always evolving. It would be a very sad story if it would not be evolving, because you need new markets every now and then, and every country needs new markets every now and then. You cannot stay the same in tourism for 50 years, it needs to be evolving. But now there is lots of new markets coming up right now.
eTN: So approximately how many tourists do you get a year?
LOOTENS: In Brugge, I would have to look that up – at least a couple million, I think.
eTN: And the country gets about…
LOOTENS: That I would have to look up, because the thing in Belgium is since we have regions in Belgium, and they have their own autonomy and their own governments, they also have their own departments of tourism. So I would have to look that up.
eTN: Is there a national secretary of tourism or tourism ministry?
LOOTENS: For each region, yes. We have a minister of tourism for Flanders, one for Wallonia, one for Brussels, because of our federalization of a couple years ago. So the figures you were asking for Belgium, is a little bit difficult to get to; I would have to get them together.
eTN: It’s a little fragmented. Okay, let’s scratch that question. This one is a big deal – other European countries are taxing travel and tourism heavily – the UK is notorious for that. Is the Belgium government employing the same tactic?
LOOTENS: The airport taxes? Brussels isn’t so bad when it comes to airport taxes. If you compare airport taxes of Brussels International with, for example, Charles de Gaulle, or Frankfurt, or Heathrow – they are notorious for that – I would say, probably the taxes at Brussels International are considerably less. And it’s hard to put a figure on that, because no airport taxes are the same in any of these cities which I’ve mentioned, but it is a lot less here.
eTN: That is a very good thing to point out, because if I’m trying to come to Europe, and I look at the fares, and if I see that to go through Heathrow it’s US$1200 – and that’s US$600 going to the airlines and the rest of it going to the government – there is a big problem there.
LOOTENS: It depends also, of course, on where you are coming from. But the airport taxes in Brussels are significantly lower. At Brussels airport there is now approximately I’d say 17 to 18 million passengers per year, and a lot of them travel through Brussels to or from North America because it’s cheaper.
eTN: How receptive is the government to the private sector you’re your region is there a public-private sector cooperation? Between the government and hoteliers, for example, is there a dialogue?
LOOTENS: In Brugge we work pretty well together with government and the city council.
Can you talk about the presence of Skal in Belgium?
LOOTENS: We have four clubs in Belgium – one is Antwerp, another is Brussels, then we have Belgium Coast in Flanders, which is my club that I’m affiliated to, and you also have Liege, and … also represented in Luxembourg. But we have some 160 members, more or less, in Belgium.
The clip below shows pictures of Portinari Hotel, as Ann describes what makes her hotel unique:
Ed’s Note: If you ever find yourself in Brugge in Belgium, be sure to check out her little corner of the world called Hotel Portinari. Let Ann and her team show you how truly wonderful Belgian hospitality is. Her hotel’s website is http://www.portinari.be