ReLocate spoke with professor Greg Clark, urbanist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Europe, to find out more. He is a widely published author on city development and investment issues and advises a wide array of international organisations. In May 2016 he presented a new report analysing the competitiveness of Brussels and Antwerp. Where most analyses of a city’s competitiveness rely on economic performance, The Urban Land Institute report looks at a much wider range of issues. Ranging from liveability to geopolitical risk and sustainability, these are the things that influence a city’s attractiveness to residents and companies alike.
Brussels and Antwerp are very different in nature: how did you approach the comparison?
“We put together two benchmarking groups, ran workshops, visited the cities and conducted a ton of interviews before running this comparative analysis in which we measured Brussels and Antwerp against groups of peer cities to arrive at an assessment of their competitiveness,” explains Greg Clark. “We didn’t just look at economic performance, but at other issues that impact a city’s attractiveness to residents too. Matters such as liveability, governance, geopolitical risk and sustainability are just as important in urban life. Brussels was tested against well established capitals such as London and Paris, cities that provide tough competition. Antwerp on the other hand was held up against peer cities that are reinventing themselves – some of them port cities – like Hamburg and Amsterdam, and other (former) industry greats such as Manchester and Liverpool.”
Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.
What are their main selling points?
“Both cities have very good fundamentals, and their own, unique attractions. Antwerp is compelling for its extraordinary DNA. It has always been one of the world’s greatest trading cities and has invented many ideas about the connection between trade, innovation and discovery. Antwerp knows how to build a city around a port. Located within a north-western European economy of roughly 100 million people with a huge GDP, it’s well connected with Belgian, Dutch, Northern French and German cities on all sides. Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.”
“The Antwerp port is embracing innovation in terms of how goods are managed, how energy is used and what technology is applied. They’re building an innovative port and energy complex, with a big focus on the circular economy, which is important and fascinating. Of course, the city of Antwerp is synonymous with the craft and design of high-quality goods. From the diamond industry to its fashion sector, Antwerpians know how to make items of high value work in the market place. This mercantilist attitude means it is truly open for business.”
“Boasting a young and vibrant population that is committed to taking the city forward, Antwerp is further boosted by a government with big ambitions. From building a canopy over the ring road to creating more public spaces and developing the left bank, the city is redesigning its urban fabric to make a future-proof city. Smart citizen initiatives activate people to act as the eyes and ears of the city, giving feedback on the quality of bicycle lanes or roads and public facilities that might need maintenance. These distinctive edges of Antwerp amount to things that are quite exciting considering its small size. Thinking about the business opportunities that arise from disruption runs deep within the Antwerp DNA.”
Brussels’ youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity give rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries.
“Brussels on the other hand is distinctive in a completely different way,” Greg continues. “It is a major capital city, and as home to the various European institutions and NATO it has an influential presence on the global stage, although it is yet to leverage it to its full potential. It’s interesting when you compare Brussels with cities like Washington DC or Singapore, which play an influential role by hosting global institutions, international summits and other gatherings that really work for the city.”
“It has a youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity giving rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries. The high calibre of educational institutes in Brussels is somewhat obscured by the presence of international institutions such as the EU and NATO, but the educational cluster has enormous potential thanks to leadership in fields such as IT, life sciences, or medicine. Most obviously it has enormous potential to be a global school of government, public policy and management.”
“When you look at productivity progress in Brussels a lot of it is to do with the dynamism of the labour market and its liquidity. People want to spend time in Brussels, partly because of its influence, but then find they want to stay and do other things too. It’s important to remember that government institutions feed and support a huge cluster of other kinds of decision making and communication activities. There are very big, positive spill-overs and multipliers that you can leverage into other industries. If you thought a government town can only ever be a government town, you’d be wrong.”
All attractive qualities indeed, surely there must be some drawbacks?
