VISITFLANDERS is reflecting on its future. To involve everyone in this process, it organised a Learning Network around the central theme of Travelling to Tomorrow. The participants inspire each other, fostering new ideas and insights, under the approving eye of coaches Arno Vansichen and Luc Verheijen.
Arno Vansichen – “Stimulate people to tell stories, to think, to help one another”
Arno: “A Learning Network means jointly acquiring knowledge, having the participants learn from each other. Everyone has their own specific expertise and works in their own environment. The idea is to inspire one another and develop actions, whether you are the director of a provincial tourism authority, an employee of a municipal service, or a local business owner. We do all this together. A second important element is appreciative enquiry. We apply a positive method that starts from what’s already going well now, rather than focussing on what’s going wrong. The objective is to stimulate people to take their responsibility, which culminates in specific initiatives.”
What does the Learning Network for Travelling to Tomorrow entail?
Arno: “This Learning Network lasts approximately one year, with regular meetings. In some cases we invite all the participants, on other occasions we meet in smaller groups. It started in the spring of 2019 with a two-day kick-off meeting in Ghent. This was followed by two major return events with all the participants. We organised several learning groups in between. In these groups of five to ten participants, with a varying composition, everyone was able to share their problems, obstacles and thoughts. The participants helped one another devise solutions and think about which steps they could take in their own projects. The process ends in February with a large-scale closing event. This is a good opportunity to review all the projects that originated in the Learning Network and also look ahead. How do we keep these projects going in the following years? This will be an important question.”
Luc and you are the participants’ coaches. So what is your role?
Arno: “Everyone who is involved in the Learning Network has extensive expertise in tourism, whereas we don’t. So we definitely don’t have to tell them how to do their job. Our task is to bring them together, to promote a dialogue. We try to stimulate them to tell stories, to reflect, to help one another.”
How do you achieve this?
Arno: “By asking the right questions. For example, why did you choose to work in the tourism industry? We got a lot of nice answers to that one. Nobody mentioned earning money, but their passion and drive shone through. These people are passionate about hospitality or proud of their region and they want to share this with others. We also asked the participants to talk about their own travel experiences. This forces you to think about what you find important, what generates added value. Which is a good place to start when working towards Travelling to Tomorrow.”
Was this idea new to most of the participants?
Arno: “Certainly not. Travelling to Tomorrow is anything but new. Most of the participants are keenly aware that there’s more to tourism than figures and growth. They know that it also means contributing to a specific place. We asked the participants for examples of specific projects in which they created added value by working with the local population or business owners. They immediately shared a dozen excellent examples. So you can see that this is already happening in practice, without necessarily being labelled as ‘Travelling to Tomorrow’. The main thing is to capitalise on these good examples and continue down this path to the future.”
Elies Maegh – “Avoid an insular approach”
The Learning Network has an impact. Both on the participants and the organisation, as Elies Maegh found out first-hand. She is responsible for education and communication at Hidrodoe, the interactive science museum dedicated to water.
Elies: “My departmental manager Hilde De Laet participated in two Learning Networks. The theme of the first one was “Everyone deserves a holiday”, but she also took part in the “Travelling to Tomorrow” project. Hilde is always very enthusiastic and this time she was also hugely motivated by these meetings. The first time around you obviously have no idea what to expect from a new process like this one, but it proved quite valuable.”
Have these Learning Networks already had an impact on your organisation?
Elies: “The first one, on holiday participation, definitely did. Traditionally a large share of our visitors are middle-class, the so-called value seekers (Note: Tripadvisor calls this group the researchers). By investing in holiday participation, we were able to change this. We organised various different workshops, attracting a very diverse audience as a result. This benefits us, and our visitors. You can already clearly see the impact of this in other words. It is more difficult to tangibly measure the impact for Travelling to Tomorrow right now. We’ll definitely see it in the long term, because it forces us to reflect on this theme, which was the purpose of this process.”
The Learning Network is designed to have people learn from each other. Does this approach work for Hidrodoe?
Elies: “Absolutely. The idea is not to take an insular approach. Because you’ll always end up seeing things from the same perspective, testing the same recipe. It’s quite refreshing to hear someone else’s ideas and opinions now and then. Hilde was quite enthusiastic about this too.”
Geert Goffin – “Part of a greater and better whole”
The Learning Network was established for everyone, regardless of their role in the tourism industry. Geert Goffin of gast-vrij was also happy to join. She owns three holiday cottages in Riemst.
Geert: “I’m really happy to be part of the Learning Network. The vibe in this large group of people was very nice from the outset. Arno and Luc’s coaching ensured that everyone immediately felt at ease. There was a great sense of openness. As the owner of holiday cottages, I could easily and openly talk to the head of the tourist office of a large city. Very refreshing.”
What did you learn from this process?
Geert: “My views on tourism have changed a little. We need to break away from the idea that tourism is a product that is produced somewhere as a finished product. Tourism is a living organism and we are all part of it. As a host, I am just a tiny part in this. But together with all those other tiny parts, we can create a wonderful greater whole. This does not just apply to people who work in the tourism industry. It includes neighbours, business owners and so on.”
How do you put this into practice as a host?
