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May 26, 2016
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Sub-Saharan Africa: The State of Conferencing


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The development of the tourism sector has been a strong focus for the South African and African industry over the last six months or so, with MICE leaders often sharing their insights on how to grow and advance the local sector through business events, exhibitions, and conferences. Conferencing remains a steadfast way in which to invest in tourism in the long run, whilst maintaining well-rounded business offerings to attract the best of both worlds to the continent. Here are a few stats and facts about the industry, as well as where key role players see the opportunities in sector now and in the near future. 

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Photo by Freeimages.com/Doru Lupeneau

Dirk Elzinga, Convention Industry Consultants (CIC)

“More competition!”

Not much has changed in the congress and exhibition industry in Africa during the past 10 or 15 years. South Africa has for year after year been the leading destination – both as host of international conferences as well as trade fairs and exhibitions. The numbers of business events on the continent however reached a level where further growth seems to be difficult. Our three dedicated international convention centres – ICC Durban, SCC and CTICC – all report healthy occupancy figures, so perhaps the availability – or rather lack of availability – of meeting space in these centres might limit the possibilities for growth.

This year however this will change dramatically. For the first time in more than a decade several serious new African international convention centres will open their doors. And as I am a strong believer in the economic principle that ‘supply does create demand’ (at least in our industry in Africa), one can expect that from 2017 onwards the international congress statistics of ICCA and UIA will show a significant growth of the number of meetings in Africa. The question of course is: what will happen with the South African market share?

The new ICC in Calabar, Nigeria, has opened for business a few months ago; as first dedicated ICC in the country with the largest economy on the continent, they successfully hosted already several international meetings.

The new ICC in Kigali, Rwanda, will now – finally – open for business in the middle of this year, after more than 3000 Turkish contract workers have been employed to complete the fantastic centre that has been under construction for several years already.

In Algiers, Algeria also a brand new spacious congress and exhibition centre – the first for this country – that will host its first events later this year.

And last but not least also the newest South African convention centre – the Century City Congress Centre in Cape Town – has opened early this year and has been able to book already several international meetings.

One can expect that these four new convention centres will all contribute to the marketing of our continent as congress destination of choice. That is good for Africa of course, good for our industry. But in South Africa we will have to work harder to maintain, let alone grow, our present market share of approximately 120 international meetings per year. New convention centre capacity not only in Cape Town (the CCCC and the extension of the CTICC) but also in Tshwane (the new convention centre that Tshwane Municipality plans to develop) will play an important role to make sure that South Africa will continue to benefit from the increased interest in the continent as a result of all the fresh marketing initiatives.

More dedicated international congress capacity in Africa also means more meeting space for international African congresses. This market segment has rightfully been prioritised by the South African National Convention Bureau, because it offers great perspective and of course only African and no global competition. In order to reap the benefits of these developments it is of utmost importance that our South African government indeed makes it as easy as possible for participants in international meetings (congresses AND exhibitions!) to travel to our country. Due to the unfortunate introduction of new visa regulations, and subsequently the cancellation of some of these rules, our country has acquired the wrong image as “being difficult”. 

Particularly, congress delegates and trade show visitors from other African countries are experiencing difficulties with (last minute) decisions to participate in a meeting in South Africa. That is dangerous, because one of the reasons that international organisers plan their events in our country is to attract delegates (new potential members) from other African countries. A pro-active information campaign, including the set-up of a Home Affairs help line for international congress delegates, would demonstrate that we take the international meeting industry seriously.

About Dirk: Founded by Dirk Elzinga in 2010, Convention Industry Consultants assists governments and other initiators or owners with the development or repositioning of convention centres, as well as other projects in the international meetings industry. For more info: www.ciconsult.co.za 

Craig Newman, Expo Centre, UFI

“Main economic contributor”

In the next five to 10 years, the South African MICE industry should be one of the main economic contributors of this country. To get there, we need much greater public sector participation and flexibility because people participating in conferences and exhibitions from abroad encounter major challenges when applying for visas. We need ease of access and greater communication between the public sector and the conference organisers and venues. 

