The Brakel VVV,  a non-profit organization for tourist traffic, has been around for more than 35 years. An ideal moment to look back at its rich history and keep its achievements alive.

The early days

It was the Chiro of Opbrakel, the local branch of the Christian youth movement, which in fact initiated tourism in the region. In the course of 1973 they launched a campaign against illegal dumping, placed nest boxes and laid two walking trails, i.e. the Zwalmbronnen footpath and the Tweebossen footpath, both in Opbrakel. In May 1974 those two trails were officially inaugurated and signposted. Soon after and with the support of the Brakel town council a brochure and a folder about the trails were published. The local Chiro was also contacted by late Marcel De Boe from Ophasselt, who had already published folders about the Zwalm region. A pioneer in regional tourism, so to speak.

In March 1976 the association Sport & Groen (established in 1971) was converted into a non-profit organization whose aims were to increase the awareness and valorization of the scenic, cultural, ecological, socio-cultural and historical values of Brakel through various media and festivities.
An agreement was made with the village of Brakel to provide the necessary infrastructure to open up Brakelbos to visitors. Brakelbos was also promoted through the Pullem festival,  during which a wood nymph was elected. Press conferences were organized and a brochure about the wood was published.  The amount of financial support the town council allocated to Sport & Groen was at that time about 250,000 Belgian francs (roughly €6,000).

On 22 January 1976 and at the insistence of Sport& Groen, alderman Michel Minnaert organized a meeting to discuss the formation of a local organization for tourist traffic. At this meeting it was decided to form a study group to draw up the bylaws of this new VVV. The study group included Paul Baguet (†) and current chairman Eric Van Cauwenberge.

The first step

On 18 March 1976 the VVV, a non-profit organization, was officially established at the town hall. At this meeting it was decided to affiliate with the regional VVV of the Flemish Ardennes. The agreement was reported to the East Flanders Tourist Federation in writing. At the same meeting the first Board of Directors was elected, whose members were:  Sylvain De Lange (chairman), Jacqui Piteraerents (vice-chairman), Pros Broeckaert (vice-chairman), Marcel Van Snick (secretary), Norbert Uytterhaegen (treasurer). Remarkably, no official representative of the municipal executive held a seat on the board, although they supported the VVV financially. Michel Minnaert, alderman for tourism, was member of the General Meeting only. Soon after a first logo was designed, which was used until 2009.
The objective of the organization was to support and promote the local tourist business and to guarantee every tourist a hearty welcome.

In 1978 Norbert Uytterhaegen resigned as treasurer and was succeeded by Eric Van Cauwenberge, representing Sport & Groen. The bylaws were adapted and a core committee was formed in order to operate more efficiently. The activities of the VVV were then limited to editing various brochures about Brakel. The texts were usually provided by chairman Sylvain De Lange.
The VVV took over the two existing footpaths from the Chiro in Opbrakel. The Tourist Federation signposted the Zwalmbronnen footpath and published a brochure. Diggie, the children’s farm, signposted a walking trail in Nederbrakel and a cycle route from village to village, now the Teirlinck route.
The Federation also mapped out two driving routes, the Flemish Ardennes route and the Zwalm route. Both routes were signposted and brochures were published with useful information. An information desk was placed near the entrance of the town hall and the book about the history of Opbrakel, Nederbrakel and surroundings, written by Theo Brakels, was republished.

In the early 80s a project was launched by the regional tourist organization to design a walking network in Brakel, with one footpath in each of the 8 villages of the Brakel municipality, fully mapped and described. At tourism fairs in Holland, Brussels, Antwerp and Liège brochures were distributed in order to attract visitors to the region. And for the first time a multicolour brochure about the Brakel wood was published.
In May 1984 the VVV fraternized with the Austrian village of Rinn in Tirol. Unfortunately the fraternization faded out after the death of its animating force, alderman Frans Vandermenschbrugge.

