The African MICE space is evolving nicely, with organisers and suppliers under
healthy pressure to take the industry forward and push the boundaries of what’s
possible in this space, together with generally positive sentiment as it relates to the
current and future spend in the sector.
Reed Exhibitions – one of the world’s leading event organisers with a portfolio of approximately 500 events in 41 countries and a staff of 3,000 exhibition specialists – produces an annual report towards the end of each year, titled the “IBTM Trends Watch Report”, in which it looks at the topical issues in the global MICE space.
The report looks at some of the issues impacting the performance of this industry, along with drilling down into the various geographical regions and throwing forward to the following year.
Whilst its observations on the African MICE industry are always interesting and, mostly, informative, there are also, usually, some consistent themes and trends that could be applied to any of the world’s regions.
“Instability has become the new normal, and businesses are carrying on regardless, and that means investment in staff, communication, knowledge, intelligence and relationships,” said the 2017 report towards the end of last year.
It goes on to say that: “This is an industry that is now beginning to grasp its true value and not only demonstrate it, but sell it back to customers. No event takes place without the investment of a business or a brand; be it delegate tickets, sponsorship, or the creation of an event itself. Again, we see the meetings and events industry getting closer to business, earning its trust and faith, and delivering. The relationship between business and the meetings and events industry seems to be growing stronger every day.”
This in itself is an interesting observation, as the incredible pace of technological advancement often results in the age-old question of whether or not the events industry has a sustainable future being trotted out.
The IBTM report is unequivocal.
“Despite increased technology, new market entries, and new ways of communication, businesses find growth in the same way,” it said. “They look after their staff, they look after their customers, they develop new products, and communicate with new markets. In is this environment, the meetings and conference industry looks to thrive.”
So, that’s the future according to Reed Exhibitions and its IBTM Trends Watch Report, but what’s happening now, specific to Africa’s MICE players?
More directly, how are some of Africa’s biggest economic players performing, off the back of a couple of difficult and disruptive years, both economically and politically?
“The average spend is starting to increase after a flat period over the last two years,” says South Africa-based Zukiso Makalima, aha Hotels & Lodges Regional Sales Manager. “MICE as a whole is up and client meetings, training and brand promotions are at the forefront.”
That being said, Makalima does point to the water crisis in South Africa’s Western Cape as one area where spend has been affected, and this has clearly been felt across the board.
“The most topical issue has been the drought in the Western Cape and the looming possibility of ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town, but the city has proved to be remarkably resilient,” says Jennifer Beattie, Sun International’s Group Manager: Africa Sales & Marketing. “However, spend is definitely up for 2018, although this could be off the back of Europe no longer being seen as a safe destination.”
“The spend is currently in flux from quarter to quarter, making it difficult to define a definite up or down,” says Liezl Meier, Director of Sales & Marketing at Fairmont Zimbali Resort in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. “Clients are most definitely more budget-conscious, and even those with a more generous budget are searching for options that provide great value for money. The days of frivolous spending are most definitely behind us.”
So, a bit of a mixed bag, and it obviously depends on where you are and what sort of business you’re seeing right now.
In terms of the region itself, though, there does appear to be a sense of optimism that there are a few key elements in place, political change in certain countries has been for the good, and there has been MICE development in some ambitious markets.
“South Africa, and the entire SADC region, stands to gain from an influx of business tourism – assuming a conducive environment is created,” says Craig Newman, CEO of the Johannesburg Expo Centre and incoming president of the international exhibition body UFI.
Newman believes that business tourism alone has the ability to grow ten-fold in the SADC region, contributing to economic growth and job creation. However, to capitalise on the potential, the region has to overcome issues such as visa challenges and international perception around safety and security.
“In Africa, apart from South Africa which is considered as a pioneer in the MICE or business events industry, other nations are still on a learning curve to leverage the opportunities in this sector,” says Nagendran Naidu, Convention Centre Director at Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre, Kigali. “The biggest challenge in a particular destination is the investment required for a quality venue, such as a conference centre, and understanding the return on investment. This is mainly due to poor air connectivity in some destinations, political instability, poor safety and security, and a lack of USP or offerings.”
“South Africa is still the preferred MICE destination, for now,” says aha’s Makalima. Aha Hotels & Lodges has a portfolio of 38 properties, mainly in South Africa, but also in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
“We have, though, seen more interest in other African countries in the last four years, and not just as an incentive destination,” says Makalima. “Victoria Falls is seeing increased tourism investment, both on the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides, and it won’t be long before the South African market and the rest of the African continent and source markets such as the UK and Europe, China and India, start to see this area as an ideal destination for incentives and team-building options.”