Geert: “I also try to share my insights with my guests. I always offer them a welcome kit, like so many other places already do. Now I’ve added a little quiz to it. I ask my guests some of the questions that they also asked us during the Learning Network: share one of your nicest holiday memories with me and explain what made it so nice. It’s my way of getting them to think and connect. I hope that this will prompt some nice memories. I also added a page to our website, where I highlight the local hotspots and share links to nearby businesses. My guests can request a chef, a babysitter or even a dog sitter, as an extra. During the day they can take their pet with them. At night, it is in the good hands of someone who is passionate about pets. I’ve also been in touch with some of the local taxi services. These are all people with whom I click, and who do their best to further enhance my guests’ experience.”
You sound very convinced about these insights. What other plans do you have for the future?
Geert: “I want to continue sharing these ideas. And to be fair, I like connecting with other people and enjoy networking. In Riemst, the owners of holiday residences have already joined forces. We have established a working group and meet once every two months in one of the residences, together with the director of Visit Riemst. We discuss how to tackle things and get to know our colleagues and friends better. And that’s how we also try to inspire each other even more.”
Noëlle Opdebeek – “How an idea took off”
Noëlle Opdebeek of the Fashion Museum (MoMu) in Antwerp was really enthusiastic about the Learning Network on the theme of Travelling to Tomorrow. She insisted on participating herself and is already reaping the fruits of her efforts today.
Noëlle: “I strongly believe in the idea behind Travelling to Tomorrow. We really need to think hard about this as an industry. I hoped that the Learning Network would provide me with a number of helpful tools. I already had some specific plans in mind. The Fashion Museum is currently closed for renovation and expansion. When it reopens, I would like to launch a number of activities for people with disabilities: for the blind and the visually impaired and a project for people with dementia. Our objective is to involve people, in particular a number of specific groups, in what we do. The Learning Network helped me develop my plans much faster.”
How did the Learning Network help you do this?
Noëlle: “Sometimes ideas meet with resistance. It can often be quite difficult to convince people or interest them in something. I was able to discuss this very openly with the other participants during the Learning Network, especially in the learning groups. I felt that this was a safe space, where I could speak freely. And the response that I got was hugely liberating. Other participants gave advice or suggestions from their own perspective. In the Learning Network, people’s job title, rank or hierarchy are not taken into account. We are all equal and we are all working towards a goal. This makes a huge difference.”
So how did this help you in practice?
Noëlle : “I had some ideas, and now they’ve become projects that are gradually taking shape. I felt buoyed by the Learning Network to openly discuss my plans with my colleagues. I got in touch with the nearby nursing homes and a number of university colleges. I had hoped to convince students who are studying occupational therapy to get on board. And it worked. We have already launched projects with four different university colleges, each with their own focus. We are working on developing an offering that is specifically aimed at people with dementia. In the framework of this project, a Master student will do a traineeship with us and write their dissertation on the subject. Without the Learning Network we might have also reached this point, but it would have taken us much longer and the process would have been much more laborious.”
When will we see the results of this?
Noëlle: “We are currently starting up the projects. I would like to launch them after we reopen, preferably during the International Dementia Action Week. It would be amazing if we could propose our project for people with dementia during this time.”
Stephen Lodewyck – “Setting the cat among the pigeons”
For Stephen Lodewyck of Westtoer, the tourism authority of the Province of West Flanders, the Learning Network is and was a valuable experience. He mainly learnt to focus on the importance of the local population for tourism during the process.
Stephen: “Sustainable tourism developments are increasingly in the spotlight. We have been working on this for some time already, albeit cautiously. In Bruges, at the coast, and in the rest of our province: which course should we follow? What about the social, ecological and sustainable aspects of tourism? The Learning Network fit in perfectly with this. So you can see why I was very interested to participate in this process.”
Was it a seamless process from the outset?
Stephen: “Initially, things felt a little uneasy. You find yourself in the same room with a large group of people that you’ve never met before. But this feeling soon evaporated under the skilful supervision of our coaches, Arno and Luc. They soon established a sense of trust among the participants. You felt a connection with all those other people who work in the same industry and ask themselves the same questions. I attended the two-day kick-off event in Ghent. You start out as strangers and 48 hours later you have become a tight-knit group.”
What did you learn from this process?
Stephen: “A lot (laughs). One thing I took away from this is the importance of the people who live in our tourist regions. To be honest, this is something we don’t focus on at all. In the discussions within the Learning Network, we shared our own experiences. People often said the same things: it’s really wonderful to visit a stunning cathedral in a historic city. But the very personal encounters you have with the locals, the discussions with them are just as unforgettable. People find these experiences personally enriching. And that is an important insight that we want to capitalise on.”
Will these insights prompt a complete overhaul of Westtoer’s approach?
Stephen: “I haven’t had the time to discuss this process at length with my colleagues at Westtoer so I am speaking entirely on my own account. To reply to your question: not in the short term, but possibly in the long term. Ultimately this is an outline, a framework. You don’t go home with a blueprint for a specific and phased action plan after the Learning Network. That isn’t the intention either. I do think, however, that this is a direction that we can pursue and that we actually were already doing this.”
Stephen: “In the past ten years, we worked on a major project as part of the commemoration of the Great War. We closely involved local businesses in this. In view of the theme, we wanted to take a very respectful approach. By including business owners in our thought process, they applied the same, consistent approach. It was our way of avoiding an approach that might be seen as too commercial or not sufficiently respectful. In a sense, this ties in perfectly with Travelling to Tomorrow. We need to continue down this path.”
Which next step should the industry take?
Stephen: “VISITFLANDERS has set the cat among the pigeons. Now the people and organisations in the industry need to set to work with these ideas. To do the same and develop some specific plans. I definitely recommend it.”