Be Different

Whether you’re an event planner or supplier, the pressure is on to deliver something unique and different for clients, as 2019 is shaping up to be another year in which the MICE industry has the potential to flourish.

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It used to be enough in the conference – or ‘events’ – space for suppliers to offer a large-enough venue and a few basic supplies at a reasonable price to secure clients. This approach just doesn’t cut it today. Everyone is faced with providing a more comprehensive and engaging experience at a lower cost… and having to do it with a smile on your face!

As it is, the MICE industry, as a whole, is a complex one, consisting of participants, sponsors, planners, convention and visitor bureaus, meeting venues, accommodation, and suppliers generally being involved in the planning and execution of an event.

According to the Allied Market Research, this industry “has witnessed exponential growth, owing to rapid globalization and expansion of service industries, and the continuous evolution of scientific and technological innovations.”

No surprise, then, that there is increased interrogation of this industry and a lot of research going into what the trends are.

In July last year, Cvent, a market leader in meetings, events, and hospitality technology, released the results of its fourth annual ‘Global Planner Sourcing Report’, which revealed some interesting findings. The survey participants numbered nearly 3,000 corporate event planners worldwide, with 52% saying that their event budgets had increased in 2018, compared with what they received in 2017.

This, apparently, led to more and larger events being held. Other interesting findings included an increase in the six-to-10 delegate offsite meeting category, which was up 15%, and there was a reported halving (from 26% to 13%) in the one-to-two delegate meeting category.

But, despite growing budgets, planners are still looking for value for money. There might be more money to spend, but that money has to buy more than ever before. However, the promise of a unique, memorable experience can offset price. Only 35% of planners surveyed said that they would change venues for more than a 10% savings, indicating that amenities and good word-of-mouth play an important role in the decision-making.

Mark Wernich, General Manager of the Taj Cape Town, has seen first-hand the client demand of ‘bang for their buck’.

“Whilst a lot of clients’ budgets have gone up or remained the same, value for money is very important,” he says. “We are competing a lot more with cheaper destinations and with flight costs having increased, it’s become a lot more expensive for international clients to come to Cape Town. The rand is also stronger which also affects budgets. This is a challenge, especially for repeat clients who have worked on a specific budget.”

But, really, it’s all about value and showing a tangible return on investment, as many planners and suppliers are finding.

“While we see the DCP rates under pressure, the true MICE delegate is there for an experience that is worth his or her while,” says Leroy Ferreira, Fancourt’s Corporate Sales executive. “The delegate ROI (and not the financial bit) is a very strong forerunner with all decision-makers.”

So, what is going to win you the meeting and conferencing business in 2019?

“2019 will be about being open to innovative conference formats and use of new tech to deliver a different experience – it’s about being bold and daring to be different,” says Paul Stoddart, Carlson Wagonlit Travel Meetings and Events’ Managing Director for UK, Ireland and Benelux.

AFRICAN OUTLOOK

There’s no doubt that Africa remains the last ‘untapped’ continent, with plenty of potential and loads of hotel development in the pipeline, pointing to sustained interest in the continent and an international view that Africa still offers huge opportunity for growth.

But, while that potential and opportunity remains, the continent does have its challenges, and plenty of work still needs to be done to ensure it remains competitive when stacked up against its competitors from around the world.

No longer can Africa trade off its natural beauty and interesting cultural make-up – it needs to show the world that its infrastructure can sustain this level of interest and deliver on the promises it is making, particularly in the MICE space.

Africa’s tourism bodies, convention bureaus, event organisers and destination marketing companies are all trying to sell the continent to the world, and whilst the proposition may be compelling on paper – and in the beautiful accompanying imagery – the boxes of a successful event will still need to be ticked, before international business sets foot on African soil.

One just has to look at the latest ICCA rankings to see where Africa’s top MICE cities feature, in comparison with the rest of the world. Sure, this relates only to the number of association meetings per city, but you still have Cape Town – Africa’s top performer – only down in 44th place, followed by Johannesburg (113th), Kigali (130th), and Marrakech (133rd). That hardly speaks to global competitiveness on the part of Africa.