South Africa is a choice destination- we have the expertise, experience and capability to handle large-scale events. In fact, we have never dropped the ball on a big international event irrespective of its demands. We are right up there with what the rest of the world can offer, but global trends keep us on our toes and ensure that we are constantly in line with what is happening in the rest of the world. Everything is ripe for South Africa to be the leading country within the business tourism sector for Africa. It should become the biggest contributor towards the South African economy, but we need these challenges to be addressed first. 

About Craig: Craig Newman is CEO of the Expo Centre and Board Member of the UFI Africa chapter. His role is to strengthen confidence in the exhibitions industry and to ensure that it is always growing and moving forward. Newman ensures all parties involved are delivering on expectations because it is this delivery that will continuously strengthen the reputation of exhibitions as a great contributor towards the South African economy.

Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo, South Africa National Convention Bureau

“It’s all about Africa”

In terms of opportunities, I still believe it is Africa. If we don’t change around the African attendance and the African spread, we will miss out. It won’t be a disaster, but we will miss out. I think if we want to grow, that is where we need to grow. It’s not without effort – of course you still need to put in all the effort that you can – but I think growth will definitely come from a broader sense than just keep on doing the same thing. The other thing I think where the opportunity lies is definitely outside just associations. We focus a lot on the association market and of course that is still the greatest potential for us as a destination because there are so many meetings that can still come and so many conventions that can still come. But if we are not taking the opportunity we have now with the weak rand, and really making ourselves a value-for-money destination, if we do not go after the incentive market by offering a five-star experience for a four-star price, we are missing out. 

So we definitely need to gear up and support DMCs that have these clients and really ensure that our product is ready to offer this. We need to gear up to focus and to support, and if you look at the year-on-year growth that we’ve had now, that already says that they are coming. We had a lot of spectacular recovery and there’s a huge opportunity for us. So I think there’s opportunity in Africa – keep on doing what we’re doing right with the international associations, and focusing on enabling your incentive, high-end traveller to come. I think that ups the status of the industry.

About Amanda: A woman with over 15 years’ experience in the MICE industry, Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo is the Chief Convention Officer of the South Africa National Convention Bureau (SANCB). She sits on the board of a number of associations and is incredibly passionate about the development of the local and pan-African business events sector. 

Bronwen Cadle de Ponte, CSIR ICC

“We’ve come a long way”

South Africa’s conference industry has come a long way in the past 20 years in terms of understanding what the international conference market is about and making inroads to that market. However, there is still much opportunity for in SA for our industry to become more professional (i.e. dropping commissions, implementing tertiary education qualifications for the meetings sector) and to focus on the long term holistic goals of our clients instead of short term gains for individual products and service providers. 

Our tagline, “Transfer Knowledge. Facilitate Collaboration”, is our maxim and informs our actions every day because we understand that the sharing of knowledge is precisely what conferencing is about. Our city is renowned as the home of experts in countless research and academic fields and is a knowledge hub for events of a professional nature, of which we host over 700 every year. In all of our marketing and collaboration efforts this professional focus has supported a blossoming of events, which truly contribute to the knowledge economy in the past few years.

Our industry is experiencing significant shifts due to volatile international economic conditions, increasingly stringent government spending regulations, increasing compliance burdens and travel safety, health and visa concerns and yet the market in SA continues to show healthy growth. These challenges present opportunities for us as in industry to innovate, become more professional, and prove our sector’s qualified worth. I believe that the next ten years will see the meetings industry in South Africa be seen as progressively contributing tangibly to the world knowledge economy as opposed to just hosting events if we take up the challenges positively and seriously and professionalise at every opportunity.  

About Bronwen: Bronwen Cadle de Ponte is the CSIR International Convention Centre General Manager and is also Chairperson of the Tshwane Tourism Association. Bronwen holds extensive experience in the MICE industry and has received numerous accolades from the CSIR and the industry for her continuous outstanding contribution to the sector.

Carol Weaving, Thebe Reed Exhibitions, AAXO

“Moving ahead rapidly”

Africa is an economic bright spot with a fast growing middle class. The continent has incredible assets, including a population of over 1 billion with amazing diversity in culture and environment, and only 5 percent of the global tourist arrivals, which makes it the perfect platform for growth. 

