Q&A: Tightening Up

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The Southern African Association for the Conference Industry has a bit of a job on its hands, as it seeks to regulate its industry and attempt to tighten up its processes and membership. Most importantly, it’s looking for a way to ensure that the market is served by only those qualified to organise industry events of a certain scale. Chairperson Nina Freysen-Pretorius joined editor Dylan Rogers to explain.

Please explain just who or what SAACI is?

Founded in 1987, SAACI is the number one association for the business events industry in Southern Africa. We represent businesses, both big and small, that organise, host or provide services to conferences, incentives, meetings and exhibitions.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the South African conferencing industry?

Fortunately, I believe it is on the rise again. After the economic downturn, businesses chose to downscale their regular conferences or incentives and even in some instances they cancelled them altogether. However, of late, some of our members have seen that business levels are once again on the rise and this bodes well for the future.

Are there any particular talking points or themes that are dominating discussions?

Budgets, innovation and sustainability are big topics at the moment. How does an organisation make targets without over-spending on the budget? Get innovative and know what your end goal is before making any decisions. The demand on leaving a legacy behind is prominent within big business, and smaller business is catching on.

And Africa as a whole? Do you have experience/thoughts on the industry outside Africa?

Africa is definitely an emerging market and this is clearly seen with some of the big corporations setting up offices all over the continent.

If so, which countries are the biggest rivals to South Africa as a conference destination?

There are so many emerging markets within our industry across the globe that it would be difficult to name just a few. We just have to ensure that we are included, with the assistance of our National and Provincial Convention Bureaus, in on the rotation pattern which international conferences or events normally follow. These rotation patterns normally run a five-year cycle.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in South Africa?

Within our industry, I would have to say that our biggest challenge is the inexperienced or not properly qualified individuals. People often think that arranging a conference or event is the same as organising a dinner party in your home for 10 of your closest friends. It is not at all – there are so many different elements to consider. Unfortunately, these challenges make our industry look unprofessional as a whole.

Does the South African government have a role to play here?

Absolutely! If we can convince the government departments to only use businesses that are linked to an industry association such as SAACI for their meetings and conferences, in the same way that they utilise businesses that are VAT registered or have a BEE ranking, that would be a good start. Obviously, this would enable the associations to grow membership, but it would also show that companies are prepared to put their hands up and say ‘we are professional and we work within a code of conduct’.

Can you give us an indication of just how big a business the South African conferencing industry is, and has there been growth in the last year or two?

This is difficult to establish at this point as previous statistics were concentrated around the leisure market. With the recent formation of the National and Provincial Conventions Bureaus, we will be able to more accurately track the business events impact on the economy and job creation.

How do you regulate your industry?

SAACI has an accreditation programme for our conference organisers through Grant Thornton.  The programme has three categories which the PCOs can choose to be accredited for, depending on their individual businesses and requirements. We are also in the process of developing an accreditation for our other forums, and are busy with industry consultation at the moment.

As marketing and events budgets see their belts tighten, what’s key to the sustained success of the conferencing industry, across the board? 

Face to face meetings are still very relevant for businesses, and although the development in conference technology is booming at the moment, which in some cases results in a drop-off in attendance or frequency, the perceived value of in-person meetings and conferences is greater.