That being said, progress is being made, in terms of the broadening of the options available to international conference organisers, for example, with some African countries waking up to the fact that an attractive venue and overall MICE offering could put them in line to win potentially lucrative international business.

The examples are there to see, with Rwanda developing a beautiful convention centre to a Radisson Blu hotel in Kigali to supplement its attractive leisure tourism offering; Nigeria seeing the emergence of the Calabar International Convention Centre outside of the economic centres of Lagos and Abuja; and the Century City Conference Centre & Hotel opening in Cape Town, further bolstering the continent’s top meeting and conference destination (as per ICCA rankings) – all opening in the last few years.

“The African MICE market is definitely expanding from both a local, regional and international perspective, and as such you can see several new investments in facilities to satisfy this demand across many new developments of multiple brands of operators,” says Rudie Putter, General Manager at AVANI Windhoek Hotel & Casino in Namibia.

“Rwanda is likely to be in the MICE limelight this year as the country has been hard at work to position itself as a MICE destination of choice,” says Henk Graaff, Managing Director of SW Africa, an inbound destination management company for Southern Africa.

Whilst South Africa has for long dominated the African meetings and events space, thanks largely to its well-developed infrastructure, other players on the continent are starting to see the benefits of what a business tourism focus could bring their countries.

Rwanda is a great example, with Clare Akamanzi, Rwanda Development Board Chief Executive Officer, explaining last year that the country had prioritised MICE as one of the drivers of the East African country’s economic growth, with the government investing significantly in infrastructure such as the Kigali Convention Centre and the national airline.

“Destinations in Africa lend themselves perfectly to the hyper-personalisation trend in the MICE sector,” says Graaff. “MICE organisers who are looking to tailor and adapt their event to the needs of the client are spoilt for choice in Africa.”

Unique and authentic cultural experiences are also in high demand for 2019. Culture exchange experiences tend to have a profound impact on incentive travellers and will have them talking on social media until long after they have returned from their trip.

Whatever the execution, and whether it’s an association conference, meeting, exhibition or incentive trip, a huge opportunity exists for Africa’s countries to put themselves forward and make themselves attractive to both international and intra-African MICE bookers.

“Business tourism is a critical tool for economic growth in Africa,” said Vincent Oparah, Tourism Advisor at NEPAD, speaking in 2018. “With continuing infrastructure upgrades, improved air connectivity, improved visa facilitation and unique cultural tourism assets, one can strongly argue that Africa is ready for business/MICE tourism growth.”

TECHNOLOGY

In an African context, this no longer just applies to connecting delegates with the continent via air travel.

Today, if you say ‘connectivity’, it’s more than likely the serious business of what sort of wi-fi you’ll have available at your event.

Connectivity is no longer a luxury, it’s now a necessity, and it enhances the capabilities of what delegates and facilitators are looking for.

But the same could be said for technology as a whole, as it applies to the MICE space.

As socialtables.com says, “the event planning industry has come a long way from the binder-toting, paper-based system of the near distant memory of the early 2000’s. Today, advances in technology have led to sweeping improvements in the events management field. These improvements have streamlined and consolidated our meeting systems, making it easier for event planners to get their jobs done.”

The site goes on to identify what it believes are five of the most important event technology trends “that will have a significant effect on the event planning industry as a result of meeting planning automation.”

Those five trends are: radio frequency identification (RFID); multi-use apps; wearable technology; virtual reality; and social media.

So, what does this mean for the players in the MICE space, and specifically, the venues?

Well, at the base level, you’ve just got to get your connectivity right.