“They also both suffer from a number of challenges,” agrees Greg. “Part of this is that they are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework. Both Brussels and Antwerp struggle to build their identity and present themselves in a way that cities in less confusing countries do not. Brussels has far greater assets than say Vienna or Zurich, yet these cities have fewer difficulties presenting and promoting themselves on an international stage. Similarly, whilst Antwerp has greater or equivalent assets to Liverpool, Lyon, Genoa, and Turin, it has difficulty articulating what it is, where it is, and why.”
“They’re also rather late to the urbanisation agenda compared to other European cities. Citizens in Brussels and Antwerp are highly dependent on their cars and prefer the suburbs to the city centre. The Belgians tend to sub optimise the use of land and real estate, which translates into low levels of densification and very few mixed-use development projects. It also means there has been very little focus on transport and connectivity as a way of embracing and spurring on urbanism. The third thing that seems to be true for both of them – although each city has a slightly different version of this – is that they have had some difficulty creating the right geographical and institutional space through which to apply leadership to the city.”
“Brussels Capital Region struggles due to the way it is defined; geographically it’s too small for the – much larger – Brussels metropolitan area and then of course there is the fragmentation of having 19 separate municipalities, which rather effectively prevents an integrated governance model. You need a leadership platform for the whole area, otherwise you end up with different policies being pursued in different parts of the region, which is not particularly helpful. For Antwerp it was more of a question of leadership appetite in the past, although I think this is now being addressed. The current leadership has the appetite to succeed and a vision for moving the city forward. It’s just been slow getting there.”
“The public sector almost has a monopoly on leadership control in Belgium. Other sectors, such as business, cultural and higher education, have not played active civic leadership roles like they do in other cities of comparable sizes. There’s been too much waiting around for city government to put things right, rather than civic leadership working hand in hand with city governments to create forward momentum. I suppose you could say both cities have become somewhat institutionalised. This is now being addressed in Antwerp where civil and trade movements are working together with the city towards creating a more sustainable future for the city.”
Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together with organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map.
How can Brussels and Antwerp improve on their competitiveness?
“We focused on three main areas for our recommendations on addressing these weaknesses,” Greg tells us. “First, Brussels and Antwerp need to start embracing urbanisation. This means being proactive in extending and developing public transport as a way of reducing car dependence. By strengthening the urban mix, you create excitement and vibrancy. Creating exciting city centres and sub centres, together with a more active transport mix, helps attract and retain corporate investment and the dynamic workforce needed by these companies.”
“Secondly, the institutional frameworks have to be right. This creates room for city leadership that is continuously thinking about their city as somewhere people will want to live and work, rather than getting stuck in Belgian politics. Thinking about public and private partnerships on a city level is a big part of this, just look at how Antwerp is involving its citizens in the maintenance of its city.”
“This in turn leads into our third point: the promotion of Brussels and Antwerp. Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together an alliance of organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map. This is certainly happening in Antwerp, and I believe efforts are underfoot in Brussels now too.”
“Finally, both cities have really creative industries which are part of the impact of the cosmopolitan diversity of the city. You should be able to really use that cosmopolitan diversity as a driver of creative endeavour. The idea isthat diversity creates competitive advantage through interaction. To realise that, you’ve got to address the challenges of social exclusion and segregation. Brussels has two cosmopolitan populations: one is the elite that services the global institutions, the other is the population of migrants who have come from a poorer set of countries in search of a better life. Somehow, you’ve got to make those two kinds of populations work together.”
To read the full report, visit the Urban Land Institute website:
Going back to the roots of good old customer service
What has been lacking in the era of online reservations, self check-in and quite a number of AirBnB interactions, is a prominent level of face-to-face customer service. This is a key element of the hospitality industry and the power it wields is not to be ignored. It makes the difference between repeat customers, solid reputations and can be the deciding factor in tourist’s choices, as well as those guests providing a steady income for hoteliers: the frequent flyer. Thusly we are seeing a change in AirBnB’s approach with Experiences. Not only are AirBnB hosts able to let you experience their home town by letting out their house, apartment or room, they can literally play host to various experiences that will enrich your journey and ensure you engage with your surroundings such as a truffle hunt, an aquatic interaction or a solid favourite: wine tasting. In competition with this new functionality from AirBnB, hotels that distinguish themselves from the pack by delivering quality customer service every time and ensuring unique attention to detail will be the winners in the months to come.