To a large extent, the amount of demand for business events in a destination tends to directly reflect levels of economic activity in that destination. Africa’s competitiveness in the MICE market is also dependent upon the level and quality of its infrastructure. Crucial to the international MICE tourism sector are frequent, direct flight links between African states and key markets. Venues of a world-class standard continue to open their doors to business tourism in countries all over the continent. Gauteng’s premier venue, the Ticketpro Dome, has recently added a new venue facility, The Blue Label Wing Conference and Events Venue. This is a well-considered partnership between Thebe Reed Venue Management and Delmont Caldow Caterers. It is an excellent venue for trade exhibitions, business events, conferences, hosting product launches and company networking sessions. 

Africa is emerging as a viable destination. You can do your business or hold your conference in a refined environment but also observe the wildlife (Kenya), culture (Ethiopia), scenic beauty (Rwanda and Tanzania) and a number of the wonders of the world (Zimbabwe/Zambia, and Cape Town). Africa Travel Week provides a platform for these destinations to highlight their offering to buyers. Africa has become more and more accessible to the world and there is a desire to see and experience what it has to offer.  

Thebe Reed Exhibitions has hosted ibtm africa for the past 3 years, as part of Africa Travel Week. ibtm africa was praised by visitors as an excellent event for business development and knowledge enhancement in the region with global relevance. The conference, in partnership with SAACI, brought together key meeting planners from some of the leading corporates in South Africa and suppliers from the meetings industry. Throughout the last day of Africa Travel Week, the ibtm Africa conference gave visitors insights into technology, future trends, procurement and consolidation, the benefits of foreign exchange and the convergence of the travel and meetings industry. 

Thebe Reed Exhibitions is a member of the Association of African Exhibition Organisers (AAXO), which was formed to provide a collective platform of address and representation for professional exhibition organisers throughout Africa. With the wealth of knowledge and experience brought to the association by these organisations, AAXO has the energy and expertise to deal with the unique challenges and needs that organisers are faced with, and give them a powerful and credible voice. AAXO aims to promote the industry, encourage people to invest and participate in exhibitions, and give members the tools and resources to run successful exhibitions.

The MICE industry is set to move ahead rapidly. Meetings, exhibitions, events are essentially networking tools and will always be the cornerstone of successful businesses.

About Carol: Carol Weaving is Managing Director of Thebe Reed Exhibitions and a large stakeholder in AAXO. She has a diverse working background in the business tourism and events industry. Over 28 years, Carol’s career has expanded through many sectors within the industry. Her knowledge and expertise spans across exhibition management, events, conferences as well as venue and facility management.

Pieter Swart, Conference Consultancy SA

“We’ve reached maturity”

I had the privilege of working on the first multilateral conference hosted in South Africa, the Commonwealth Health Ministers Conference in 1995, and again on another landmark conference, the 13th International AIDS Conference in 2000, which was the first macro international conference hosted in the country. This year will be 21 years since that Commonwealth Conference. In this very short period of time compared to the global industry, South Africa has reached maturity and competes globally with the very best. We entered the global industry in its contemporary stage. Our facilities are modern and our service approaches fresh. This sits very well with the dynamics of a fast-paced and evolving industry/profession. 

We understand that change brought about by internal and external influences, such as politics, economy, infrastructure or technology, is a constant and therefore we have learned to embrace them as opportunities. This virtue not only makes our industry resilient and sustainable but also highly competitive and attractive. The security of our industry depends on our ability to development our single most valuable asset, ‘human capital’. The currency of our trade, skill and competence, is in good hands. South Africa is home to some of the world’s most dynamic industry leaders and brightest minds.

About Pieter: Pieter Swart, CMP, CMM, is Managing Director at Conference Consultancy SA. He serves on the Professional Convention Management Association Global Advisory Panel, The SAACI Tshwane Branch Committee, The UNISA Tourism Advisory Board and UNISA Peer Programme Review Committee on Tourism Qualifications. Pieter was awarded Global Meetings Executive of the Year 2015 and he is currently the lead presenter of the Event Architecture Workshop series.

