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May 3, 2016
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Sub-Saharan Africa: African Association Growth and Development


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Africa as a whole has only in the last two decades joined the international meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions arena. In the last five years, it has seen major strides as more and more congresses, association meetings, and mega sporting events take place on the continent. Africa has approximately 700 to 1000 international associations operating on the continent, although this does not account for national and regional associations and societies. 

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Photo by Freeimages.com/Teak Sato

South Africa has been leveraging its position as a business-events leader on the continent as a way to foster further relations and collaboration, and promote the region as a whole. Examples of these are not only prevalent in the hospitality and tourism sectors, but on an organisational level as well. The Southern African Association for the Conference Industry (SAACI) has a number of members across the SADC region, and the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) rebranded their local chapter to SITE Southern Africa fairly recently. But perhaps the most pertinent instance is the launch of the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE). As the name suggests, it is a body that creates opportunities for executives to network and learn. 

Part One: Professionalising an Organisation

Once an association establishes itself as a true representative of an industry, they should already automatically be seen as professionalised because of the role they are undertaking, although getting to that point can be a mission. Not only is dedication and passion needed, but patience above all, says Adriaan Liebetrau, CEO of SAACI, the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry. “In a corporate environment, each company has its own way of conducting business, they have their own culture. For associations they need to navigate their way through a massive river of different corporate cultures – a real melting pot,” he says. “It may sound simple but the association office needs to professionalise itself first, its corporate identity emailers and website…It then goes back to its members and the only way to achieve this is with education, hosting of programmes, workshops, sharing industry best practices, white papers and trends.”

Who should support the association?

Home countries are integral in creating an association-orientated environment for the MICE industry, particularly since many of these companies and organisations are responsible not only for marketing a particular sector, but for providing guidance in best practices, assistance in a range of areas, and most importantly, bringing in legitimate business and introducing key buyers to industry stakeholders. 

Craig Newman of UFI says countries can help by making it easier for international businesses and visitors to operate in the country, citing the procurement of visas as a prime example. “We need to collaborate and work together with government in order to allow international exhibitors and visitors to enter the country without difficulty. This will help to speed up certain processes and ensure that we continue along the path of growth and development. Application for people to come to participate in these events is critical for the industry,” he explains, adding that the public sector business tourism bodies should also support and endorse associations, even if it’s not financially. 

Although all associations have a number of roles to play within a country, international association bodies often receive more recognition than localised ones according to Liebetrau. “Often the role of an association is over looked by its local country or in some cases not heard of in the next. Country needs to support associations in various ways, respect that it is a huge driver of the knowledge economy,” he says. “Associations are not just about the potential investments and future business its members can bring in, but it assists with legacy projects and sustainability practices. For me, the number on area counties can support associations is not really in a financial way, but more in acknowledging and respecting the role it has to play in society.” 

But this kind of symbiotic relationship goes both ways, says Corne Koch, who heads up the Convention Bureau for Cape Town and the Western Cape. The bureau is a division of WESGRO, the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape.  “In my opinion, countries can help associations by being aware of their existence (this can only happen of course when associations make themselves visible in the market place). Should an association deliver a reputable product to their members, countries can form joint relations with associations to provided added benefits to members in the form of providing government resources or other linkage opportunities.”

Jeffers Miruka, President of the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE), adds that countries can show support by ensuring that NFP organisations have legal and financial protection to form and operate. They can also help promote the culture of giving and volunteering. “Countries should support the capacity growth and professionalism of association management and not for profit governance,” he says. “Finally, countries should encourage their citizens to get involved in their professional society or areas of interest at all levels and to seek leadership positions.”

Meeting Global Standards

Although South Africa already plays a large role in furthering the continent’s meetings reputation abroad, we should still continue expanding out footprint. We need to be more involved with our neighbours – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – and help them understand the potential within the MICE industry and business tourism market. “We must endeavour to spread the word about our industry capabilities, its successes, potential, and what it can do to help promote other industry sectors,” Newman explains, “As South Africans, we are relatively advanced in comparison to the rest of Africa, with regards to the value of exhibitions and conferences and what they bring to the economy. There are structures that are already in place from national through to regional and the municipalities. The next step is to approach our neighbours with these structures and invite them to be a part of it.”

Many associations – particularly those who have embraced rotational meetings around Africa have already reached this point, with global standards to match, says Miruka. “For others, it is about learning that association management is an area of professional knowledge, education, training, networking, credentialing and leading – both on the volunteer side as well as on the management side. Then gaining that knowledge and those contacts to grow. And this is the gap AfSAE intends to fill. Professionalising the management of associations and providing education and knowledge required is key to taking African associations to the next step of reaching the global standards.”

