With over 20 years’ experience in the furniture industry, Jan Mentens will now replace Els Van Pelt as director of Brussels Furniture Fair, after her 15 years of management. We spoke to Jan to find out more about his past in the industry and his future plans for the show.

Tell us about your career history in the furniture industry.
In 1992, I started working for the Belgian branch of a German buying group – Regent Möbel Grosseinkauf, now EMV Belgium – with 10 of the most important furniture stores. After one year of assisting the manager, I became solely responsible for the group in Belgium, which included buying, marketing and finance.

After 11 years of successful growth and co-operation with the members of the group, I made the switch to one of the world leaders in leather sofas, Italian company Natuzzi, where Pasquale Natuzzi asked me to set up Natuzzi Benelux. In 2003, we started with the implementation of the concepts for the Natuzzi Italia brand and the sales of the Italsofa collection – afterwards extended to Leather Editions and Softaly collection.

In 2008, after the successful implementation of the brand in Benelux – Belgium became the world’s best performer per capita for Natuzzi – Pasquale trusted me with the responsibility of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the Baltics for all brands and collections.  Under my leadership, the distribution model in these countries was aligned with the strategy.

In 2010, the area was extended to Russia and Eastern Europe and in 2011, the company decided to split the area in three and I became area manager for North and Central Europe – Benelux, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.

In December 2012, I decided to leave the company after 10 years of intense co-operation. In May, I started as director at the Brussels Furniture Fair to replace Els Van Pelt who will retire after 15 years of hard work for the fair.

What drew you to Brussels Furniture Fair?
The fact that this new position brings me in contact again with all the suppliers with whom I worked during my 11 years at the buying group and keeps me in contact with the retailers in the different markets in Europe where I have been responsible. Also, the challenge and responsibility of continuing the growth of Brussels Fair on a European level will keep me working on an international and multilingual level, and this is the reason why I have chosen to take up this new position.

What does your role involve?
As the new director, it will be my responsibility to define the long-term strategy of the fair – to define how to increase its importance on a European level. To create a high-quality offer for the visitors in a positive atmosphere and to generate attractive concepts and conditions for the exhibitors. Finding the right exhibitors, creating the right concepts and marketing, taking care of all details to keep the fair at its most flexible and client-oriented calls for attention.

What do you hope to achieve or change as director of the fair?
In the first phase, it is my task and aim to maintain the quality of the offer and efforts towards the visitors as the fair is doing now. Continuous growth on a European level is a must. Brussels, as a capital of Europe and a place where north meets south in terms of taste, has a unique advantage and almost an historic natural ability to mix the best of both worlds.

Brussels is easily reachable from all European countries in less than two hours. It has a wide offer of affordable hotels and good restaurants. Is a capital with an international flair and presence, and has an orientation and adaptation to all countries inside the EU.
It is this European orientation that we’ll bring into practice more and more to become the best and strongest fair that is not oriented towards the world, but focused on Europe for its offer and targeted visitors.

What do you like best about your job?
It is a people-centred job with a lot of international and personal contacts on all kind of levels. To keep in touch with a lot of people that I know in the business, and furthermore the certainty to meet new ones is important to me. Also the chance to work with a compact and very motivated team in a position where I’m really able to define the direction, identity and content in the furniture business to me is fantastic!

How successful was this year’s event?
Although we had 2.88% less visitors than last year, we are nevertheless very satisfied with this edition. We noticed a decrease in smaller shops in Belgium (-3.6%) and Holland (-2.1%) but a growth in international visit by big decision makers from Germany (+3.1%) and UK and Ireland (+12.1%). The only negative factor in our results is the reduced number of French visitors, mainly in the bedding section (-4.1%). However, their reactions were very positive about the variety of the offer in modern living, which is different from what is shown at local fairs.

Were there any surprising results from the show?
There were several unexpected positive results from the fair, such as the buying capacity of the visitors, even though the market is struggling. The Dutch buyers surprised us with their orders in modern and romantic living, and even more so in the bedding section – Brussels by Night.

In addition, the increase and positive reactions of the visitors from the UK and Ireland was much more than expected. I hope this trend will continue for the coming year, and I am confident it will, due to the variety of our offer and the close proximity of Brussels to the UK. We would love for more buyers from UK and Ireland to get to know the fair. 

Our efforts in attracting more German buyers also resulted in an increase of the visitors from the German market. In terms of growth percentage it might look moderate – +3.1% – but seeing the strong concentration of the decision power in the hands of few groups and shops, this increase is a very important result for us. 

It has become clear that the variety of the show’s offer, which mixes northern style and reliability with southern creativity and flair is unique and gives buyers the opportunity to bring new things to their shops with the advantage of keeping up their margins.

In terms of exhibitor offering, the biggest surprise for us was the positive attitude and the fact that more and more exhibitors are producing unique products to escape from the never-ending price war on products that are already distributed and well-established. This diversification is important for producers, buyers and end consumers.

What does the economic climate in Brussels currently look like, and how does this affect the industry?
The economic climate affects us all, visitors, exhibitors and fair organisations alike. However, I’m convinced that it gives Brussels Furniture Fair a competitive advantage and will continue to do so in the coming years. Our invitation policy towards all important international visitors and our position as the most affordable fair towards our exhibitors results in a very positive return on investment for both. In times of difficult economic climate this becomes, more than ever, a decisive factor for exhibitors and visitors.

What does the future hold for the Belgian furniture industry?
Compared to a lot of other countries, the Belgian furniture industry is still big. It is my task as director of the Brussels Furniture Fair to create business for them by attracting more and more visitors. Not only from the existing most important export countries of Holland and France, but also the UK and Ireland and Germany, with further potential towards Scandinavia. 

Are there any new plans in the pipeline for next year’s event yet?
Reaching at least the same level as this year’s event is my prime target – a strong offer of interesting and reliable European exhibitors to present themselves to the most important European buyers in our business in a positive and professional atmosphere.

I notice that there still are some important Belgian suppliers that are not exhibiting in Brussels. I’m in touch with some of them to understand what we can do to get them on board and how we can attract their customers to Brussels.

In addition, due to the focus on return on investment for both exhibitors and visitors, I believe we have a huge opportunity to grow the European offer and visitor numbers in Brussels. We have always practised a very affordable price policy and a customer-oriented way of supporting our exhibitors and visitors. This is something that the fair is recognised for, and it will support us in our future growth.