Tes Proos, Crystal Events & Incentives, SITE Southern Africa

“We need to harness our strengths”

I believe Africa is the place to be, if you are keen on growing within the MICE industry. There are many exciting things happening around the continent, especially East and Southern Africa, with several new convention centres and hotels opening up.  SITE South Africa recently rebranded as SITE Southern Africa, thereby incorporating Africa at large.

The advent of new low-cost carriers around the continent, along with the new Victoria Falls international airport coming on board, opens up a vast number of opportunities for doing more and better business in Africa.

Our objective as an international association is to harness our strengths as an industry in order to create more learning opportunities and promote skills transfer at all levels.

Whilst South Africa is at the forefront as an African incentive and conference destination, we need to pay attention to service levels in order to stay ahead of our game – or risk losing it to a keener competitor. We are no longer the cheapest destination, hence value for money has to be tangible, along with the best possible experience that any delegate could have.

In my capacity as President, SITE Southern Africa, I look forward to working closely with the industry across the continent over the next year, facilitating various training and education sessions at several forthcoming trade shows.

About Tes: With over 25 years in travel and corporate hospitality, Crystal Events and Incentives are all about creating unique experiences. And with Tes Proos at the helm, the company is well-placed to understand and meet clients’ individual needs. Tes also heads up the Southern Africa chapter of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE). 

Angela Lorimer, Spier Hotel and Wine Farm

“SA excels in service delivery”

Spier Hotel and Conference venue is a leader in conscious conferencing and is proud to announce its B-BBEE Status. We pride ourselves in attracting both local and international MICE business. The weak rand has seen the increase in international MICE business as well as domestic MICE travel due to budget constraints, therefore encouraging local travel. 

We have aligned ourselves with key industry players and associations like Cape Town Tourism, WESGRO, SAACI and SITE and have already seen the benefits. The fact that Cape Town is constantly increasing its conference offering has a huge ‘spin-off’ on Spier, as we are the perfect location for pre- and post-conferences. South Africa is excelling at service delivery. We just need to define a clear and positive message that is constant and up-lifting to the world.

About Angela: Angela has worked in the hospitality industry for 25 years and loves every minute of it. As the Commercial Manager at Spier Hotel and Wine Farm, her role is to lead the sales, events and reservations team to new and exciting heights. She was recently appointed to the SAACI Western Cape committee and is thrilled to be part of growing the association and making a difference in the industry.

Julie-May Ellingson, CTICC, AIPC

“Take advantage of the exchange rate”

South Africa has an incredible opportunity to take advantage of the favourable exchange rate to acquire international meetings and events, particularly in the corporate and incentive markets. The benefits do not end at hosting conferences and events. There is a macroeconomic contribution as well, exposing our destination to trade and investment opportunities.  

The visa regulations which were implemented in 2014 have negatively impacted attendance figures of events taking place in South Africa, which in turn has a knock-on impact on the economic contribution to the destination. Fortunately, some of these regulations have now been relaxed, with figures in early 2016 showing an improvement in tourist numbers, although we are not yet seeing the benefit in the business sector. A further challenge affecting our future growth is the poor economic climate within South Africa, as well as government austerity measures which will limit spending on conferences and meetings.   

Some of the trends foreseen that could affect the MICE industry in the 5-10 years are less direct spend from South African Government Departments, affecting the conferencing industry quite substantially and hampering job creation in the MICE sector, and more involvement from conference organizers, corporate companies and delegates in corporate social responsibility programmes to the benefit of local communities. An example of this is the World Council of Enterostomal Therapists (WECT) 21st Biennial Congress, which the CTICC hosted last month. The congress, entitled ‘Embrace the Circle of Life,’ exposed therapists to the latest ideas and discussion on stoma, wound and continence management, with international experts presenting papers in plenary sessions and symposia. During the three-day congress delegates were able to visit the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, Groote Schuur Hospital and the Baphumelele Children’s Home in Khayelitsha. These tours created opportunities for valuable knowledge exchange between local practitioners and their international counter parts.