Part Two: The Role of a Member in an Association

Without its members, an association is useless, and as a result, membership growth strategies are important for any industry body of this nature. Relevance and engagement are also vital to an association’s health and organisations should keep this top of mind when planning on starting or growing their membership. SAACI CEO Liebetrau has some simple, practical advice for this: “Get proper membership management software that is easy and functional. Define benefits of belonging to an association as members are looking for real tangible return on investments. If you have networking events, make sure there is a structured programme. Don’t waist peoples time and don’t be unorganised. Everyone is busy and the only way to reach members frequently is via the media, so ensure you have a great marketing and communications plan – and stick to it.” Another thing to keep in mind is that each association works differently, and as such, it’s important to tailor growth strategies rather than copycat what works for someone else. 

How to build an engaged community

Keeping an established association relevant is hard work, but as times change, so should an association says Liebetrau. In this day and age, as data analysis plays a much larger role in gauging our success, measuring member engagement is critical. A new survey by Advanced Solutions International shows increasing member engagement is a key goal for executives. The 2016 Global Benchmark Reports on Membership Performance and Fundraising Performance shows that engagement is one of the respondents’ top goals, and this, in turn is causing more associations to adopt engagement-measurement techniques, responsive web design and mobile self-service. 

Although only 31% of respondents currently have a strategy in place, the process starts with identifying how the organisation connects with its members and the degree of importance of each of those ways. These include face-to-face conferences, website resources, social media accounts, and volunteering among others. Once an association can measure each individual member’s involvement and compare them, it can them group members and use specialised engagement tactics and set a base from where to improve. 

For online communities, things are a bit more tricky, but according to Ernie Smith of Associations Now, focusing on the foundation is the most important take-away point. Building stronger online communities is best done slowly and carefully, with involvement from everyone you’re building it for. “Community managers, the paid moderators who lead your community interactions, are your face to the community as a whole,” he says, “and the best ones know how to tell stories twelve ways from Tuesday.” Although topics matter, style and delivery are equally important in our social media age and good storytelling and creative content ideas are imperative for engagement. He adds that all employees should at least know something about community upkeep. If everyone in the organisation is on board, this helps spread the wealth of customer interactions and workload. 

Skills Development and Training

A number of associations in Africa have seen the deficit in certain areas of the industry and as such have not only begun holding training days as part of their event schedule, but some – like SAACI and EXSA for instance – have gone as far as to create a new department within the organisation called an ‘academy’ where members can be upskilled through online resources, courses and by other means. This is integral in both raising and maintain the quality and standard of any industry, and if a sector is stagnating, perhaps the local association attached to it should research the options and find out how it can assist in bettering their chosen field. 

Part Three: Association Congresses, Meetings and Events

A substantial part of any association is its vibrant meetings and events calendar. Not only should this be planned well in advance, but for associations who have annual congresses, a lot more comes into play. Firstly, knowing what you need and want – as well as your budget – is imperative. From there, you move onto appointing a Professional Conference Organiser (PCO) or a Destination Management Company (DMC), or both, and finally, a location and venue you’re happy with. 

Special events such as networking mixers, skills development courses, or AGMs can be dealt with by the association itself and as the need for these sorts of functions arise. In fact, many AGMs take place during an annual congress, particularly when its membership are spread across a wide region. 

Appointing the Right PCO

According to the International Association of Professional Conference Organisers (IAPCO), appointing a PCO for your next conference is great – but a Core PCO is better. A core PCO offers the same services as a PCO, but instead of a once-off event, it provides for either multiple events or on multiple-year tenures. Benefits include a longstanding relationship with a company that understands your needs completely – which eases the planning process. It also creates continuity in terms of delivery and for an association doing annual conferences and regular, this is ideal. 

“In order to identify the most appropriate Core PCO for your needs, it is helpful to seek information from a number of companies. The process involves a number of steps including their geographical location, global or regional coverage, service offerings, ability to offer extended services, previous expertise, cost and added value. A tender document should also be produced and distributed, as well as some preliminary research into accredited PCOs.

South Africa has a number of reputable conference and exhibition management companies which offer stellar services. If you’re at a loss as to who you would like to appoint as PCO, consider their track record, and ask around in local industry circles. 

Using a DMC 

In a South African context, says Adriaan Fourie of SITE Southern Africa, association bodies should make contact with the National Convention bureau or the provincial equivalent, who will then set up an invited tender process. 

Jeffers Mikura of AfSAE agrees with this, saying a clear, fair RFP or selection process is needed, and “a specific, detailed contract on the terms and expectations. Finally, managing them as with any partner – fairly and rigorously to get what you need accomplished,” he concludes. 

Picking the Perfect Venue

Before you can pick the best venue, knowing your audience – who will be attending, what do they want and need for this event to be successful, what their price points are, and what kind of location works for them – is of utmost importance, says Jeffers. “Then it is translating this information to the potential destinations and venues so that they can tailor a proposal to meet your needs. Again, having a fair selection process is critical for mutual trust. You want a destination that will work with you to help accomplish the objectives of the event. A real partner is invaluable to the event’s success.”