The second step

In 1990 the objectives of the organization were revised. Providing tourist advice became an important aspect. The Brakel alderman for tourism was automatically appointed second vice-chairman. José De Prez, who had become tourism administrator, also joined the board of directors as secretary. Annette Van Wambeke (…) became vice-chairman.
Inspired by the new board and spurred by alderman Morreels, the town council decided to signpost one footpath in each formerly independent municipality every year. The VVV agreed to publish the brochures and to cooperate more closely with the local walking club ‘Dwars door Brakel’, which organized popular walking events in and around Brakel throughout the year.
The first village on the list was Opbrakel. The existing Tweebossen footpath was signposted and Robert Gabriels from Zegelsem designed the start point board, which appeared in the centre of Opbrakel. He also designed the cartoon on the cover of many VVV brochures.

Then came, successively, the Geutelingen footpath in Elst, the Walmkenbrand footpath in Parike, the Toep footpath in Nederbrakel, the Zwalm footpath In Michelbeke, the Everbeek footpath in Everbeek and the Sighelsem footpath in Zegelsem.
Early 91 the popular TV programme ‘Vlaanderen Vakantieland’  dedicated an item to the geutelingen (pancakes) of Elst, The item generated numerous requests for brochures, large ‘Geutelingendorp’ boards were placed at the entrance of the village and folders were published in four languages.

The third step: a new vision on tourism

In the course of 96 the VVV changed drastically. For the first time representatives of the hotel and catering sector joined and local retailers joined the organization. Tourism must be considered as an economic activity that should be managed professionally. Tourism is an ideal balance between communication and commerce. It is the responsibility of the VVV to communicate special arrangements to the target group. And it is up to the hotel and catering sector to welcome the tourists visiting Brakel optimally and professionally.
A new board was installed and bylaws were revised thoroughly. Eric Van Cauwenberge, former treasurer, became the new chairman. Municipal tourism administrator Gary De Nooze became the new treasurer and the president of the local self-employed association joined the board. Sylvain De Lange became honorary chairman.

The new vision put into practice
(1996-2003)

New objectives were set. An ambitious budget was drawn up, including the possibility to advertize in tourism publications, to produce a video and to support happenings that attract media coverage.
The new board took off immediately and for the first time advertisements appeared in ‘Vlaanderen Vakantieland’. The response was quite satisfactory and it was decided to publish the same message every year. It was also agreed to advertize annually in several tourism publications in cooperation with the Brakel hotels. As there was no permanent tourist information office at that time and the town hall was not open at weekends, it was decided to supply hotels, restaurants and cafés in all villages of the Brakel municipality with VVV tourism publications.
In 1997 the VVV organized a seminar about the opportunities in farm tourism with a selected panel of specialists. With the financial support of the province the new VVV office was installed in the newly built wing of the town hall, which made it possible to serve and inform tourists more properly.
The attractive video about Brakel, a 30-minute movie highlighting the assets of the town, was produced by Claude D’heedene and offered for sale at the information office.
In 1998 the VVV sponsored the festivities celebrating 900 years of Brakel, which drew a lot of media attention. The enchanting evocation of the history of Brakel will stick in the minds of many, not to mention the publication of the memorial book ‘Opbrakel-900’, an comprehensive and valuable contribution to the history of Brakel of more than 350 pages and the first historical publication since Theo Brakels’ ‘Geschiedenis van Brakel’.

A yearly updated accommodation guide was published, in which hotels, restaurants and cafés presented themselves , as well as a brochure about the Everbeek footpath.  The construction, signposting and inauguration of the Sighelsem footpath completed the walking network. A brand new map (scale 1/250000), designed by the Belgian National Institute of Geography, integrated the cycle routes, the mountainbike trails and the walking network, technically a daring exploit indeed. The number of sponsored happenings increased and the Teirlinck cycle route was redesigned and since then also passes the watch tower in Elst.

