Staying strong

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While budgets remain tight and clients are demanding more value than ever, the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) industry remains buoyant, as Richard Holmes discovered.

There’s simply no substitute for the value of meeting face-to-face. That’s the consensus from professionals across Africa’s events and incentive industry, who say that the sector is in bullish mood.

As continued investment – in both resources and tertiary industries – into Africa ensures steady business for the continent’s meetings facilities and associated hotels, key to the success of MICE travel is the availability of world-class facilities. Happily, in established business tourism destinations in Africa the conference venues, airport infrastructure and hospitality offerings are on par with the best the world has to offer.

“Much like the leisure travel segment, Africa is a bucket list destination for the MICE travel market,” says Caroline Daniel, Regional Director of Africa for Preferred Hotels & Resorts. “Many new-build hotels and conferencing facilities, along with properties that are currently being built or renovated, are meeting international standards in terms of technology, amenities and offerings.”

“There is huge opportunity for the MICE market in both Africa and South Africa,” adds Markus Fritz, General Manager at Hilton Durban, who agrees that one of the key engines behind growth in the sector is “the exceptional facilities available across the continent, many of which are on a par with facilities found in traditional MICE destinations internationally.”

While the facilities are in place to service demand, in many ways the business travel industry holds up a mirror to the broader economic health of a region. And with investment flowing firmly into Africa’s growing economies, the meetings, exhibition and conference side of the industry is showing strong growth.

“This industry is reflective of economies and the business partners that Africa has with the rest of the world,” explains Shinu Pillai, Exhibition Manager for industry gathering ibtm Africa, held in Cape Town last month. “It is well written that over the past decade Africa has been among the world’s fastest-growing continents, and despite falling commodity prices the outlook still remains favourable.”

“The market is fundamentally driven by the investment in Africa,” agrees Stephen Banks, Area Director of Sales for the Middle East and Africa for Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts. “Oil finds in many countries have driven a build-up in oilfield services and other associated industries. Africa is a priority for the majority of hotel companies who see the continent, especially sub-Saharan Africa, offering huge potential for expansion.”

With a diversity of venues and favourable exchange rates, “Africa, and South Africa in particular, has become an ideal location for international conferences, conventions, trade shows and symposiums. Not only is it considered very accessible in terms of air travel, but it is also a very cost-effective destination for international visitors,” says Michael Farr, Group General Manager Brand and Communications at Sun International. “Furthermore, stronger economies and renewed appetites for investment have added to the good growth of the MICE market in Africa.”

That may be so, but not all of Africa’s major players have enjoyed a prosperous past couple of years.

“Kenya was the only country to decline during the past two years, the result of terrorist concerns that led to a drop-off in tourism and decreases in stay unit nights,” says Lisa Lovegrove, Tsogo Sun’s Groups and Conferencing Sales Manager: Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani. “Growth in South Africa’s economy has weakened, but growth in international travel and rising room rates have bolstered the market. Total room revenue in South Africa rose 14% in 2013 and hotel-room revenue increased 14.6%.”

Lovegrove is also able to point to other trends she has picked up more recently, specific to the MICE market.

“Spending increased by approximately 11% in 2014, which was fuelled principally by an increase in the average room rate,” she says. “Clients are also becoming more budget conscious and are shopping online for the best deal, whilst a pick-up in occupancy rates has stimulated new activity in the market. Value for money and value-adds are another trend.”

While the likes of South Africa and Kenya are well established in the MICE industry for all four elements – meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions – key to the continued growth of the industry is the emergence of new destinations.

As economies diversify away from reliance on natural resources and small-scale industry, the potential for travel in the MICE industry grows exponentially. The likes of Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda (see sidebar) are all set to play an increasingly important role as business travel destinations on the continent.

On such a diverse continent, there can be no notion of one-size-fits-all, suggests Robin Mcleod, Manager: Sales & Marketing for Dragonfly Africa. “In South Africa, for example, the weak rand is definitely a factor in our favour, attracting visitors from across the globe. In other areas it is the improved resources that are attracting visitors, such as the new airport in Livingstone, Zambia for example. A general driving force into Africa is basic demand – more and more international corporates have offices and business interests in Africa and there is therefore a need for meetings and events to take place here.”

