Cabinet Maker reviews the 2016 Brussels Furniture Fair.

It’s impossible to avoid the fact that we’re hurtling towards Christmas, as evidenced by the clamor for most impressive television advertising campaign, tubs of family sized chocolates at supermarket entrances and early predictions as to who will grab the Christmas Number 1 slot.

In the Cabinet Maker office, the festive season brings with it another tradition (and no, we’re not talking about the chocolates on the tree) as it heralds something of an official countdown to the January Furniture Show.  But we still have while to wait before we are able to gorge on turkey, sing auld lang syne or put on our best walking shoes to negotiate the halls of the NEC, so it is the perfect time for us to take a look how an exhibition is done elsewhere – enter the Brussels Furniture Fair.

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Show director Lieven Van den Heede

This year marked the 79th event, and the second in which show director Lieven Van den Heede, oversaw the proceedings after he last year stepped into the director role following the departure of Els Van Pelt. So, having settled in, how was his second event in the director’s chair? We spoke to the man himself to find out.

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Exhibitors strongly focused on their stands

“The reactions of exhibitors and visitors to the recent Furniture Fair were broadly enthusiastic,” he explained. “It was a great edition with stands that were even more outstanding than in previous years. Buyers from Belgium and abroad were eager to buy, although their overall number did decrease slightly.”

“Although there were slightly fewer visitors, their quality meant that the final balance can be described as positive. The fair also continues to become increasingly international, with some 61% of visitors coming from abroad and with 64.5% of stand holders being non-Belgian.”

The fair did indeed have good international representation, with purchasing groups from the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Great Britain and Norway present. This was an important factor for exhibitors, as Lieven explained: “Satisfaction with the orders agreed at the fair is certainly a result of this. A number of German and Austrian giants visited the fair for the first time, and were absolutely charmed by both the atmosphere and the commercial offering. The independent furniture trade also showed considerable eagerness to buy.”

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This year marked the 79th event

That said, footfall would seem to be slightly down with 5.37% fewer entry tickets scanned overall, something which has been largely attributed to the reduction in ‘home’ visitors (-7.86%).

“The reduction in visitors from our neighbouring countries was less marked,” said Lieven. “There were 3.21% fewer visitors from the Netherlands, but having seen a 4% rise last year, we still remain above the 2014 figure. In absolute terms, there were 157 fewer Dutch visitors. Discussions with our exhibitors would suggest that it was chiefly the sleep specialists who showed up in lower numbers.

“From France there was a 4.96% reduction, or 127 visitors. The large buying groups did all come, but there were fewer representatives of individual shops. And the French purchased enthusiastically. Moreover, they also came from all over France, so not just from the north of the country.”

When it came to the UK contingent, numbers declined by 4.58%, although there were key names present. “Perhaps they are taking more of a ‘wait and see’ approach because of Brexit,” pondered Lieven. “However exhibitors’ perception was that there were more British visitors to the fair, but in terms of purchasing, some were rather hesitant, waiting to see how the exchange rate would evolve over the coming months.”

Footfall from Germany, Switzerland and Austria remained largely the same at -0,66%, whilst visitors from other countries declined by 111, or 5.08%. “International visitors are becoming increasingly important to the Brussels Furniture Fair, with a figure of 61.02%,” stated Lieven. This is of great consequence to the fair. For a significant number of participants, our visitors from abroad are one of the key reasons for taking part, and it justifies their investment in a stand of which they can be proud. At the Brussels Furniture Fair, you can reach a number of key markets at the same time for a relatively limited cost. This is one of our fair’s key strengths.”

Whilst it’s fair to assume the visitor numbers reflect the current market situation, numbers are not necessarily the only motivation when attending the fair, as Lieven explained: “For exhibitors, what ultimately counts the most is whether they have done good business. From the many discussions that we had during the fair, we can conclude that the result was certainly positive.

“The majority of exhibitors were also satisfied to very satisfied, certainly also about the quality and profile of visitors. And a significant number of exhibitors have already let us know that they definitely plan to come back next year!”

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The Brussels Expo

The 268 fair exhibitors (7 fewer than in 2015) filled more than 7 halls, but while there were slightly fewer visitors, more space was occupied, indicating a trend towards larger stands. “In general,” said Lieven, “fair participants this year – both new and loyal exhibitors – strongly focused on their stands, some of which were truly exceptional. Stands were more open and models on show were afforded a little more space. The stands’ decoration was also outstanding and carefully considered.

“Finally, the decoration of the fair as a whole was inspiring, with atmospheric trend passages, concepts that added value, and bars in which you could catch your breath in a trendy and convivial environment. The overall impression of the fair was even more attractive and more prestigious. The experience for the visitor was that of a truly international trade fair.”

One area of particular strength was purchasing, especially exhibitors who brought new and innovative products to the table. Arguably these exhibitors benefited most from the fair, but this produced something of a mixed result. “This has always been the case,” admitted Lieven, “but this year it was perhaps even more striking.”

Interestingly, amongst the product developments and innovations, there appeared to be a noticeable trend towards more compact furniture, which is reflective of the increasingly smaller living spaces available. Conversely, a number of exhibitors were showcasing products using more luxurious materials, some as part of the mix of materials used.

Lieven is philosophical about this year, as he concludes: “The 2016 Furniture Fair was a great trade fair, an edition in which, together with our exhibitors, we have once again taken a step forward. The visitor numbers may have turned out to be somewhat lower, but we can still look back on the fair with satisfaction. Purchasing was strong, both from Belgians and from foreign buyers. The fair is predominately designed to generate orders, but it is also, in part, a place in which to find inspiration. The appeal of the Furniture Fair is undimmed. See you next year in November!”