The IBTM Report identifies three main trends when throwing forward to what might dominate the meetings and events industry in the near future.
One of them is that of “the move towards experience.” The report goes on to say that “the ILEA UK Chapter (International Live Event Association) characterises this trend as a shift in where the industry sees its own value, from an operationally effective industry, to that of a creative one. Whereas once meetings and events were evaluated on their organisation, they are now valued for their long-lasting impacts on people, companies and industry.”
No surprise, then, that event organisers, PCOs and suppliers are being pushed by clients to come up with fresh, new ideas.
“We have noticed an increase in experiential requests,” says Beattie. “Our MICE guests want more personalised and authentic local activities. Also popular are unusual culinary experiences such as the foraging opportunity offered by The Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town. Other requests include non-traditional meeting places, such as outdoor spaces, or more innovative seating arrangements for smaller groups.”
“Planners are looking for meeting, conferencing and networking spaces that are different,” says Neelma Maru, Director of Sales & Marketing at the recently-opened Moevenpick Hotel & Residences Nairobi. “They are looking for fresh ideas, experimenting with space and are open to holding their events, talks, workshops and networking sessions in creative spaces.”
“Meeting organisers and conference attendees are bored of the same tired old spaces,” agrees Marc Wachsberger, Managing Director of The Capital Hotels & Apartments. “We’re also seeing a trend towards more health-conscious choices on the menus and some of the larger groups require foreign exchange facilities on site.” Kevin Clarence, Director at Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre to the east of Johannesburg, picks up on this point.
“Big buffets and rich sweet snacks are changing to healthier options where quality is over quantity,” he says. “These special requests are often a sign of each company’s push for healthier living.”
On top of that, Clarence has seen a definite shift in the types of requests his customers are putting through.
“An ordinary workshop now becomes a themed exercise with the client’s expectations being that Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre would need to provide the means to successfully make this happen,” he says. “Also, no longer do groups have a conference/workshop one week, a banquet another, or an exhibition the following month. The trend we are seeing is a merging of these types of events.”
Not only are clients becoming more conscientious about what their delegates are eating, but also the impact the event itself is having on the environment, and this appears to be a recurrent theme.
“We have had several requests for ‘green tourism’, such as eco-friendly lodges,” says Makalima. “Also, clients want to become involved in eco-tourism and local community projects to uplift and promote local communities.”
Aha Hotels & Lodges are also seeing a change in the requests filtering through to them.
“We are seeing requests that are outside of the norm and the industry as a whole is changing as companies and individuals are wanting to be treated as such,” says Makalima. “The stock standard doesn’t cut it anymore. It is imperative to be flexible, because today the group is looking for Zulu or Xhosa traditional catering and the next group is looking for vegetarian or Banting diets.”
All of which means that suppliers have to retain that flexibility and open-mindedness.
“At a hotel level we treat each enquiry (and client) as unique, so that we are able to tailor an option that fits the client, their needs and also their budget,” says Meier. “Environmental stewardship also remains a pressing matter, more so in the many areas of South Africa that are currently suffering under a crippling drought.”
So, how to stay relevant? Well, listening is a good start, as clearly clients are not wanting what they’ve had before, and as each event – whether it ’s a meeting, conference, exhibition or incentive programme – finds itself under increasing pressure to be unique, suppliers in this space are going to have to stay on their toes and remain flexible.
“This is a highly competitive market,” says Beattie. “To stay relevant, it is important to keep abreast of global MICE trends, understanding what guests are being offered elsewhere, and to match or improve this. Innovation and technology are also key in this space. The challenge to retaining this market is to constantly evaluate our offering in relation to the rest of the market, and to continually innovate and improve our offering.”
Beattie touches on the issue of technology, and this is not to be under-estimated, because there isn’t an area of the industry that has not been greatly impacted by technological advancement. So, why wouldn’t MICE practitioners maximise the options it offers?
“Most corporates have started seeing technology as a way to work smarter and more efficiently, and they are looking to their travel agents and MICE organisers to offer solutions,” says Maru. “Also conference rooms with advanced technology systems, good internet speed and good and natural light.”
At the end of the day, though, there is no substitute for the face-to-face interaction.
“Nothing can beat the high level of interaction and collaboration that comes with meeting face-to-face and off site,” says Raul de Lima, General Manager at Sun City. “The opportunities to connect, engage and create that conferences offer, certainly promote teamwork, productivity and performance.”
Or, as Reed Exhibitions’ IBTM Trends Watch Report 2017 puts it: “The meetings and events industry has always been robust because delegates around the world, no matter what happened the day, week or month before, still need to work. Equally, businesses need to grow, associations need to meet, knowledge needs to be shared, and new discoveries and stories need to be told.”