While investment flows are drawing increasing numbers of long-haul business travellers, a key trend emerging from the growing MICE industry on the continent is that of intra-African travel. Conference, meeting and incentive spend is no longer driven purely by international companies flying in, but rather African companies spending on business travel within Africa.

“African companies are definitely spending money on MICE travel in Africa,” says Jim McIntosh, General Manager – Business Development & Marketing for Tourvest Destination Management. “Not only are there banks and cellphone companies operating all over the continent, but for companies wishing to reward their staff yet minimise time spent out of the office, African destinations are cost-effective and convenient alternatives to long-haul destinations.”

“Intra-African MICE travel is becoming far more prevalent, especially in Eastern and Southern African countries, which demonstrates that African companies are spending more money on MICE initiatives and events,” adds Daniel. “However, the trend seems to be that for every three trips, two will take place in Africa and the other will take place internationally. Travelling time, and of course value and budget, remain key factors to be taken into account when considering and choosing destinations.”

“While we see a combination of both African and international visitors booking our properties for meetings, incentives, conferences or events, there is a definite a bias towards intra-African travel currently,” adds Farr.

However, there is still room for growth in the sector, with destinations such as Cape Town receiving a higher proportion of long-haul conferencing business.

“Most of our group-contracted business is either South African or international conferences or associations, and we don’t receive a lot of business from African corporates or associations,” says Stacey Hopkins, Director of Sales at The Westin Cape Town, adding that she is “optimistic that intra-African travel will gain momentum, as we’ve noted that the drive in the last year by SA Tourism to grow this segment has meant that there have been a lot more leads and enquiries coming through from an intra-African perspective.”

An ancillary benefit of business-focused travel – particularly in tourist-friendly destinations such as Cape Town – is the knock-on effect for the domestic tourism industry.

“According to research conducted by the South Africa National Convention Bureau, 40 percent of all convention delegates attending meetings in South Africa return in the next five years as tourists, boosting tourism growth and job creation years into the future,” explained South Africa’s Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, speaking at the opening of the Meetings Africa 2015 exhibition at Johannesburg’s Sandton Convention Centre in February. “We have already secured 177 major international association meetings for the next five years – thereby attracting a quarter of a million delegates with an estimated economic impact of R3.5-billion ($295-million).”

Those are impressive figures, with South Africa boasting a host of quality venues to cater for this demand. Among them, Sandton Convention Centre, arguably Johannesburg’s premier convention centre, Durban ICC, and Cape Town International Convention Centre – the three big venues in South Africa’s major business travel cities.

In addition to hosting its regular consumer exhibitions, Durban ICC has hosted events such as the Congress of the International Union of Architects (5,000 delegates), the Southern African TB Conference (1,300), the World Congress of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (750), and the World Medical Association Congress (540) over the past year.

Looking ahead, it has the following events on its calendar: the World Routes Development Forum, (the world’s largest aviation exhibition), the World Sociology Science Forum, the World Forestry Congress, and the 2016 International AIDS Conference, which is expected to attract over 18,000 delegates to Durban.

Sandton Convention, meanwhile, has events such as the African Construction Expo, Markex, the Airport Show Africa, Africa Rail, the Cargo Show, the Transport Safety & Security Show, the Future of Media, China Homelife Africa, Infrastructure Africa, and the Africa Oil & Gas Expo to look forward to in the short-term – and that’s just up until September!

“Exhibitions are reflecting the increase in infrastructure investment in Africa,” says Mati Nyazema, Executive Director: Sandton Convention Centre. “Global companies and industry sectors that are aiming to capitalise on the growth in infrastructure development in the African market, such as in transport, construction, rail, and many others, are using Johannesburg as a conduit into Africa, staging shows here and inviting contingents from across Africa to attend.”

So, where has Nyazema seen the biggest growth? Conferences or exhibitions?