Based on the concept of Capsule Hotels – which were originally developed in none other than the space poor Osaka, Japan – by stripping away unnecessary amenities hotels make best use of limited space. Providing the guest a place to sleep, wash and of course log on. Most pod hotels are wholly on the grid, offering in-room climate control, pre-check-in viewing preferences, breakfast ordering and most importantly mood lighting. These pod hotels have come a long way from the idea of sleeping in a fibreglass box and there are more and more pod hotels popping up in the most crowded of cities, offering this state of the art in-room technology to distract from the lack of space. Many pod hotels also offer fantastic communal areas such as cafés, vape bars and even hot tubs, encouraging guests to ditch the pod and interact. Most recently, the vision of “cross-pollinating” is starting to surface where non-pod hotels integrate pods on the ground floor. A further example of this type of cross-pollination follows…
Hotel meets Student Dormitory
Fusing luxury short-stay with student style accommodation and then topping it off with long stay options, these new hives of communal activity are popping up in every university city across the globe. Balancing out their high-end guests, who are usually a seasonal treat with the reliable source of funds, that long-stay student lodger ensures these hotels some staying power. Also boasting stunning communal spaces that encourage guests of all backgrounds to interact and exchange ideas, workspaces are a key part of the build and are not just limited to a desk, a chair and a WiFi code. These hybrid hotels encourage workshops, gatherings, lecture series or an area to just contemplate. For the “stay a while” guest there are communal kitchens, bicycles for hire, laundry rooms and a genuine feeling of home.
We’ve heard of Smart Cities, Smart Roads and even Smart Parking. It’s now time for Smart Hotels. When we talk about Smart Hotels images of George Jetson inspired gadgets and gizmos flash before us, the whole room powered by a tap on an iPad. That’s not what’s being referred to here. Smart hotels are more about the intelligent use of space and the ability to plug a guest into the local information grid, making best use of real time data and therefore providing the ultimate stay – not forgetting all this at an achievable price. In the US especially the rise of mobile working is opening up space once used for offices and now providing the hotel industry with the bare bones of urban chic hotels. Millennial business travellers are not after five star luxury like our bawdy ancestors were, they are looking for pared-back décor, an authentic experience and tend to shy away from over-the-top branding and superfluous logo usage.
As all online businesses are experiencing, those that can offer dynamic pricing (also known as time-based pricing) see increases in their profits and better utilisation of their product. Dynamic pricing is the real-time adjustment of rates based on supply and demand. Hotels conduct the majority of their business online and can take advantage in occupancy fluctuations, seasonal changes and employ dynamic pricing structures to offer competitive rates that meet the ever-changing demand. We have seen dynamic pricing work for other industries such as the parking industry (basically hotels for cars) with incredible success. This type of revenue management strategy can be uniquely precise, changing rates daily or hourly based on sophisticated technology and the trusty old internet. However, hoteliers-be take note: this kind of pricing strategy can alienate corporate guests by restricting negotiations on corporate rates as dynamically priced rooms can work out to be more expensive than the agreed corporate rates.
Add-ons and up-sells
It’s definitely the perks of a hotel that make it stand out from the rest, and refining the skill of providing guests with the extra option that will make their trip unforgettable will be one to watch for in 2017. Hotels will have to work harder in 2017 to ensure their establishment offers top-notch loyalty programmes, where guests don’t have to spend a fortune to earn one measly point. The fact that AirBnB has launched Trips is a clear indicator to hotels that they need to be playing host to their guests in the most generous manner. It’s not just about a bed and a shower anymore. It’s about providing a complete travel experience. Organising bespoke tours, workshops, local events and enabling guests to feel as though their host city is their city, all important factors in providing a total guest experience. Especially with online bookings, or hotels that use apps for reservations, the trick here is to ensure that the potential guest is not distracted by a rainbow of events and services prior to tapping in their credit card number. Patiently waiting until the reservation is made, the guest is more likely to add once the booking is secure as they can be distracted during the booking process. Add-ons such as a bottle of champagne or a breakfast buffet make the guest feel special and takes advantage of all a hotel can offer. Packages are also crucial to this trend, and hotels can be as creative as they like to entice guests: free airport pickups for those booking on weekdays, free concert tickets for guests booking for periods in advance, or free dinner vouchers at the hotel restaurant for a booking of three consecutive nights or less are great examples of creative incentives.