VVV Brakel was also involved in the formation of VVV Vlaamse Ardennen, now the Flemish Ardennes Tourist Federation, a non-profit organization that should allocate the necessary financial means and manpower for the promotion of the Flemish Ardennes in the future. The Zwalmbronnen footpath was renovated, new signposts were installed and a new brochure was published. The Flemish Ardennes driving route was redesigned, featuring Brakel more prominently.

In order to highlight its tourism assests Brakel sends a trained representative to fairs in Utrecht, Brussels and Antwerp. Several members of the board attended a seminar about , which resulted in a white book, whose conclusions were promptly implemented. A brand new, multifunctional stand was bought to represent the VVV at local and regional happenings. Two board members followed a tourism marketing course organized by the province of Antwerp.

In 2000 the results of the elections led to a number of changes on the board. Alderman for tourism Daniel De Vuyst replaced outgoing alderman Noël Morreels as representative of the municipal executive, who kept his seat. Thanks to former alderman De Vuyst and newly-appointed alderman Thomas, the municipal executive continues its support by approving the yearly budget and providing funds to the organization. Roger Dhomme represents the VVV in the MINA council, an advisory committee on environment related issues. The permanent tourist information office is now equipped with the latest brochures and publications about the Flemish Ardennes in order to fully meet the needs of the tourists. Outside opening hours information is still available at hotels, restaurants and cafés or via the touch screen application in the facade of the office. If the office could also be open at weekends during the tourist season, then the VVV Brakel would be on the right track to promote its tourist assets for the next 25 years.

In 2003 new brochures were published: an attractive folder in four languages inviting the tourists to the region, the Brakelbos brochure and an updated accommodation guide. Brakel launched its own tourism website in 4 languages, its first virtual initiative. In 2004 the activities were limited to updating the website and monitoring advertizing campaigns in tourism magazines and TV programmes.

In 2005 Brakel was chosen ‘Village of the Tour of Flanders’. Unfortunately, Brakel largely missed out on this unique opportunity to highlight its tourism assets. The only promotional action worth mentioning was the publication (in cooperation with the VTV-VAB automobile association) of a folder with a walking route and a bike route related to the race.

In 2006 VVV Brakel celebrated its 30th anniversary. The year opened with a stylish reception during which the history of the organization was briefly presented and many memories were shared. Early spring the entire board gathered for an evening celebration. Festivities reached their apotheosis in November, with a successful seminar about tourism and economy. Four authoritative speakers gave presentations about arrivals and number of nights spent in Brakel and the Flemish Ardennes, about motivations of visitors to the region, about the elements of the tourist product and provided concrete figures on spending per tourist. A stylish reception concluded the seminar and each of the more than one hundred participants returned home with a basket full of local products. An initiative definitely worth repeating. In September of the same year the revised bylaws, now fully complying with legislation, were published in the Belgian Bulletin of Acts, Orders and Decrees.

2007 turned out to be much calmer. Main point of interest was investigating how tourism publications could be make more professional. For the first time VVV Brakel applied to graphic design agencies to create new layouts and provide copywriting support for the existing brochures. Pinguin Productions proved to be the best partner. In 2007 Johan Thomas, alderman for tourism, became the new vice-chairman.

In 2008 and after innumerable meetings the text, layout and photographs of the new tourism brochure were approved, including the new base line: “The best of the Flemish Ardennes”. At the same time a new logo was designed and presented. It was vice-chairman Marc Carlier’s suggestion to combine the egg and the Brakel hen, a Belgian chicken breed. Graphic design agency ‘Le Point Sur Le I’ added the final touch and made it graphically ready for publication. A professional copywriter revised the existing texts. The new folder was published for the first time in the course of 2009.
A beautiful eye-catching linen carrier bag was designed and ordered to be offered to the tourists. The signposts of all footpaths were relabelled, using special stickers that make repairing and replacing more easily. Each footpath received its own colour. Graphic design agency ‘Le Point Sur Le I’ gave the brochure, which had been used for (too) many years, a complete facelift. In 2010 it was published for the first time. At the same time plans were made to update and restyle the website (in four languages), which had been online since 2003. The assets of Brakel are more prominently highlighted and more attention is paid to events and happenings.
The long-expected bicycle network was specifically signposted in Brakel and the usability was improved by reducing the number of posts at the junctions. The VVV sponsored the promotional clip announcing the second edition of the Triverius procession, broadcast on AVS. The clip can now be viewed on the new website.

