Geri Jacobs, the Director of the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels, has a background in Marketing and Communications having previously worked as a Brand Strategist for international projects with AB Inbev, Heineken, Coca-Cola, Virgin Express and Brussels Airlines. Tourism from the US to Flanders has experienced a double-digit growth over the last 2 years, something Geri Jacobs attributes to a core strategy of killing your darlings and an increasingly theme-based or special interest approach, combined with forging strong partnerships within the travel sector.
TRO: Please explain the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels’ operations in the U.S.
GJ: The Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels (www.visitflanders.us) represents the Flemish-speaking region in the North of Belgium. Our aim is, first and foremost, to educate people about the destination. After all, Flanders and Brussels are not very well-known compared to other western European countries. Secondly, we want to inspire people by sharing real and authentic ideas for trips. Storytelling is a big part of what we do, as we usually get blank stares when we mention Flanders.
TRO: From your experience, what is/are the most popular activities in Flanders and Brussels for American travelers?
GJ: Instead of talking about activities, we like to talk about experiences. We are trying to reach people by appealing to what interests them. Whether it’s art and history, gastronomy, fashion shopping, cycling, horticulture or roots tourism we have found that this theme-based approach works much better to get our message across and to engage people. If you try to be everything to everybody, you end up being nothing to nobody.
TRO: What itinerary would you suggest for a first-time visitor?
GJ: Flanders is very compact, so in four or five days you can capture most of the sights. Not a lot of people realize that Flanders is the size of Connecticut (Belgium as a whole is the size of Maryland).
Visitors will arrive in Brussels. Brussels is the capital of Belgium and has a cosmopolitan and international vibe. As the headquarters of the EU and NATO, it boasts a colorful mix of leisure and business visitors, of local residents and expats. The scenic Grand’ Place is one of the most magnificent squares in the world.
Next, head out to Bruges, a lovely little medieval city recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bruges is great to explore on foot, on a boat on the canals or in a horse-drawn carriage. Perfect for a romantic visit or to celebrate a special occasion, cozy boutique hotels with charming interiors await visitors. Bruges is also the Capital of Chocolate and has a chocolate festival every December. Not to be missed is the art of the Flemish Primitives.
Less well-known are two cities that are a delight to explore: Ghent and Antwerp.
Antwerp is the second-largest port in Europe and has a very cosmopolitan vibe. It’s also the diamond capital of the world. 80% of the world’s diamonds are traded through Antwerp. If you buy your wedding ring in Antwerp, you even get a hotel night for free. Antwerp is also a fashionista’s paradise, both for the latest designer collections as well as for more mainstream or boutique fashion.
Ghent is a charming yet vibrant city that has all the good looks of Bruges – pretty canals and a historic city center – but with more things going on. You could say it’s history with a heartbeat. Ghent is below the radar, but when you go it will blow your socks off. We recommend taking in culture in bite sizes. Take a nibbling tour of Ghent and get to know something about the history and architecture while tasting local specialties whether they are raspberry-filled sweets, cured ham or beer brewed with ‘gruut’ – an herb mixture – instead of hops. Art buffs should head to the St. Bavo Cathedral to admire the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the masterpiece painted by the Brothers Van Eyck in 1432.
TRO: What inspired you to work in the travel industry and particularly to promote travel to Belgium?
GJ: I’ve always had a passion for traveling and connecting to people around the world. Before I joined the tourist office, I was working in the fields of consumer psychology, brand strategy and communication. I feel that what I’m doing now really combines these three passions: travel, people and branding. It’s a pretty big challenge to capture a destination in a clear and succinct story, especially a destination that has such a rich and long history as Flanders.
TRO: What are your favorite activities in Flanders and Brussels?
GJ: Whenever I go back home, I look forward to the great meals I’m going to have. Flanders has more Michelin star restaurants per capita than any other country in Europe, but you can eat well wherever you go. My favorite dishes are fresh tomatoes filled with grey shrimp, delicious crispy fries which I dunk in mayonnaise and of course a big steaming pot of mussels. So eating would be high on my list.
Secondly, I love to wander around the city, go to flea markets, take in a museum or two, go shopping and walk along the canals or the river. The best way to experience Flanders is to slow down and just grab a seat at one of the many outdoor cafés, order a Belgian beer and watch life go by.
TRO: Are there any destinations on your “bucket list”?
GJ: Since I relocated to New York, all destinations in the Americas are so much easier to get to. I have already had the opportunity to see a lot more of the US and Canada since I’ve been here. For my next short getaway I have my eye set on Costa Rica. Further away, Japan and China are definitely destinations that I would like to explore. Ever since I studied in Moscow, I’ve also always wanted to take the Trans-Siberian Express.
TRO: Please explain the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels’ relationships with travel agents.
GJ: We’re here to help! We love to share information, help with itineraries, and give travel agents a better grasp of Flanders. Recently, we have had some great feedback from travel agents by doing something as simple as webinars. We would love to conduct these on a regular basis. Based on that first contact, we may invite travel agents to join us on a fam trip to Flanders.
TRO: How can travel agents become involved with your agency?
GJ: By signing up for our trade e-newsletter, attending one of our webinars, coming on a fam trip, checking the trade section of our website (http://www.visitflanders.us/trade/index.jsp) or by contacting Julie Davidson, our Trade Manager at Julie@visitflanders.us
TRO: Do you have any advice for agents who wish to market Flanders/Brussels packages?
GJ: We want people to look at Flanders/Brussels as an easy add-on to a trip to any of our neighboring countries: Holland, France, Germany or the UK. Brussels is under 2 hours away by direct train from Amsterdam, Paris, Cologne or London!
TRO: Are there any new projects or developments for the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels you would like to share with the travel agent community?
GJ: If travel agents have any clients going to the Olympics, they may want to consider an extension in Flanders without breaking the bank. Flanders/Brussels offer great value for money. In Brussels, you can get great hotel rates during weekends year round and all through summer. In Bruges prices tend to go down during the week.
In the autumn of 2012 the Historium is opening in Bruges, an interactive 3-D attraction that takes you on a trip through Bruges in the year 1435.
In 2013 we are looking forward to the opening of the Red Star Line Museum, the shipping company that transported 2.7 million immigrants from Antwerp to New York. 40% of Jewish Americans are estimated to have ancestors who sailed on the Red Star Line. Golda Meir, Irving Berlin, Albert Einstein and the father of Fred Astaire are some of the people who took the journey Red Star Line.
We’re also gearing up for the World War I Centenary (2014-2018) in Flanders Fields. This area remains a testament to the horrific four-year trench war that completely razed this part of Belgium. Numerous museums, war cemeteries and battlefields pay tribute to those who fought and died.
TRO: Anything else you would like to add?
GJ: Travel agents who want to be in the know should subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter. We also have a lively Facebook page (Visit Flanders) with daily postings of news and the occasional chocolate sweepstakes. Our latest sweepstakes – “Win a Year’s Supply of Chocolate” – was very popular.