Servicing the Local Community
An interesting niche in the market that hotels don’t usually latch on to are the services they can provide for the local community. Hotels are usually viewed as places for out-of-towners, only for those visiting the area and gone within a few days. A trend to look out for is the mobilisation of services that a hotel can offer their next-door neighbours: this can be as simple as holding packages, or advising on the best places in town to eat, drink and be merry. There are a plethora of services that hotels can offer local residents and we anticipate that 2017 will see hotels becoming community hubs more than they have ever been before.
Travel agents are making a comeback!!
Yes, once the internet took over we turned our backs on the local travel agent and pieced our own journeys together, just as we wanted. However, we didn’t realise just how much hard work that would be. Online travel agents are making a comeback and showing us just how much expertise is involved in organising that “once in a lifetime trip” or making that tricky connecting flight work. The overwhelming options available nowadays are often too much for the not-so-well-seasoned traveller. Do we lose time or do we lose euros when deciding how our itinerary should look. The expert traveller who has been there and done that all before, is more likely to be looking for unique experiences that are sometimes out of layman’s reach. Let’s not forget also that it is quite often about who you know in the industry and travel agents can be a fantastic way to secure an exclusive price on a well researched and fuss free trip.
Whatever type of stay you’re after, there truly is something for everyone. Be sure to look up our outstanding accommodation providers by visiting:
How come Belgium’s such a big player? And what does this silent giant of an industry actually entail? Life Sciences are those fields of study that deal with living organisms and their life processes. You may think in the direction of biology, healthcare and medicine, nutrition, microbiotics, ecology and the various interconnections between those fields. Especially Research & Development, and more precisely the expertise in the area of clinical studies, puts Belgium at the European summit of biotech, the cross-pollination between biology and technology. Twenty-nine out of thirty top pharmaceutical companies that operate in this field (including of course Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Bayer) have offices in Belgium.
Let’s start with some facts and figures. The Belgian biotech industry:
• Is the number one R&D employer in Belgium;
• Was the 2nd largest biopharma exporter in Europe in 2013;
• Creates three indirect jobs for every biopharma job in Belgium;
• Has high global rankings in actual production and patents.
As for the other question, why Belgium, there are a number of factors to account for. Call it a tripod made up of political, economical and scientific factors. Of course this industry didn’t drop onto Belgian soil out of thin air. It all started in the early 80’s. Mark Vaeck, currently CEO of Complix, was “lucky enough” to witness it. “In 1980 Amgen, one of the pioneering biotech companies, was founded in the US,” recalls Vaeck. “In 1983 I started out with Belgium’s first biotech company, which was founded only a year earlier. Only two years later a second company was raised and from there it was a speedy development on account of very important molecular biology research done at the university of Ghent and the spin-offs this created. Two laboratories in particular were important to that development, that of professor Van Montagu, scientific founder of Plant Genetic Systems, and the virology laboratory of professor Fiers that formed the basis for Innogenetics. A lot of the people who now hold top-jobs in biotech in Belgium started out in one of those two companies. So you could say Belgium is a cradle of biotech.”
