Huguette, you have grown up in Brussels and have worked in the hospitality industry for over 30 years having held positions as general manager in different 4 and 5 star hotels. How is tourism changing in general and in Brussels?
Huguette Maison - D’Ardenne
Consultant Hospitality & Tourism
Tourism is an ever-expanding business, even in a time of crises. People need to escape from reality - it has become a way of life. However, with globalization, there is an urgent need for the destinations (and hotels) to differentiate themselves and work on quality. If they do not, competition will just become a question of pricing, with very nasty economic consequences. Brussels is no exception.
Are there places in Brussels that are worth visiting but that are not very well known? What are in your opinion the least known but attractions worth seeing?
You cannot, of course, miss Grand Place! But take your time and walk around: there are plenty of little streets, with unique shops - gourmet, designers, fashion etc -, cafés and restaurants. I would recommend walking around looking upwards instead of on the ground: there are so many nice buildings and details you do not notice if you just look in front of you.
I spoke with an American lady yesterday who has lived in Flanders for 9 years: she just discovered the "Galeries Royales St Hubert" and she was so amazed that she could not believe she had never been there.
Unfortunately, the average length of stay in Brussels is 1.2 days, so tourists only have time to concentrate on the city centre (or have to come back several times). There is so much more to see in Brussels than you can do in two days. We have more than 100 museums in Brussels - some are very small and not very well known, but they are full of poetry, such as the Musée Maurice Carême in Anderlecht, or the Magritte house in Jette. There, you will be welcomed by really passionate people, who will tell you a lot of anecdotes and make you feel the atmosphere of the time. Personally, I also love the Far-East museums in Laeken but, unfortunately, they are closed for the moment. One of the least known but worthwhile attractions might be the Musée de la Chine in Scheut (Anderlecht). It’s about the Chinese culture, folklore, crafts and religions (mainly seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) collected by Belgian missionaries who went to China at the time. The Porte de Hal museum, the MIM (Museum of Musical Instruments) and the CBBD (Comics Museum), are also really worth a visit, even if only for the buildings.
Last but not least, we have many nice parks and gardens all around. There is always something going on, e.g. the Comic Strip festival in September, the Art Nouveau/Art Deco biennal in October (next one in 2015), the Ommegang in June/July, the Flower Carpet in August… you will find a lot of reasons to visit Brussels on www.visitbrussels.be
You are currently working on a project to improve the quality of services to tourists in Brussels for ‘Visitbrussels’. How do you define quality in tourism and why is quality so important to you?
For me, quality is when you get not only what you expect, but when you get something that goes beyond your expectations. If you get what you expect, you will probably be satisfied. But will you tell your family and friends you had a fabulous stay? This will only happen if what you get is better than you expected.
I am convinced that lack of quality is one of the biggest issues we are facing today. Special deals and bargains have become the rule in the hospitality/tourism industry - competition is all about prices. Unfortunately, this causes a downward spiral of: lower prices => cost cutting => unemployment/low salaries/insecure staff => dissatisfaction => bad service => loss of customers => lower prices to try to catch a bigger piece of the cake.
I have nothing against bargains. But they cannot apply to services: saving on staff is a short-term strategy.
Staff is the biggest asset in hospitality, because they provide the personal aspect and the quality. A hotel room is a hotel room: a bed, a TV, a bathroom… Of course, it can be small or big, nice or ugly, clean or dirty… but, at the end, it's service, the staff, that makes the difference. What would “hospitality” mean without staff? For me, this is the main reason why B&Bs are so popular: they provide real hospitality, personalized service and attention. It's not a question of price - by the way, I know quite a lot of B&Bs that are now more expensive than 4-star hotels in Brussels.
And this brings us to a big problem we have in Brussels: the cost of employment compared to the average hotel prices in Brussels. My intention is not to argue over this problem here but, taking into account the importance of staff in hotels, it needs to be mentioned. Just to give an idea: on one hand, we have (one of) the highest cost of employment in the world, on the other hand, the average price guests are paying in Brussels hotels is much lower than what people are paying in Paris, Geneva, London, Amsterdam, Zürich, Moscow, Rome, Stockholm … and many others.
Finding the right balance is therefore a real challenge.
Can you tell us something about how you are improving the quality of tourism in the projects you work on at Visitbrussels?
First, we have an ongoing Brussels Visitor Satisfaction survey available online (www.visitbrussels.be/qualitydestination
). Feedback is the most important element to improve the quality of the destination. We try to listen to our customers as much as possible, and also play a role of mediator in case there are complaints.
Through the questionnaire I find out why people come, what they expect and especially how satisfied they are with their stay and the services provided (hotels, but also shopping, public transport, cleanliness, accessibility etc). The results of the survey are published monthly on www.visitbrussels.be/satisfaction
The main reason for visiting Brussels is the historical and cultural heritage. But more and more people just come to wander around and take in the Brussels atmosphere; architecture, especially the Art Nouveau, is attracting more and more visitors, as well as Antiques and Design.
