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Jonathan Ectors brings the beach to the city centre

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2013-03-04 - It’s not Marseille, of course, but you can have a decent game of pétanque there. It’s not Santa Barbara, but you can play beach volleyball, beach soccer and beach golf. And it’s not Ibiza, yet the clubbers dance, dance, dance till late into the night. In July, Bruxelles les Bains is a happening place – by the Canal, on the Quai des Péniches, just a stone’s throw from Sainctelette square, in front of THE Citroën garage! To guide us through the intricacies of the programme and the history of this beach that has come to the city every summer for the last ten years, we meet Jonathan Ectors.

At Brussels Major Events (BME, the events department of the City of Brussels), this 33-year-old man is in charge of planning for the capital’s highlight summer event: Bruxelles les Bains. In practice, this enables him to get involved in the creation and development of new projects too.

Baptism of fire

Jonathan Ectors is convinced that for him, it all started back when he was studying communication at Louvain-la-Neuve (LLN). There, he was one of the promoters of Kot-é-rythmes, a theme-based shared flat whose student occupants organised the Music Festival which became the Spring Festival at LLN. It was a baptism of fire in what would remain his two central interests: communication and culture.

After a period in radio and the written press, he joined Atelier 210, where he was involved in the creation of Future Shorts (the screening of short films in cinemas), then moved to Tour des Sites, which organises large lighting and music events at key heritage spots, such as the Nuit des chœurs and Solistes au domaine. He remained there until BME called on his services three years ago.

Jonathan Ectors was not there when Bruxelles les Bains was first devised, but he was familiar with the goal, which has never been lost from view: that of bringing the beach to the city centre, offering a holiday destination to those who aren’t going away – or not just then anyway. In other respects, the content has changed continually, and is far removed from what could at one time resemble a giant terrace.

All the effort is currently focusing on two strands: in parallel with the Canal, the provision of an extensive array of culture; and perpendicular to the Canal, working with the local districts.

An array of entertainment

Did you say culture? At the beach? Certainly! Last summer, there was an opening Sons et Lumières event plus, throughout the five weeks and alongside dozens of sporting activities, 40 concerts, 25 dances, various contemporary art installations, a number of exhibitions, and a beach library... There was also the Axolotl, a 35-metre submarine on a barge on which tours characterised by a blend of science and fantasy and awareness-raising about renewable energies were organised. Or the Urban Farm Unit: both a glasshouse and an aquarium,  operating on a closed-circuit principle … Plus “Icons-Beach”, an extension of Foto Kanal/Icons, building on earlier projects and simultaneously offering a collective portrait, a temporary studio and an exhibition of monumental photographs.

‘We work with all the stakeholders of the City of Brussels,’ explains Jonathan Ectors: ‘The Youth Service to create dozens of possible activities for the younger visitors; and the Cultural Service for the musical programme.’ But he adds: ‘The budget is the budget, and it prevents us from developing a proper festival. But that’s not a problem, as there are already a number of festivals, and the mood is different here. We’re a completely public event in which the whole population comes together, a crossroads between Molenbeek and the city centre where a real social mix is created.’

Not Paris-Plage

And this is how the link is forged with the more social strand of Bruxelles les Bains. The idea is to highlight an immense cultural diversity which is more eloquent than any words. Because the local district becomes a brightly coloured place during those five weeks, but for the rest of the year remains an evolving area. ‘This is very different from Paris-Plage, where you have several kilometres of beach created in one of Paris’ most attractive tourist areas,’  notes Jonathan Ectors. ‘Our Quai des Péniches is a mere 600 metres long, and it’s not a tourist destination during the rest of the year.’  This is a situation which will soon change, in particular with the creation of the park on Quai Béco on the opposite bank.

For all that, Bruxelles les Bains (BLB) had some 200,000 visitors to celebrate the initiative’s tenth anniversary in 2012. ‘The entertainment used to stop at the end of the day. These days, we benefit from the growth of the after-work activity phenomenon. At a stroke, the transition has been created with nightlife at venues such as La Croisetteke, beach parties and evenings on the Boat Club, which is no longer just a bar on a moored barge, but goes on three-hour Canal trips.’     

An events industry

All this gives one the impression of a story that is unfolding effortlessly, improving year on year on an exponential curve. But there is no shortage of difficulties in ensuring the event’s transformation into a recurrent success: the core team consists of just ten people, reinforced with temporary staff as required, who are responsible for the smooth running of BLB, plus Plaisirs d’hiver in December and the Brussels Summer Festival in August.

Regarding summer jobs at BLB, a helpful direction was taken when the organisers decided to hire low-skilled workers rather than students. Jonathan Ectors is certain that the events industry has strong development potential. A separate organisation, Rock the City, therefore manages the hiring and training of employees, as well as the technical and logistical suppliers.

This summer: water sports initiation

The new ideas keep coming. The following is planned for this summer at BLB: the chance to take advantage of being by the water to discover (and try out) the water sports that can be practised on the Canal. Contacts are being made with relevant organisations with a view to partnerships.

The one big unknown, as ever in Belgium, is the weather. Let’s hope for some sunshine this summer!