by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Ovation Global DMC
As a teenager in the 1970s I was part of an Irish delegation that attended an international arts and performance festival in Rome. Attracting young people from all over the world this event fostered peace and universal brotherhood and was attended by over 10,000 people. For a sheltered 16 year old living in splendid isolation on an island (Ireland), off a bigger island (Great Britain) to the North West of the European continent, this experience was eye opening, mind blowing and deeply enriching. I encountered for the first time the challenging and colourful reality of true cultural diversity. Over the 3 days of the event, I met young people from all over Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Of all the attendees that I met the ones I was most consistently intrigued with were the Belgians.
I thought about this on Wednesday last as the red eye from Dublin, laden with conservatively attired career civil servants, landed in a wintry Brussels covered in a mantle of virgin snow. What intrigued me about Belgians all those years ago was my inability to easily classify their cultural or national attributes. They were Northern Europeans but they didn’t sit easily with Germans (not organised enough), Dutch (not zany enough), English (not reserved enough) or Scandinavians (not confident enough). Many of them were Francophone but they lacked the sensuality, stylishness and fiery passion of Southern Europe and, unlike Spanish and Italians, genuinely appeared not to give a monkeys about their appearance. If they seemed like serial under-achievers they still oozed cool. There were quietly but distinctly secure, possessed of a non-chalance or disinvoltura. It was expressed in the frumpy clothes they wore, the off-beat colours they favoured, the ease of their communication in several languages, their tendency to understate and to play things down, their decidedly un-hip shoes.
Mussels from Brussles
This time it was the turn of our very own Belgian, Hugo Slimbrouck, to host the Ovation quarterly meeting. Ticking all the national attributes outlined above (except for the shoes – Hugo’s father was a skilled shoemaker) we knew a meeting hosted by Hugo would not be another boring business encounter. Our culturally diverse management team of 4 workplace demographics and 5 nationalities was meeting in MCI’s most culturally diverse office – 23 nationalities with 14 distinct linguistic groups – to negotiate and navigate our way through the troubled waters of recession and austerity to the promised land of economic stability and financial strength. And, as a city that daily draws diverse opinions together and finds a way to build Hegelian synthesis from opposing viewpoints Brussels, the under-stated, under-achiever amongst the great cities of Europe, was the perfect place for such a meeting.
Le Meridien Re-Visited
Through the charming Christine Cornelis, Director of Group Sales for Starwood in Brussels, Hugo arranged accommodation for us at Le Meridien, a 224 room property located adjacent to the Central Station within eye sight of both the Grand Place and Brussels’ convention centre, the Square. I was especially happy to re-visit a brand with which I had a mixed encounter recently in Paris. Christine and Egbert Buursink, General Manager at Le Meridien, presented the property to us with great conviction and belief, modelling convincingly the core values of the brand. Dressed smart casual in a well cut suit and no tie, Egbert satisfied our collective curiosity by sharing the happy challenge of leading a living, breathing organism through a very significant change and how you balance the demands of new brand architecture and the supply of local products and experiences to match it. The newly renovated rooms in which we were accommodated were pleasingly spacious in contemporary neutral tones. The vibrant contemporary art throughout the hotel by Rwandan, Munana Gatera along with the copies of Wallpaper magazine administered effectively to our cultural curiosity and compensated a little for the fact that we lacked the time to visit the Bozar Centre for Fine Art with which Le Meridien has a partnership through its rather cool and very innovative Unlock Art initiative.
Le Wine Bar
For dinner Hugo consulted with his Ovation Belgium colleagues who recommended a short walk to the Sablon district of the city to Le Wine Bar, which perfectly matched our request for “something elegant and casual with great food”. Everyone knows that it’s hard to eat a bad meal in Bologna but Brussels blushes at any hint of self-aggrandizement and so remains, even today, the most under-rated city for serious dining. Le Wine Bar principally occupies the basement spaces of an old period building and serves locally sourced produce with simple aplomb. Rustic tables and chairs, shabby and distressed, are set with perfectly pressed crisp, white linen and proper, sparkling glassware. There’s a short menu featuring quirky interpretations of classic dishes including a hearty Saucisse de Morteau aux lentilles vertes du Puy. In a warren of basement spaces there’s even a space reserved as the Cheese Room where locally produced fare is maintained at perfect ambient temperature.
During our cocktails and chat Christine mentioned the other Starwood properties around the city and made herself available early morning to walk me around Aloft, Starwood’s brand aimed clearly at the Google generation. Tagged “a vision of W”, Aloft caters for Gen Y creatives who will grow up to be patrons of W once their job titles and per diem amounts allow it. There are well over 60 Aloft properties in the US but only three thus far in Europe and Aloft Brussels is the first. It’s a great concept with a strong and powerful brand. Guest rooms are simple but chic and the copies of Wallpaper reassure aspiring copy writers and ad executives that they’re in the right place. The lobby is a great hang-out / pick-up joint with mood lighting and, at weekends, live DJs and access to the uber-trendy XYZ bar.
Padraic Gilligan is Vice President of Ovation Global DMC