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January 8, 2016

Sub-Saharan Africa: An A-Z Guide to Planning Your Association Conference

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From the tiniest corporate meeting to the largest trade exhibition, an event organiser’s reputation is always on the line. As the old adage goes, ‘you’re only as good as your’ last job’. This rings true for many facets of the working world. Here are some of the best practices we should always remember to incorporate when planning an association conference, trade exhibition or business event. 

Photo by Freeimages.com/Marcia Rodrigues

A - Africa

The African continent should be top of mind, especially with its potential for the MICE industry. Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom outlined this in a presentation at ibtm world. Not only is SA’s business events sector taking off with 163 bids secured between 2016 and 2020, but the continent’s is too. “218 regional conferences were registered on the continent in 2014 resulting in 610 events over the last five years. South Africa only hosted 63 of these events,” he said. 

Craig Newman, head of Joburg Expo Centre and African Board Member of UFI echoes his sentiments. “Africa is the next big market and international exhibitions and events companies will continue to look at new opportunities and partnerships in South Africa, having recognised the growth potential of the African market,” he explains. “South Africa’s exhibitions, conferences and events industry is fast becoming one of the country’s most important sectors to attract foreign visitors and investment, which is why the larger international exhibition companies that are looking to grow their income, companies, their footprint and their revenue are looking to Africa. This is another reason why we look forward to hosting the UFI Congress 2017 in South Africa.”

B - Budget

Budgets are as tight as ever, but we are still creating great events through creative problem-solving. For association events, each cent is especially important, says CSIR ICC Marketing Coordinator Refilwe Nchebisang. “Budget is key as associations are often non-profit entities who cannot afford to lose money on any conference they host. A well thought out and planned budget is therefore key – ensuring that all potentially unforeseen expenses are considered up front and that expenses can be scaled down if registrations do not meet the expected numbers. A good relationship with your venue who should understand your needs and objectives, provide added value and no hidden expenses and be experienced enough to negotiate flexible terms up front will help achieve this objective.”

C - Communication

I cannot stress enough how crucial effective communication is in this business! And so do the experts, over and over again. Says Miguel Bennetto-Dos Santos, director of group of sales at The Westin: “It is important that communication is clear and concise, that all parties working on the meeting see it as a united partnership with the clear goal that every meeting should be the best one ever held and that the destination becomes a sort after one as a result of the successful meeting.”

Nokuthula Nkosi, who does PR and marketing for Sun City, agrees, saying that there are “certain elements that come into play” when organising an event. “Communication, paying attention to detail, hardworking coordinators and most importantly planning,” she says. “Every successful event has a primary purpose or mission, accompanied by goals and objectives, which are the measurements of success. Understanding the purpose or mission of the event leads to good planning and appropriate allocation of resources (time and money).”

Nchebisang adds that post-event communication is just as important – if not more so. “Post event communication should be given special attention to ensure that delegates take value away from the conference,” she says. “The conference does not stop with the closing session, sharing of information post event and follow up virtual workshops and online chats ensure that the value of the conference exceeds just a few days for delegates who are otherwise normally not connected when arriving back at their place of work.”

D - Definitions

“Defining the word ‘successful’ is the pertinent aspect as event success depends on a number of factors,” says Helen Brewer, CMP and head of The MICE Academy. “From the academic viewpoint: once the objectives have been determined at the outset, being able to put simple systems in place in order to gauge the objectives were met is indeed regarded as a ‘successful’ event.” She goes on to say that the host organiser, the delegation and the event planning organiser should have the same objectives as the common denominator for being a ‘successful’ conference. 

Knowing the difference between an association meeting and a regular corporate conference is also important. For instance, Association attendance is voluntary whereas corporate meetings are compulsory, decision making is centralised in the latter, and decentralised in the former. Associations also have fewer events and with larger capacities, their lead time is longer, the risk of cancellation is relatively low, and meetings often rotate. This according to The MICE Academy’s Conpromark Training Programme and Convention Sales and Services (3rd edition). 

E - Efficacy

Efficacy is defined as “the ability to produce a desired or intended result.” Part of this ability hinges on anticipating the smallest seemingly insignificant details of an event. The CSIR’s Nchebisang gives a great example of this word in action: “Ancillary services such as interpreting, bureau de change, travel desks and the like are important considerations for association congresses as delegates are often travelling from foreign countries to attend the conference and special attention needs to be given to persons from different cultural backgrounds and countries.”

F - Flexibility

We all know this word all too well – but it’s arguably the backbone of our industry. “Sure, planning takes real skill and creativity, but where event planners add the most value to their clients is in solving problems. Because despite the best laid plans, something always goes wrong. A good planner solves the problem quickly; a great planner solves it and no one knows something went wrong at all.” This is according to an insightful blog post by Event Planner Amanda Luppino-Esposito on Social Tables

G - Greening

This is an ever-important issue that we as an industry need to pay attention to. Not only should we be looking to make our conferences and exhibitions as sustainable as possible, but we should be creating a lasting legacy by contributing positively to the environment and community, too. 

SAACI’s Liebetrau gives us a simple way to deal with this on a business events level. “Try and incorporate as much local talent and suppliers into your conference as possible, as this will also help you run a sustainable green event.” 

But greening an event is not this easy. Says Antoinette McInnes of Eyako Green: “Take into account sustainability. How can the conference have less of a carbon footprint? How can it assist sustainability in South Africa? There are many conference elements where this can be taken into account, [such as] food, venue, stands, give aways, etc. As suppliers of conference bags and accessories, we would encourage organisers to choose locally-made and preferably eco-friendly items rather than off the shelf Chinese imports.”