Also, an increasing number of people want to know what locals do and like. Brussels Greeters are an interesting option to discover Brussels through the eyes of people who live here. They are not professional guides, but they share their personal experience and favorite places as inhabitants of Brussels. You can book a tour with focus on a specific interest you have – architecture, sports, food etc. - for up to 5 people. It is free of charge, but you have to book quite a long time in advance, because they are doing this on top of their work. So planning ahead is necessary. http://bruxellesgreeters.be/Bienvenue.php
The other aspect of the project is the Brussels Quality Academy
. Through this, we try to raise awareness about the importance of quality information and a welcoming attitude among Brussels professionals in hospitality and tourism. Every week, I organize a session on a special topic. It might be history, architecture, comics, lifestyle, sustainability - we recently had a session on slow food - or more "technical" subjects, such as "how to prepare an exhibition or a fair" or security (for example policing in Brussels). Because of the growing demand for personalization and authenticity, I also explain to the professionals that they need to know not only the basics, but also "hidden secrets" our visitors won't find in tourist guides. Personalization is what is important. It’s what makes people remember the visit. You can show off to your friends that you have seen something they haven’t.
How do people find the questionnaire and who is your target group to get feedback?
Indeed getting feedback from visitors is a challenge sometimes. I’m interested in the feedback of all people who visit Brussels for leisure or for business. They will find a link to the questionnaire (www.visitbrussels.be/qualitydestination
) on some websites of hotels, restaurants, museums - but flyers are also displayed in different establishments of the city. Every month, we also send emails to people who booked Brussels cards or guided tours. On average we get 2 completed questionnaires per day - we would however need more feedback from the business visitors, these are more difficult to target.
Even Belgian residents can fill in the questionnaire, because when you live in Brussels you can be "a tourist" in your own city and evaluate restaurants, parking, cleanliness etc. even better.
Generally the tourists are very happy, but tourists do not always go where the people who live here go… Locals might have a different view. This makes the analysis even more interesting and it's a great help for improvements.
Every month we offer a weekend for two in Brussels in a 4 or 5 star hotel (including breakfast, VIP treatment, Brussels Card and tourist information) to one of the respondents.
How do you define a quality destination and how can Brussels become a leading tourist destination?
As you can see on the above graph, people are generally satisfied. They are willing to come back and recommend. Great!
However, to become a leading tourist destination, the percentage of "very satisfied" people should be higher than the percentage of "satisfied" people. This is why we need to go "beyond expectations". How?
In my view, a "quality destination" can only be obtained if ALL actors are working together in synergy. The whole city and all the services offered should contribute to the success, including the people who live here. Tourism is not only hotels, museums, attractions and airport, it’s also taxis, shops, opening hours, cleanliness, signage, parking, attitude of people and how they speak to you.
It is essential that both the private and the public sectors are on the same line to create the optimal environment and awareness. There must be a common (long- and short term) vision and action plan, that everybody should be aware of. We should work together on the strategy for the benefit of all - it’s important to keep everybody happy.
As in most cities/countries - Brussels is no exception - the recognition of tourism as a major contributor to the local economy is quite recent (maximum 10 years). There have been improvements lately but, in this changing world, there is still a lot to be done.
What inspired you to start working in the tourism industry and to become a hotel manager?
Although my grand-father had always worked as a chef in renowned hotels and restaurants, it was not at all my father’s intention to follow him. But with the EXPO 58, my parents decided to host workers coming from Switzerland to prepare the exhibition, kind of a first B&B. Then, they bought a restaurant in Wemmel, where I grew up with my 2 sisters and my brother. My father was revealed to be a great cook, my mother was a charming hostess and the restaurant was very successful. This is how I learned what “hospitality” and “guest satisfaction” mean.
The restaurant was a very demanding environment though; our parents had to work every evening, on Saturdays and Sundays, at Christmas and New Year. So when my parents stopped the restaurant, none of the children - including me - wanted to take over this crazy business. I wanted to become either a PR person or a journalist, and so I started studying English & German at ISTI (Institut Supérieur de Traducteurs et Interprètes). However, when the time came to look for a job, the first ad I saw in the newspaper was for the Ramada hotel. I sent my CV and started to work there the week after. This was still “the good time”: 1 application, 1 job.
At that time, the Hilton Brussels on Boulevard de Waterloo was "the place to be". We loved to go there because it was full of life, there was always something happening there. I was impressed and I said to myself: "one day, I will manage this kind of hotel". This is where the story began.
You were one of the first female general managers in hotels, how did your career develop? Did you encounter any specific challenges in your career?
Indeed, I was among the first female GMs, at least in 4 and 5-star international hotels. In the 80ies/early 90ies, only 2-star sometimes even 3-star hotels were "accessible" to women. Most of the time, when I was in an international meeting, the "men" where asking me at which hotel I worked as Sales Manager. Sales was OK for a woman, but not general management. I have probably come across all the typical misogynistic clichés. Unfortunately, in that respect, hospitality is not different from other industries. Even today you can still count the number of female general managers in 4 and 5-star hotels in Brussels on one hand.