“Flanders has an innovation culture similar to Silicon Valley. It’s multi-cultural and multi-lingual – research shows that people from such a background are better innovators,” – Bernard Munos, founder of InnoThink
The whole region of Flanders, with clusters around Ghent, Leuven, Brussels and Hasselt and Antwerp, compares very favourably to the rest of Europe. “It has an innovation culture similar to Silicon Valley. It’s multi-cultural and multi-lingual – research shows that people from such a background are better innovators,” says Bernard Munos, founder of InnoThink (innovation in pharmaceutical industry, ed.). What’s more, the proximity and cooperation between different companies and researchers make Flanders attractive to small companies and small(er) companies can innovate more easily.
But that still isn’t all. Let’s not rule out the importance of a government with a nose for opportunities in growing business and welfare. Minister De Croo (Open Vld, Vice-President, involved with the World Economic Forum) summarises the reasons why he believes Belgium holds a 16% market share in Europe:
• Top-notch academic research facilities;
• Fiscal system geared towards innovation;
• Tax reduction on labour costs for researching;
• Big amount of foreign investors.
Mark Vaeck explains why he and Complix chose to set-up and stay in Belgium. “I have experience in The Netherlands, the US and Belgium. Since I was born and raised here, it’s the most evident territory for me. The technology of Alphabodies was developed within Algonomics, also a Belgian company, in which I was a Board member until we decided to establish a new corporation especially to develop the Alphabodies for therapeutic applications. So my network is here. It’s hard to predict the future, but the next logical step might be to start a subsidiary in the US, as stepping stone towards a listing on the Nasdaq stock market. Other than that, I don’t see any reason to go anywhere else but Belgium, especially the UK,” Vaeck chuckles.
“The surface of Flanders is comparable to that of a large city in the US. If you consider that, the amount of businesses here is hallucinatory,” Vaeck continues. “This density is good. There’s a network of related service companies, good staff, short distance to the universities and we are centrally located in Europe with connections to all the large European cities. Fiscal and practical governmental support also adds to the attractiveness of the region. Subsidies and a reduced income tax for expats compensate for the high taxes and labour costs.”
The activity is mainly concentrated around the universities and the affiliated science parks, the largest being those of Ghent, Leuven and Brussels, which are in a sense a combination of the previously mentioned factors: location, knowledge and financial benefits which attract investors and thus create more jobs. No wonder they call them incubators (from the dictionary: ‘a place, esp. with support staff and equipment, made available at low rent to new small businesses’).
Mark Vaeck acknowledges the benefits of a science park. “We cooperate with several of the universities on a regular basis, but also with VIB, an umbrella research group. Being near such locations makes communication easier. Because of the short physical distance and close cooperation, our branch in Hasselt for example provides us access to the animalium for animal testing. Complix also has a small subsidiary in Luxembourg. The offices are situated at the LIH (Luxembourg Institute of Health), which grants us access to their infrastructure, including machinery that’s too expensive for a small company like ours to buy.”
Expats and a Global Mobility Policy
When asked about a global mobility policy, Mark Vaeck can’t help but laugh. “We’re only twenty five people, what do you think? No, we try to stay lean and mean, with little administration. At this moment we have one foreigner working for us, the Chief Scientific Officer, who is an Irish lady. It’s an important subject though. To be competitive you have to be able to attract the right people, and you won’t find all of them within one small country. Luckily we’re attractive right now, also because of our alliance with Merck & Co (a US pharma giant, LLtV) which means a real boost for the company’s profile. When we start growing in the future we’ll be able to attract more international people. I always refer to Ablynx (another biotech company that Mark Vaeck also co-founded and led as CEO for the first 5 years, LLtV), we started out small there, and now it has a 300-people staff, which counts, especially within the management, several foreigners.”
“Belgium is an attractive place for biotech companies,” Vaeck concludes. “The advantages on income tax for expats makes it agreeable, the fact that most people speak English much better then in our surrounding countries, Brussels’ multicultural melting pot, a high standard of living and decent housing at acceptable prices, short distances between hotspots like Ghent and Leuven, good restaurants, nice festivals; Flanders scores pretty well on all those subjects. One thing that needs improvement is the number of international schools. And the traffic jams, they’re a real pain.”