Greenwashing – where companies make misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service – has been an issue the industry has been faced with of late. To combat this, “use credible, reliable, known suppliers preferably with whom you have a relationship. Especially if processing eco items, watch out for ‘greenwashing’ and ask,” McInnes adds. 

The Event Greening Forum has been vocal about creating more sustainable meetings, and is working towards creating industry standards and guidelines to help planners along. They are also happy to not only promote sustaible events, but help conference organisers implement greening procedures. Their tips for greening an association conference are as follows: 

  • The Association should take into account where the majority of the membership is based before deciding on the location of the conference; this could significantly reduce carbon emissions related to the transportation.
  • The Association should consider the involvement and beneficiation of people from the local area and the use of local resources in a responsible and sustainable manner.
  • The Association should take into account the environmental, social and economic impacts associated with the event and consider ways of offsetting these in a sustainable way – for example balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference.

H - Harmony

“Strike an even balance between the wants of the client and the deliverables of the providers, knowing that future relationships are based on how you execute this point with either side of the coin,” says Bennetto-Dos Santos. “Partner up with service providers that share the same values as you do, after all they will be a reflection of your company.”

Although growing steadily, the industry is still really small in comparison with other meetings sectors across the globe. This is also why SAACI stressed collaboration and partnerships at their conference this year. 

I - Inclusivity

We should be including the diverse factors of the industry and engaging them because they, too, contribute to our rankings as a destination. UFI Africa Board Member Craig Newman says this translates to association meetings as well. “The event must be well-supported and well-attended by its members of the association,” he begins. “As the vice chair for the Middle East Africa Chapter of UFI, one of my chief responsibilities is to see to the growth of UFI within Africa. We believe that Africa represents the next frontier for growth and development for this association, and global membership can only benefit by giving Africa its support. As such, I spend a great deal of my time and energy on creating even greater awareness around UFI, promoting what it has to offer the industry, and most importantly - growing its footprint in the African region.”

J - Job Satisfaction

In a recent video interview with Joint CEOs of the Century City Conference Centre, Gary Koetser and Glyn Taylor, I was blown away with their staff ethics. “We want to catch people doing things right” and praise them for it, they said, rather than catching them in the wrong and putting them down. 

Creating a culture of appreciation and trust with your staff, suppliers and contractors is so important. Not only will this make your life a lot easier, but employees will feel wanted – and will want to do a better job as a result. 

K - Knowledge

As the world becomes more and more data savvy, the understanding we have of our country and the sector will do us well. Knowledge of a craft as well as the inner workings of the industry impacts how well we plan a conference or event. 

“Know your meeting well and anticipate needs that may not yet be known to the client itself,” says The Westin’s Bennetto-Dos Santos, “Being proactive will stand you in excellent light for future business.” He gives an additional piece of advice especially for association conference planners: “Share with the hotel what the history is of the association – how did it pick up in previous years and what was the demand for a similar type hotel. Open communication with the numbers of delegates registering and general feedback helps the hotel drastically reduce the risk.”

Justin Hawes, managing director of Scan Display, underscores the importance of hiring people who are qualified to do the best job possible from the very beginning. “When planning a conference, it’s critical that the Professional Conference Organiser (PCO) appoints the infrastructure contractor at the beginning of the project. Contractors are knowledgeable about the infrastructure that will be required at the conference, and can add value if incorporated from the outset of the project,” he explains.

SAACI Head Adriaan Liebetrau has the same feelings about local suppliers. “Get a local partner who knows the areas, venues and suppliers, don’t be shy to try new things – don’t just copy and paste from previous years,” he emphasises. 

L - Locality

Keeping things local is both efficient and smart, according to industry heavyweights. Not only should the conference location speak to its delegates, but using local contractors and suppliers is important, too. 

“I believe that the most important element of planning a successful conference is location,” says Craig Newman, CEO of the Johannesburg Expo Centre. “A quick checklist can reveal whether the venue will cater to all your needs. For example, is it close to an airport? Does it have the space and facilities required to make your conference 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. At the Expo Centre, we are proud to say that we can meet all of these requirements.”

SAACI CEO Adriaan Liebetrau says that content should always be the key driver for any conferences. “We do not simply meet to meet,” he stresses, “It is important that the location of the conference speak to the sector of the conference to allow for local participation, for example you are not going to have a fisheries conference in Gauteng…Always partner with a local association so that you can also have a legacy project to tie in with local needs.”

Refilwe Nchebisang, marketing coordinator at CSIR ICC, agrees that destination is key for a knowledge event. “The location for an event can add tremendous value to the event if the host city is home industry and academia related to the event topic,” she explains. “The CSIR International Convention Centre for instance is located in Tshwane which is a true 'Intellectual Capital' – the city is rich in academia, science, research… which provides the opportunity to tap into the intellectual capital which abounds and to capitalise on the numerous intellectual institutions to boost delegate attendance and conference content.”

M - Meetings

Regular meetings are imperative to ensure everyone is on the same page and performing at optimal levels. Justin Hawes, managing director at Scan Display, says it best: “Have regular status meetings with the local organising committee, to ensure that all the elements of the conference are on track.” 

Don’t Miss Part Two of ‘An A-Z Guide to Planning Your Association Conference’ in The Event Issue 2. 

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