Furniture News returned to Belgium last month to rediscover the Brussels Furniture Fair, an intimate international affair that offers UK buyers a strong portfolio of progressive product …

At just two hours’ rail travel from London, Belgium’s furniture show represents a convenient and pleasant opportunity for UK visitors to see some of the newest European product ahead of the January shows. Spacious and well presented, Meubelbeurs features many of the key brands from the region and further afield, making it a popular end-of-year destination for retailers searching out the newest mid-market contemporary ranges.

Neither Brexit uncertainty nor the spate of suicide bombings that took place in Brussels in March succeeded in holding back UK visitors – although numbers declined by 4.58%, the majority of the regular buyers attended. That said, exhibitors did note a general hesitancy to buy, their customers perhaps waiting to see how the exchange rate evolves.

In all, visitor numbers were down by 5.37% to 18,259, largely due to a reduction in Belgian visitors. According to show director Lieven Van den Heede, the drop can be attributed to the nation’s “less than rosy” recent trade figures, and the increasing concentration of the market in fewer hands.

International visitors accounted for some 61% of the overall attendance, and the presence of key buying groups from Belgium’s neighbouring countries – including first-time visits from a number of significant German and Austrian players – helped lift the show’s overall performance.

“We can conclude that visitor numbers reflect the current market situation,” says Lieven. “Visitor numbers are no longer the be-all and end-all – 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.”

In total there were 268 exhibitors, spread over seven halls – a slight drop in exhibitors, but a general increase in stand size. The stands themselves are typically worthy of the premier European events, making the format a valuable precursor to the year ahead, at relatively limited costs.

The show is roughly divided into groups of Belgian, German, Italian and Dutch exhibitors (roughly two thirds of the exhibitors are non-Belgians), plus areas devoted to bedding, accessories, style fusions and high-end contemporary designs. Themed trend passages featuring exhibitor innovations link the halls, while bars offer free refreshments.

On this occasion, although the halls are rarely crowded, there is a sense of business taking place – and one of the chief reasons for this, argues Lieven, is the sheer amount of new product on show.

“One key conclusion is that purchasing was particularly strong for those exhibitors who made a big effort in terms of new products, and who offered genuine innovations,” he says. “This has always been the case, but this year it was perhaps even more striking.

“There was a noticeable trend towards more compact models as a response to the reduction in the size of living space. In addition, more luxurious materials were also in evidence at a number of stands, some as part of an ingenious mix of materials.”

The show’s award programme, the Balthazars, seeks to identify the models leading the way in this regard. This year’s jury – chiefly comprised of lifestyle and design journalists – encountered strong designs, material choices and presentation across the event, settling on the following winners:

In the Best of Belgium category, the Layers furniture collection by Belgian designer Sylvain Willenz for Joli; in the Most Trendy category, Danish firm Lifetime Kidsrooms, for its multifunctional Play&Store concept; Karel Mintjens’ Brooklyn collection won the Country Today category; and the Innovation award went to Veldeman Bedding for the concept and production of its Finesse bed.

Innovations aside, import costs are already proving a decisive factor for suppliers to the UK suppliers and their customers. According to Fedustria, Belgium’s textile, woodworking and furniture industry federation, exports to the UK – the industry’s fourth foreign market – are already under pressure due to the decline of the Pound, so the majority of members are hoping for as ‘soft’ a Brexit as possible.

For now, the outlook remains unclear – perhaps next year’s edition, set to return to Brussels Expo from 5-8th November, will paint a different picture.