Corne Koch of WESGRO says local support is also important in ensuring an event’s success. She encourages associations to ask these questions: “Is there a convention bureau that can support your bid or research to consider the destination? Does the destination have the capacity and infrastructure to support the business event requirements? Will it add value to the association to host the event in a [given] destination?  Would it increase membership or perhaps visibility of the association?”

Craig Newman of UFI reiterates a location’s significance when planning an association event. He suggests using a quick checklist to reveal a destination’s shortcomings. “Is it close to an airport? Does it have the space and facilities required to make your event a success? Is there ample parking available and is there suitable lodging nearby for visitors needing to spend the night? Last but not least, the venue must fit your budget as well as the style and character of your event. The event must also be well-supported and well-attended by its members of the association.”

He uses UFI’s choice of the Expo Centre in Johannesburg for their 2017 congress as an example. “Africa represents the next frontier for growth and development for UFI and a number of our partners have been working together to grow the continent’s share of regional, continental and global business events. South Africa, in particular, has the experience, the expertise, the know-how and the infrastructure – all in one place and can become the official gateway for large global companies into Southern Africa. The Expo Centre, as a one-of-a-kind African venue, has the location, the facilities and the right team of people to make every association event a success.”

Part Four: Research and the Role of Digital in an Association

As the digital world becomes more involved in our lives and as social media increasingly becomes the new norm in communication, research and analytics have been playing a much larger role in gauging an association’s interaction and success. Africa is one of the few places in the world where regular or annual research on industry sectors is not often available, and this is a key driver in determining what kind of growth is needed within an association, and indeed, how an association can better the industry in which its members operate. 

Benefits of the Digital Realm

A number of companies like PwC and Deloitte offer fascinating, in-depth research into global industries including the continent, but the dissemination of information and the aggregation thereof are greatly improved through the use of online platforms. Although it’s important to have an easily navigable website and social media platforms, ensuring their full functionality and understanding their insights will help you form a better idea of what your membership wants, what they’re interested in, and how you can further assist them. 

Wolfgang Gruener, Director of Web and eCommerce at CompTIA, the IT industry trade association, recently told the Associations Network that digital expertise is a “critical business aspect of associations today”. Not only does it enable us to better interact and communicate with existing and future members, but it also allows us to build networks and exchange ideas faster and more efficiently. 

“At the centre of a successful digital strategy is always a delicate balance of business goals and audience needs that are matched to a set of requirements,” he explains. “At the very core, digital strategy should include such areas as data analytics, content strategy and SEO, usability research and user interface (UI) design, data security, ecommerce analysis, as well as digital marketing. A key component that is often overlooked is a strong communication culture that overcomes ‘siloed’ communication.”

He encourages bodies to ask ‘what is it that makes my association relevant today and how do we communicate effectively that we are relevant?’ As many associations globally struggle with an aging membership, digital strategies are important for bringing in new members. Language, too, plays a part, with many shifting from a distant, lecturing tone to one that is much more direct and conversational. 

Lobbying Stakeholders

Every project and activity has stakeholders and associations are no different. Understanding and managing stakeholders in an organisation essentially means influencing the right people at the right levels to get the outcomes you need. Often this comes down to communication skills, relevant marketing, PR and even negotiating expertise, says Martin Haworth, an international business management coach and trainer. 

He cites Dale Carnegie’s now famous book How To Win Friends And Influence People, saying that it is within the arena of relationship building that the greatest successes often come. “Whilst this is not likely to shift those stakeholders who are very fixed in their position, great rapport with those you are trying to get the best of deals with, are the foundation to success,” Haworth explains, “When you are able to ‘get on well’ with those who could appear across a negotiating table with you, it's an opportunity too good to be missed. Even if making the most of the one-to-one relationships that you have might seem minimal in the potential to change minds, in fact it's been found many times that such relationships can so often be the missing piece in the jigsaw that can sway a decision.”

One of the ways Carnegie strongly recommends listening rather than talking too much. Find out what interests them, give them your full attention, be interested in them as people, he says.

Inviting White Papers

A white paper is an authoritative report or guide informing readers concisely about a complex issue, whilst presenting the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. Although a number of African associations are aware of white papers and a number of companies and conferences often release a call for papers for upcoming events, this particular area of expertise sorely needs development. Not only does research into an industry further understanding for an association, but it also places the association in a position of empowerment. The association is automatically furthering the continent’s much-needed knowledge economy through research and dissemination. 

AfSAE’s Miruka says in order to invite white papers, one needs to know in which topics submissions are needed. “Then it is a question of reaching out to the right audience and being clear about what you are looking for, who is the audience this information is aimed at, what is the purpose of the submission and what is the process for submission and review. This all needs to be clearly articulated before you get started.”


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