“We’ve ensured that our on-site network is fast and effective – and best of all, free,” says Greg Hoffmann, Digital Marketing Manager at Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre in Johannesburg. “A massive investment was made, and we are now able to accommodate almost any online request that includes dedicated networks for ‘power-users’, as well as ‘private-conference-groups’. Large digital screens, and pre-installed video-conferencing units, as well as digital signage at selected venues were included as well. The units work completely online, removing the requirement to bring cables and projectors to showcase your presentation. It is now easy to innovate with Birchwood.”

The Taj Cape Town is another property that has recently revamped its connectivity offering, and it now boasts a 500Mbps fibre line.

The lightning-fast connection is available throughout the hotel’s rooms, restaurants, conference rooms and public areas, and offers guests uncapped and unshaped access, without additional fees.

The increased connectivity speed also facilitates bandwidth heavy 4K video calls, allowing travelling workers to share information, display merchandise, demonstrate in-room technical models, and conduct multimedia presentations, and visual effects in real-life detail.

It offers the potential to beam a product demonstration halfway around the world as clearly and as if the salesperson were handing the product directly to their customer.

All of this technological development and boosting of connectivity represents the bare minimum, if venues and suppliers are going to play any sort of role in forward-thinking initiatives such as that put forward by socialtables.com above.

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Many event planners wrestle with how to differentiate their event from those that have come before.

The bottom line is, just be different. That’s the only way an event is going to be remembered long after it has been staged.

So, how best to do that?

Well, for starters, if you can offer attendees the opportunity to show off on social media, you’ve got yourself a winner.

Bringing in elements of status and exclusivity will allow for social media one-upmanship among delegates and ensure a great attendance. Further to that, meals served by renowned chefs, performances by well-known artists and meeting sports celebrities create opportunities for Instagram photos and Twitter posts, which not only ensure a higher attendance rate, but the chance for your brand to gain some additional exposure.

“The options are endless here,” says Graaff. “Are delegates sports lovers? Let them play soccer with some of the local soccer teams! Do they like music? How about organising a jamming session with local music groups? Playing music together, exchanging ideas and sharing similar interests brings a connection between the cultures on a different level and leads to very powerful experiences.”

There’s also a move towards events that are, well, more than just events.

“Unique and authentic cultural experiences are also in high demand for 2019,” says Graaff. “Culture exchange experiences tend to have a profound impact on incentive travellers and will have them talking on social media until long after they have returned from their trip.”

Hoffmann calls this ‘innovation’ – conference organisers and facilitators continuing to seek out new concepts to ensure that their events are unique.

“Delegates do not want to feel that they are getting more of the same, and their facilitators want to give them something to talk about,” he says. “Birchwood’s 2018 was filled with upgrades and renovations that targeted this exact concept. We completely overhauled our Boma, which now includes a stunning water feature, rustic sand and fire area for unwinding and enjoying after-conference drinks, as well as sun-kissed outdoor decking and a delicious tapas menu. Our many on-site culinary options ensure that every day during your multi-day experience is different from the last.”

INCENTIVES

Depending on who you speak to, the incentive travel trends of 2019 are more or less the same across the board.

Many of them speak of engagement, authenticity, personalisation etc, which, funnily enough, make them not that far removed from some of the trends of the past two or three years.

Perhaps this year, though, will see a greater focus on some of these themes.

According to Australia-based agency 33 Degrees’ five trends stand out, and when one looks at the trends peddled by other industry ‘experts’, these trends below are a good representation of where a lot of 2019’s focus will be.

For starters, and according to 33 Degrees, “unique experiences matter”, with the agency saying that “2019 is the year for companies to embrace the unique and ‘left of centre’ experiences. Whatever the adventure, more and more travellers are seeking bespoke, authentic experiences far away from the typical incentive destinations.”

Secondly, it says that “tech and social will be central, not peripheral. Social media has changed the way incentives and events are seen by attendees. As millennials establish themselves as a significant presence in the workforce, their social activity on mobile is fast becoming a pivotal part of incentive travel and events.”

The third trend that 33 Degrees identifies is that “wellness travel is on the rise.”

