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August 10, 2018

Sub-Saharan Africa: An Education in Events

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“I believe a broad based BComm qualification with focus on project management or small enterprise development would give you a very good start in the industry,” says JP Van Schalkwyk, a professional congress organiser (PCO) and owner of both Up a Tone Events and Loft at Nine. This is a standard view in the industry – that the broader an education and training, the better the person will be prepared for the always changing and often challenging industry. If a full BComm – Van Schalkwyk suggests one focused on tourism – won’t work for you, he suggests looking at colleges that offer shorter courses. But at the end of the day, many skills will only be learned on the job. “Much of this industry can be learned with internships at various MICE enterprises as well as reading relevant blogs and articles,” adds Van Schalkwyk.

Having a broad understanding of the industry is vital. “There are many aspects in the Event Management career and not everyone might want to specialise in all of them,” says Chris Prieto, of Chris Prieto, CMP Event Management & Consultancy. “However, the more specialised the better chances one has of succeeding in their career, taking into consideration the amount of people that have now decided to follow this path.”

Still, it is hard to boil down what an event planner needs to know in a line or two. “A good Event Manager must be knowledgeable about everything to do with the type of event that he or she wants to do,” says Prieto. That can include financial planning and financial management, as well as project planning and management. “If there is entertainment, he or she must be able to know about it; AV is important because there is rarely an event that doesn't utilise some sort of equipment; F&B is essential; site management is important; decor is important; protocol and etiquette will often be needed at certain events; being able to deal with the clients, venue staff and suppliers in a smooth and professional way is very important, and so on... So, what should one really need to know?”

There is, naturally, no course that can teach that wide an array of skills to the requisite level required by clients, so learning is bound to continue happening on the job. Still, while this laissez-fair attitude to certification and method of training has sufficed in the past in South Africa, as the industry becomes increasingly globalised, it may be time to consider additional international accreditations. “Although many Event Managers are qualified and knowledgeable, they must realise that not everyone is 100% knowledgeable about all domains included in the CMP International Standards (CMP-IS),” says Prieto, who served as the regional representative in South Africa for the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) certification.

This qualification was created by the Convention Industry Council in America (known presently as the Events Industry Council – abbreviated as the EIC) in 1985. Its purpose was to standardise expectations from both event managers and their clients; it ensures professionals across the world perform in a uniform, professional and credible way. “The CMP certification is recognised all over the world and CMPs are often chosen over other candidates when applying for jobs,” says Prieto. This is because it’s well known internationally, at least, that anyone certified as a CMP is highly experienced, knowledgeable and professional. And this translates directly to financial gain: “In recent salary surveys, it was established that CMPs earn up to 10% more than their non-certified colleagues.”

Why is this accreditation so in-demand by clients? Prieto explains: “To become a CMP you cannot just write the exam. The process is done in two parts; first the candidate must complete an application form which will check and ensure that the person is eligible (suitably qualified to take the exam) and only once the application is approved by the EIC the candidate can then book and write the exam.” This eligibility encompasses both experience and education – one cannot become a CMP fresh out of high school. It is a certification bequeathed upon experienced professionals.

“The candidate has one year from the date of acceptance to book and write the exam,” Prieto continues. “The processes have deadlines that are strictly followed by the EIC. Exams take place during a 10-day testing period throughout the year and are administered by Prometric, EIC's authorised testing agency which has testing centres all over the world.”

Studying for the exam is a process in and of itself. “Anyone wanting to become a CMP must show determination and preparing for the exam takes time and commitment,” warns Prieto. “The first step to be properly prepared for the exam is to download the CMP-IS and go through it to see in which areas the candidate is weaker and then concentrate on studying those areas. The other advantage of downloading the CMP-IS is that there you will find the weight of the different domains and the percentage each one will have on your exam. There are also online courses and webinars that can assist with the preparation for the exam. As part of your study kit you will be issued with handbooks from which most exam questions originate.” In short, while the tools are all easily available, one must not underestimate the importance of preparation – even from the most experienced of professionals.

Passing the exam does not guarantee a lifetime membership to the exclusive club. “A CMP has to be re-certified every 5 years. In order to re-certify, the CMP must have a minimum of clock hours as well as other requirements,” says Prieto. “Clock hours have replaced what were formally known as Continued Education Units (CEUs) and are basically the direct amount of hours that the candidate has spent attending sessions and must have in order to be eligible to write the exam or to re-certify.” To attain re-certification, the candidate might be required to produce evidence of a particular number of years of experience in the industry plus additional clock hours. “These clock hours can be obtained in various ways, like education, written papers, and so forth, which all have to be certified in accordance with the different domains of the CMP-IS.”

Even if you are not actively pursuing CMP certification – though, as Prieto points out, there are clear benefits to it – continuing professional development is crucial for a successful career. “I try to submerge myself in the industry as much as possible. There are many workshops, site visits and trade shows that you can attend,” says Van Schalkwyk. He has not chosen to pursue CMP certification, although he has heard about the process. “Depending on what area you work in the MICE industry there might be some value in it but I don’t see the use for it as a PCO. I think your reputation and history carries much more weight,” he says. Clearly, though, that does not mean giving up on growing and learning within the industry.

What other advice does Van Schalkwyk have for burgeoning PCOs? “I personally believe that relationships is the best way to help you in any career,” he says. “You can aid this buy doing some life courses improving your vocabulary, writing and professional curtesy. Doing some courses that aids you in speaking in front of people will help you sell your services and make your sales better in the future. What I’m trying to say is that educating yourself on how to work with people will sometimes be more beneficial then another degree or diploma.”

In many ways, Prieto also reiterates this idea. “Remember that this industry is all about reputation, so do not ever allow anything to compromise your reputation,” she says. What advice does she have for event managers who are just starting out? “My advice is that no matter how small your event might be or how little budget your client might have, always treat it like the most important one! Your small client of today might become your biggest bread winner of tomorrow! Be passionate about what you do. If you don't feel the passion, don't do it! And keep yourself up to date with the Industry. There are new things being created and happening every day and make sure that you know about them! Be ethical in your entire events value chain and treat everybody with equal respect.”

At the end of the day, a CMP certification may bolster your income and bring in new international clients – but so-called “people skills” and a commitment to one’s reputation are what will maintain them going forward.

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