We foresee a shift in the focus on the food and beverage experiences at conferences and events. Unfortunately this is an area that clients are increasingly cutting out or reducing. While we understand the budget constraints faced by associations, removing dinners, cocktail functions or even the likes of coffee/tea breaks, reduces the opportunity for face to face networking which is of significant importance to delegates. The other disadvantage is that delegates are more likely to leave the conference venue for lunch and not return for plenary sessions, etc. This in turn limits their conference experience.

About Julie-May: Prior to her current position as the head of the Cape Town International Convention Centre, Julie-May Ellingson was the CEO of Durban ICC. She currently sits on the board of Cape Town Tourisn and is the first African board member for the International Association of Conference Centres (AIPC). Julie-May has a number of accolades and awards to her name and believes conferencing is a platform for knowledge exchange, and a driver of the knowledge economy. 

Lindiwe Rakharebe, Durban ICC

“Technology will continue to impact the sector”

The current state of the conferencing industry in South Africa is greatly influenced by the on-going and ever-expanding digital revolution, the need for innovative meeting formats and “doing more with less”. These factors will continue to shape the way we conduct our business going forward. 

Technology will continue to impact the events experience and the way venues aim to meet their clients’ requirements. I do not believe that virtual meeting options will lead to the demise of face-to-face meetings as people still crave and appreciate human interaction, however conference delegates and exhibition visitors are a lot more tech-savvy than ever before where uninterrupted Wi-Fi and digital information is expected when attending events.  
Conference organisers are more selective than ever when selecting their ideal location and venue, and expect an unprecedented volume of information about the destination, its attractions and the venue before considering a location to host their event. The industry must be willing to provide this information quickly and effortlessly if they hope to keep the interest of new potential clients.

About Lindiwe: Lindiwe Rakharebe is the Chief Executive Officer of the Durban International Convention Centre (Durban ICC), having been appointed in April 2015. She has extensive experience in leading high-performance teams in various industries and is a well-respected business leader across the country.

Glyn Taylor and Gary Koetser, CCCC

“Get the basics right”

The conference industry has come a long way and is constantly evolving, and while we pride ourselves on being flexible and put the needs of event organisers first, we believe that it starts with the basics. 

First and foremost, it starts with a smile. We’re in the hospitality business, yet so many people forget in the hospitality business to be hospitable! From the minute delegates and guests walk through the door, we treat everyone as if they’ve stepped into our home. When you arrive you’re being welcomed into the facility with warmth and you actually want to be there. 

Secondly, it’s all about quality; from the coffee one drinks to the last meal enjoyed - it’s a fundamental part of our business. What lasts in a delegate’s mind is the overall experience. 

And it doesn’t stop there. 

We’ve taken care in selecting the right service providers who share our philosophy. They form an integral part of our offering and we treat our suppliers, delegates and PCOs as an extension of our team. We believe that through humility and a mutual understanding, we will embrace everyone that makes an event successful.

Often where we feel it goes wrong, is when conference centres and hotels sell space and forget about the brand personality. We are selling character, a certain belief system, and the space is a value-add.  We want people to know that they can come to us directly if there’s an issue, and we will embrace it.  
On the African continent at the moment there’s a massive surge in terms of association business being sparked up. This is one sector in the hospitality industry that will see longevity. The City of Cape Town has identified that we need to focus on business travel, and there’s been a massive drive in marketing to the business traveller globally. Cities around the world have realised that a conference centre is a massive marketing tool that provides a large income for the surrounding stakeholders – so there is great stability in conferencing. Conferencing is a facet of the tourism sector that’s experiencing growth and will see vast investment in the future, and we see it already because it’s a sustainable income stream for our country. 

If you do the basics right, you will always remain competitive. 

About Glyn and Gary: Glyn Taylor and Gary Koetser are joint CEOs of the Century City Conference Centre. Both are extremely passionate about their facility. So much so, that you won’t find a Marketing & Sales manager at the frontline, but rather the two of them. They believe that the Century City Conference Centre and Hotel is more than just brick and mortar – it is a brand with personality, integrity and flexibility.


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