Eye on West Africa

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I remember many years ago when the experts predicted that video conferencing and other technology signalled the death knell of the meetings industry. They expected that, with everything ‘going virtual’, people would have no need to travel to conferences – delegates would go to the nearest video-equipped venue and join the conference from there. Business meetings would be held through office-to-office links.

It seems those experts were mistaken.

A survey by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) of the international associations market segment, reports that the number of global events in this segment has grown by 10% each year. International associations are one of the most visible parts of the industry and, most importantly, are measureable, something that is not often possible with this market.

What can be measured is the supply of large-scale venues. In Africa, the market has been dominated for decades by South Africa. The Cape Town International Convention Centre, opened in 2003, is one of a number of conference venues in the city and has helped Cape Town achieve the highest ranking for Africa on the global list of destinations for international association congresses, an equal 60th place with Dubai. Nairobi (Kenya) is the next African city on the list, an equal 100th place with Abu Dhabi.

To a large extent, the conference and meetings industry – not forgetting the exhibitions industry – is supply-led, especially where a destination is concerned. If the venue is not available, the event goes elsewhere, and all the benefits – commercial, economic, social – are lost forever.

West Africa is still a relatively small player in the international meetings market, although various venues have had success in the regional and domestic market. Dakar (Senegal) has been a favoured conference destination for many years, particularly with Francophone countries. It has good air connections to Europe and some good quality, professionally-managed venues.

Large-scale purpose-built venues can be found in Accra (Ghana), Cotonou (Benin), and throughout Nigeria. Dubbed the ‘Conference Capital’ in the country’s Tourism Master Plan, Abuja has several large venues, in the Hilton and Sheraton hotels, and in the non-hotel, stand-alone International Conference Centre and the ECOWAS Centre.

But the largest of these is only 2,000 seats, which is nothing compared with the Expo Centre in Lagos, and some of the planned venues in various state capitals around the country. 

Cross River State government recently launched the Calabar International Convention Centre. A government-led initiative, the CICC is part of the state’s objective to generate more revenue internally (lessening the dependence on central government hand-outs), and reap the benefits that a large-scale venue can bring.

The total capacity of the CICC is 5,000 people in 21 different halls, and bookings are already underway for the expected opening in February 2015. Construction began in 2012, and the project is on track for partial completion by the end of 2014.

This is a great example of a state government recognising that capital investment in a facility such as this is an essential part of the basic infrastructure. The CICC will be managed by a private sector operator, and it is intended that the vast majority of outsourced activities will come from the local economy. Large-scale convention centres rarely provide a commercial return on investment, which is why government has to provide the infrastructure.

Elsewhere in Nigeria, other state governments are also active in the sector. Ondo state is putting the finishing touches to The Dome, a 3,000-person capacity events centre in Akure, which will also have a private sector operator. The Akwa Ibom State government is building a 5,000-seat convention centre in Uyo, and the Enugu state government is looking for investors to complete the stalled convention centre project in Enugu.

Whilst the international market would be very welcome at these facilities, they are primarily targeted at the domestic market. It is estimated that there are almost 100 professional associations in Nigeria and, because of the scale of the country and thus memberships, these associations need large venues such as the CICC to host their annual congress, and regional events. As well as the associations, there are events organised by central, state and local government, companies, NGOs, private individuals, social organisations and many others.

In the emerging economies of West Africa, there is a greater need than ever for Africans to meet and share experiences, learn from each other and make plans for the future.  I believe that the meetings industry – and not the virtual one – has a very bright future.

Trevor Ward
MD: W Hospitality