BENELUX: Benelux calling - For exhibitors and organisers wishing to branch out into Europe, the Benelux region is a solid opportunity, says Emma Reynolds

The three countries that make up the Benelux region - Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg - present an expanding event and exhibition market, and interest from UK organisers and exhibitors is on the increase.

Flanders Tourist Office executive officer Annick Debels says: "The UK is our first foreign market. Brussels has a lack of image and we are working on that. We are quite modest - that's the Belgian character. But this is changing."

The heart of Europe

Brussels Congress promotes the city as a destination for the meetings, incentive, conference and exhibition (Mice) industry. Viscount Charles-Eric Vilain XIIII, who works for the organisation, says: "There is more demand in the market for exhibitions and in the past year we have seen a huge demand from the UK."

The congress has identified five key areas that make Brussels desirable: accessibility, variety, Europe, cosmopolitan, and art de vivre (way of life). Vilain says: "People who come here are welcomed in their own language and that's one advantage over other cities. More organisers come back here as it is cheaper than Paris or Amsterdam."

Brussels is seen as the heart of Europe and has venues to suit all manner of events. The largest of these is the Brussels Exhibition Centre (Brussels Expo), which boasts 12 exhibition halls with up to 120,000 sq m of space.

The venue hosts about 70 trade shows each year, including agricultural show Agribex.

The venue is a ten-minute drive from the airport and there is an underground station opposite the entrance. Food and entertainment is provided by the adjacent cinema complex and restaurants, and local attraction The Atomium - an atom-shaped building that offers views of Brussels from the top - is a mere five-minute walk away.

Brussels Expo deputy director David Boon says one of the venue's benefits to organisers is its policy of employing multi-lingual staff. "We ensure that even the contractors and caterers speak at least two languages,

he says. "We have several UK and US organisers that use the venue. People have no objection to travelling to Brussels as it is good for pleasure as well as for business."

Top location

The same has been said of Antwerp, which is 30 minutes from Brussels.

The city's sole exhibition venue, the Bouwcentrum, was recently bought by Belgian organiser Artexis (Event, April). Its four halls offer 70,500 sq m of space and the venue hosts 48 events each year, including antiques fair Eurantica. London City airport has direct flights to Antwerp and the venue is on the 'Antwerp ring' - a six-lane motorway surrounding the city.

Artexis business development manager Eric Preat says: "It's a top location. It's a crossroads for motorways in all directions and there are major hotel chains on the ring and in the city centre, within easy walking distance."

Elsewhere in Belgium is the Charleroi Expo, which offers 40,000 sq m of space and attracts more than one million visitors annually to events which this year included the Erotica exhibition. The venue is 8km from Brussels South airport, 500m from the nearest train station, and provides 3,000 parking spaces. Charleroi Expo director-general Olivier Lemaire says: "There is very good access to the venue and it is near the centre of Brussels. We also have the Geode building, which was built three years ago and has flexible spaces for up to 400 people for smaller events."

Other venues in Brussels include Les Pyramides, with 6,000 sq m of exhibition space, and the Palais des Congres, which is five minutes from the Grand Place main square and Central Station. Its five exhibition halls offer between 250 sq m and 4,200 sq m of space and the venue is a popular choice for trade fairs, product launches and gala dinners. For organisers wanting to hold their exhibition and entertainment under one roof, Brussels Kart Expo houses a 5,600 sq m exhibition area behind the karting hall.

Sheraton Brussels Hotel & Towers is used by organisers and exhibitors when they are in the city. It is a 15-minute drive from Brussels Expo and the Eurostar and stands on a square that also features The Hilton, The Dome, and the Tulip Inn. The hotel is used for corporate events and product launches and has 19 meeting rooms. Starwood Hotels Brussels director of sales and marketing Sofia Vandaele says: "The Hotel & Towers is often chosen as the hotel headquarters for exhibition organisers. Amsterdam and Paris have extra attractions, but people need to know more about Brussels. It's underestimated."

While the Belgian exhibition business is strong, Brussels Expo's Boon admits Amsterdam is a major threat. The Dutch city is home to Amsterdam RAI International and Congress Centre, which hosts more than 70 trade fairs and exhibitions every year in its 11 exhibition halls, which offer 87,000 sq m of space. The venue has numerous restaurants and a free hotel reservation service with 3,500 beds within walking distance.

Convincing people to come

For organisers wanting a more unique venue, Eindhoven offers the Evoluon.

Formerly a museum, the building was redeveloped as a convention and exhibition centre four years ago. The ground floor houses a dome area surrounded by four circular aisles that combine to make 2,000 sq m of exhibition space.

There are also 15 meeting rooms, a central hall, four VIP suites and three auditoriums. The venue is a ten-minute drive from Eindhoven airport, which has direct flights to London Stansted, and there are five hotels from major chains nearby. Evoluon sales manager Simone Geerts says: "You can do a lot in Eindhoven but people just don't know about it. It is up to us to convince people to come here and have a look."

Elsewhere in the country, Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre (MECC) offers organisers three exhibition halls and expo foyer that offer 30,000 sq m of space, while the Ahoy' Rotterdam boasts six exhibition halls as well as a 600-cover restaurant and a pub. It also has two hotels within the complex.

Over in the Hague, about 20km from Rotterdam airport, sits the Netherlands Congress Centre (NCC), which opened in 1996. It boasts 8,000 sq m of exhibition space in its Staten Hall and also features a four-star Dorint Hotel, Internet cafe, health club and two restaurants. NCC sales and marketing director Angelique Lombarts says: "The venue has almost 40 halls, rooms and foyers that can be used for shows, festivals, and product launches. It is host to the North Sea Jazz Festival, which attracts 23,000 people."

About 400km south of Amsterdam you will find Luxembourg's exhibition and conference centre, which is operated by the country's International Trade Fair Company and owned by The Real Estate Exhibition Centre Company of Luxembourg. The venue, known as FIL, has nine halls that offer 42,000 sq m of space. It hosts events such as the annual Luxembourg International Spring Trade Fair, which last year attracted 524 exhibitors and almost 78,000 visitors.

With its variety of venues, multilingual residents and accessible locations the Benelux exhibition market offers a solid opportunity for UK organisers and exhibitors branching into Europe.

Artexis' Preat concludes: "It's true, you have to put in a lot of effort to get into the Benelux market. It's more fragmented here than in the UK, which has a small number of very large organisers and a few smaller ones. Industrially and economically there is no question that Benelux is an important market."

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