“Due to the location of the SCC, we still drive our biggest revenue from conferences, with slight year-on-year growth in the internal corporate conference sector,” she says. “However, exhibitions are gaining momentum, with a strong interest in consumer shows. Trade exhibitions that are relevant and topical, e.g. power, infrastructure and transport, are showing strong growth and offer exhibitors and organisers good return on investment.”

While value, return-on-investment and ever-tightening purse strings will continue to define the market for the foreseeable future, overall the outlook for Africa’s MICE industry is healthy.

“I am cautiously optimistic about the MICE market in 2015 and beyond,” adds McIntosh. “While there can be no doubt that the industry has experienced a tough trading environment in the past 12 months, the signs are good that we are entering a phase of growth.”

Incentives: icing on the business cake

Incentives have long formed a key part of the business travel landscape, for both entertaining clients and rewarding staff. They are, however, often seen as the ‘icing on the cake’ at the best of times, and are often the first line item of expenditure to be cut when budget belts are tightened.

Choosing the right incentive destination comes down to balancing a number of factors, from expense to travel costs and time out of the office. Unsurprisingly, for many African companies, keeping close to home is a popular choice for saving both time and money.

Robin Mcleod, Manager: Sales & Marketing for Dragonfly Africa, which specialises in inbound travel, says South Africa remains the number one incentive destination, “although Tanzania is proving to be extremely popular in certain markets. We expect Victoria Falls, Livingstone in Zambia to increase in popularity now that the Yellow Fever vaccination requirement has been scrapped. Rwanda and Uganda are definitely up-and-coming destinations, with new infrastructure and product being developed. The Rwandan Tourism Board is actively engaging partners in the industry as to how they can grow and improve their offering.”

While the ‘wow factor’ and attractions of a country may be important considerations when planning an incentive, currency weakness has an immediate impact on clients’ appetite for a destination.

“Destinations like Victoria Falls have become too expensive,” suggests Glenn Stutchbury, Chief Executive Officer of Cresta Hotels. “Budgets are restricted still, but this may be destination-based due to the weakness of the rand.”

That said, expensive for one client could be great value for another, and for planners looking for exotic incentive venues, “destinations such as Namibia, Victoria Falls and Zanzibar are proving to be popular with South African corporates, largely due to their close proximity and favourable foreign exchange rates,” says McIntosh. “Mauritius remains a popular incentive destination – it offers great value for money, plus a wide variety of activities and resorts.”

McIntosh’s opinion – one that is shared by many in the industry – is music to the ears of that country’s national carrier.

“The MICE market is important for both Air Mauritius and the island, and we have experienced huge growth in this segment,” adds Carla da Silva, Regional Manager: Africa and Latin America for Air Mauritius. “More and more organisations are looking at destinations closer to South Africa. Mauritius is only four hours away from Johannesburg, with no visa required, as well as no medical requirements.”

However, while the old favourites continue to draw the crowds, companies with larger budgets hoping to reward top performers are increasingly looking further afield. The likes of Russia, Croatia and Turkey are all establishing themselves as popular incentive destinations for African companies, while big-ticket trips may stretch to the ice hotels and Aurora-spotting in Scandinavia.

“Sports travel is also showing huge growth in the incentives market, and is an area that we give a great deal of attention to,” adds McIntosh. “Motor vehicle and tyre manufacturers regularly reward their top achievers with weekend trips to Formula 1 Grand Prix races and the Rugby World Cup. Tourvest Destination Management has had so much success in the area of sports travel that we currently operate three separate business units in this market.”

Those units include dedicated divisions for international mega-events such as the FIFA World Cup, TEAM Sports for inbound and outbound sports travel, and the official tour operator for all official SA Rugby matches and events.

Identifying the ideal incentive destination comes down to balancing a number of competing factors, from ease of travel to the sought-after ‘wow factor’.

Airlift and ease of access is a crucial consideration, and the short travelling times and easy connectivity of many African destinations is a tick in the box for keeping incentives short-haul. For clients coming from further afield, the availability of direct flights and flight schedules that allow for seamless transfers – limiting time wasted in transit at airports – can all determine which African destination is chosen.