In 2010 the brand new touch screen near the tourist information office was officially introduced. It is a sort of virtual office where tourists can find useful information outside opening hours. In March alderman Johan Thomas took the initiative to gather with local hotel, restaurant and café owners, who were promptly promoted ‘tourism ambassadors of Brakel’. The walking network starting from Kluisbergen now features Brakel as well and signposts were placed.  An old tradition is revived and the VVV decides to organize events themselves again. Spurred by Johan Thomas ‘a Spanish evening’ is organized as part of The Week of Taste, a foodcultural event. At the marketplace people could taste paella and cava (for free) and enjoy a flamenco show. It turned out to be a huge success.

2011 is another year of celebration: the 35th anniversary of VVV Brakel. True to tradition another conference will be organized about tourism and events on Friday 18 March in Zegelsem. A festive reception at the end of January heralds the jubilee year.

Achievements by the VVV

  • publications of tens of folders and brochures about the tourism assets of Brakel since its formation 35 years ago
  • participation in the republishing of the book by Theo Brakels
  • mapping out and signposting routes, combined with the publication of bilingual brochures about the Brakel footpaths (Tweebossen path, Toep path, Geutelingen path, Everbeek path, Walkenbrand path, Sighelsem path, Zwalm path).
  • television coverage of Brakel in the programme ‘Vlaanderen Vakantielang’ (3 times already)
  • successful fraternization with the city of Rinn (Austria).
  • organisation of two humanitarian actions for Croatia.
  • organisation of folk dance festivals in Brakel (2 times).
  • publication of folders about the Brakelbos.
  • publication of the ‘Horecagids’ (an accommodation guide)
  • advertising the assets of Brakel in several tourist magazines.
  • producing a tourist film about Brakel.
  • press coverage of Brakel on the occasion of the Tour of Flanders bicycle race.
  • cooperation with Toerisme Oost-Vlaanderen and co-founder of the VVV. Vlaamse Ardennen.
  • a permanent tourist information office and a tourist covenant with Toerisme Oost-Vlaanderen.
  • attending tourism fairs in Belgium and abroad.
  • organising and attending seminars about the tourist development of Brakel.
  • sponsoring of interesting tourist manifestations: Dwars door Brakel (walking tour), Everbeek walking tours, Kasseifeesten (cobble festival) in Zegelsem, Opbrakel-900, inauguration of new city centres of Michelbeke en Everbeek, Free festivities, Geutelingen festivities in Elst, Walmkenbrand (bonfire) in Parike etc.
  • participation with own information stand in local events.
  • stimulating and promoting regional gastronomy.
  • advising the city council on tourist matters.
  • advice on the Zwalmbronnen path, the Teirlinck bicycle route, the Vlaamse Ardennen driving route.
  • publication of a tourist map of the Brakel footpaths, cycle paths, mountain bike trails etc. in cooperation with the NGI (Brussels)
  • press coverage of Brakel on the occasion of the Tour of Flanders bicycle race
  • publication in UIT-magazine, the most widely distributed tourist magazine in Flanders
  • creation of the tourism website toerisme-brakel.be in four languages
  • publication of a four-colour folder to attract visitors (in four languages)
  • publication of a new bilingual brochure about the Brakelbos
  • publication of a brand new free accommodation guide
  • creation of a brand new carrier bag
  • creation of a new folder to attract visitors
  • publication of new tourism brochure

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