“Céline Casteels, Leonardo Hotels Belgium: Recession has seriously impacted the meetings industry, but now many companies are recovering

Céline Casteels, the Regional Sales Manager for Leonardo Hotels in Belgium, gave us an insight in the meetings and hotel industry. Miss Casteels works in the hospitality industry for more than a decade. She joined Leonardo hotel chain seven years ago and she is in charge of the leisure and corporate market. Leonardo hotel chain has 5 hotels in Belgium, 45 in Germany and one hotel in Budapest and Vienna, two hotels in Zürich and over 35 hotels in Israel.

 

Can you make a short introduction of Leonardo hotel chain?

We can say that our hotel chain extends quite fast, if we think that 7 years ago we were only 5 hotels and now we are 88. We are proud of the steps we’ve made and of this fast expansion. However, I am going to focus on the 5 hotels that we have in Belgium and speak about destinations such as Brugge, Antwerp, Wavre and Charleroi. The hotels that we have in Belgium are smaller than those that we have in Germany, but the market looks promising, as we constantly have the possibility to host events, seminars, workshops. The hotels in Wavre, Charleroi, and Antwerp are more focused on the business segment and more suitable for seminars, workshops, congresses, while Brugge is the perfect destination for incentives and cultural events. Most of the Leonardo hotels that we have in Belgium have 100 rooms, are three stars hotel and all of them are suitable for hosting events, seminars and workshops.

What makes Leonardo chain unique? Why should planners select this chain?

Our main focus is on flexibility. We want to adapt to our client’s needs and we have a flexible way of doing things. We aim to have things done well and personalized. Leonardo Hotels Belgium are big enough to organize corporate events, but not that big. Hence we can afford to be flexible. The most important thing for us is to offer good value for money and to adapt ourselves to our clients. Our mission statement is: Creative meeting solutions, organized in a refreshing simple way.

What are your areas of focus as a hotel chain?

We have a lot of corporate clients in Wavre, Charleroi, and Antwerp, while in Brugge, we are more focused on leisure and we host events also on weekends.

What challenges have you faced since opening?

In the beginning, we had to find our way and to position ourselves in the market. We had to clearly identify our mission, vision and values and all aspects surrounding our corporate branding. It was an exciting period, a thrilling one, as we had to define ourselves. Now, we have a history together as a chain. Our headquarters in Berlin helped us to develop things and to get the right guidelines from the beginning.

How do you think your hotel can stand out in a crowded market?

We focus on clients and personalize our services. As I mentioned earlier, Leonardo Hotels Belgium want to be bigger, but not that big. We want to keep our flexibility, so that we can personalize our services.

What makes your hotels suitable for events? How do you advertise?

We have the possibility to welcome around 200 people, but we are not that focused on big events. We are more oriented to workshops, seminars, which is also what our clients are looking for. They know we are on the market, they know what we can do and what we can offer,  therefore we benefit a lot from the ‘word of mouth’ publicity. We also advertise online, but I can’t say it’s our main way to make contacts. For us ‘word of mouth’ and trade fairs are a better way to advertise.

Please explain some best practices when sending eRFPs?

The definition of the products is very important. Planners should make sure that the products they want to have is what their clients would like to have.

What is the main misconception event planners have regarding hotels?

Sometimes, event/corporate planners are so under pressure they have difficulties in trusting their partners as hotels; therefore we have to gain their confidence with a clear and professional approach. By working with event planners, the communication between us and the final client is difficult in some cases we do not know them in the beginning and we do not know if our offer fits the expectations. Not every event planner knows our products and if the client cannot find the time for us to show them around then it is not easy for them to get familiarized with our hotel and services.  However, we cannot look at things from one perspective. There are also event planners with whom we maintain a really good relationship of trust and who have a really good understanding of our products and services.

If you could give only one piece of advice regarding supplier management for events what would it be?

More trust. Let’s say a bigger confidence in the provider they decide to work with.

If you could ask travel/event planners to stop doing something, what would it be?

I am going back to the communication issues. It should be their main aim to find out the needs of the client. If the client has a dream, they should tell him/ her the limits, to explain what is possible and what is not. But often they don’t openly express these things, because they are afraid they won’t meet clients’ expectations and it makes the handling for the hotels much more difficult – its all about a good and open communication.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing in the market currently?

The recession was a real challenge and it still impacts us. This is what forced us to define the market in a different way. Now, for instance, some companies do have budgets, but they do not want to spend too much for external events, because it is not a good way to communicate with people. They do not want to give their employees/owners the impression that they are wasting money. Therefore, many hoteliers had to redefine their products and to come out with new packages. We have started from the minimum (Wi-Fi, breakfast etc.) and from here we can offer our clients whatever they want. We had to find another way to work and to adjust our packages and services.

Give our readers one piece of advice on negotiating with hotels?

I would advise them to have a good definition of what they want. Some event planners have the impression that they have to make a huge event, but is this what the client wants?  It is always better to discuss and adapt to the client.

What are your future plans?

We would like to focus on hospitality, to be friendly and to make our clients feel very welcomed in our hotel. We aim to create a good atmosphere. Therefore we implement our new “Feeling good” concept – For instance, now we have apples & water in the lobby for free, for check out we hand out a farewell chocolate and we also have a new breakfast concept with regional products. These small things always matter. We want our clients to feel welcomed.