According to it, wellness will be one of 2019’s biggest incentive travel trends. The global wellness market was apparently worth an estimated $3.7 trillion in 2015, with the combined wellness at work and travel markets worth over $600 billion, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

“Top tier management has begun to appreciate the relationship between bottom lines and the mental and physical well-being of employees, with a focus on work-life balance, free gym memberships, mediation classes and more becoming commonplace. Incentive travel will also see an increasing shift towards experiences that focus on wellness, learning and self-discovery in 2019.”

33 Degrees also identifies sustainable travel as a trend, and this is very much in line with that of the past few years.

It goes on to say that, “increasingly, we are seeing strong demand for destinations, accommodation, dining and activities that are environmentally sustainable. We have moved away from overly touristed locations and we are hand-picking ethical, socially-conscious and environmentally-aware travel brands to partner with.”

Lastly, 33 Degrees identifies safety and security as of paramount important, saying that “now, more than ever, tipping the scales of a destination’s desirability are safety and security.”

Interestingly, it says that among some of the safest choices are Singapore, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Canada and Japan.

CONCLUSION

Much the same as in 2018, with players in the MICE space having to work smarter and deliver more unique experiences – regardless of whether it’s a conference, exhibition or incentive trip – as they look to differentiate their events from everything else out there.

5 WAYS TO SPICE UP YOUR CONFERENCE
  1. Ice Breakers – Two truths and a lie; poll the audience; or human bingo – ice breakers are one of the most effective ways to kick off a meeting or conference. If planned and executed well, icebreaking sessions can be a wonderful way to help people get to know each other, learn more about the goals of your event and create a good vibe in the room.
  2. Get a great MC – Often the last item left to secure once the rest of the budget has been spent, yet the person that can have the biggest influence on how your audience feels is the Master of Ceremonies. A fun and engaging MC can be great asset and given they have the most face time with your audience, they can have an immeasurable difference on your big day.
  3. Keep your social media up-to-date – We know social media for some people is advertising the life they wish they had. And sometimes it can look believable. You can do the same with your conference on social media. Give your delegates a compelling reason to attend your conference in those updates, and a link to the registration page to close the deal.
  4. Keep them moving – Keep the health and well-being of your attendees in mind. One way to do this is by organising a wellness program. It can be difficult to fit exercise into a busy conference schedule, so make it part of the attendees’ day by hiring a local trainer or fitness expert to lead morning workouts in the meeting venue or early morning fitness walks in the area. Hand out sponsor-logoed t-shirts, towels or energy bars.
  5. Let me entertain you – Conferences are usually long and no matter how captivating and stimulating the content is, people get tired towards the end. Use entertainment to re-spark the energy in the room and strengthen the learning experience. Book a comedian or speaker with a fun story who will refresh the audience and energise them for the closing sessions.

(Source: Keith Harwood, Director of Inspire Speakers)

CONFERENCE VENUE CONSIDERATIONS

Five questions to answer before you start making a list of potential venues:

  1. Who is coming? Obtain a realistic estimate of numbers and don’t look at venues that fall outside this figure. Also consider who the delegates are, their average age, interests and expectations. You want to be sure your venue adds to the lure of your guest speaker, line-up and the subject of the conference.
  2. When is the best date for your conference? If you schedule the conference close to a public holiday at a family-friendly venue, guests will be keen to attend and bring their families. And don’t forget your team; make sure there are no clashes with other big time-consuming events.
  3. What is your budget? Know what your financial limitations are. Include everything from large obvious costs to the smallest token gifts. Then add a bit of a safety cushion, just in case something unforeseen crops up.
  4. Why this particular venue? Once you have answers to points 1, 2 and 3, look for a venue that meets your requirements and also offers something unique. The venue is important and it’s so much easier to attract delegates if you’ve chosen a venue that is an attraction in itself. And sometimes the best one is not the most obvious.

(Source: Chantel Reynell, Hospitality Manager at Langebaan Country Estate