Air Mauritius has been particularly innovative in enticing incentive travel to the island, with discounted rates for corporate groups.

“We can also assist with branded headrests on the aircraft for a personalised touch,” says Da Silva. “On the ground we offer dedicated group check-in, VIP meet-and-greet upon request, and discounted business class lounge access.”

Mauritius has long been known for its upscale resort offerings, and these have proven particularly sought-after by incentive organisers. In particular, resorts and properties that offer all-inclusive options with no hidden costs are popular, as budget management is simplified and easier to control.

A further trend emerging is that incentive trips are increasingly being combined with business meetings or brand awareness. While the goal is to reward top performers or loyal clients, room needs to be made in the itinerary for getting down to business.

“There is almost always a business element to incentives, with at least a half-day meeting, so pure incentives are rare,” says Hopkins, adding that “incentive trips have become more experiential. Many customers have travelled extensively over the last few years and organisers are looking for additional elements that make the trip special.”

Where to, for conferencing?

While incentive travel may be about rewarding valued clients, or encouraging future performance, meetings, conferencing and exhibitions are all about cold, hard business. Contacts are made, numbers are crunched and deals are signed.

As such, and unlike other sectors of the travel industry, conferencing and large corporate events are particularly vulnerable to the ebb and flow of economic growth, says Shinu Pillai, Exhibition Manager for the leading MICE industry gathering ibtm Africa: “The meetings and events industry is driven by business, and the industry’s fortunes largely depend upon the performance of a number of key sectors in the economy, as the volume of meetings, product launches, incentive trips and training sessions generally reflects the levels of economic activity, innovation and profitability of these market segments.”

While the meetings, exhibitions and conferencing industry as a whole is showing good growth, the increased scrutiny of travel spend has seen many smaller gatherings brought in-house in a bid to save costs.

In addition, more than ever, companies are seeking greater value for their MICE spend with ‘bang for buck’ often proving the deciding factor as to where a conference or meeting is held.

“Budgets, while growing, are still reserved and as a result, clients are seeking lower rates but, more importantly, better value for money, and are seeking added value benefits to be included in the overall package,” explains Caroline Daniel, Regional Director of Africa for Preferred Hotels & Resorts. “Because of the demand for value, more companies are investing in strategic meeting management programmes to consolidate their spend. More companies are making preferred agreements with hotel brands that may benefit the company, but impose strict addendums that limit the hotels that are able to meet those requirements.”

“Clients continue to drive margin down, while still looking for creativity, the ‘wow factor’ and value-added benefits,” says Jim McIntosh, General Manager – Business Development & Marketing for Tourvest Destination Management. “As a service provider, the ability to demonstrate actual cost savings is increasingly a requirement of the procurement process.”

While getting more for less is the order of business, the competitive market is allowing clients to negotiate hard for better deals and additional inclusions.

“From a conferencing perspective the market continues to be buoyant but more demanding,” says Kevin Clarence, Director of the Birchwood Hotel and OR Tambo Conference Centre, one of South Africa’s largest conference facilities. “The tough trading conditions make it a customer’s market and venues need to be prepared to negotiate to secure deals.”

With its convenient location close to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, the largest air hub on the continent, the Birchwood Hotel is also attempting to set itself apart with a new high-end conference accommodation offering.

The property last month launched the R25-million ($2.1-million) Silverbirch@Birchwood, an exclusive new ‘hotel-within-hotel’ in a quiet corner of the property. With 153 high-spec rooms, secured access and stylish new dining option, the Silverbirch product is aimed squarely at high-end executive travellers visiting the property. The luxurious rooms also include larger work areas and unlimited high-speed internet access.

Along with seeking more for less, the length of events is also shrinking. Events are becoming shorter, but with more impact, says Garnet Basson, Group General Manager at The Capital Hotel Group: “This allows companies to control the cost of the event, yet still achieve the end goal of what needs to be done. The budgets have increased slightly, but the demands have increased on the value requests, as the clients want their delegates to experience high-level offerings and quality.”

“Facilitators are packing a lot of content into a shorter time frame, so the duration of the meeting is reduced,” adds Markus Fritz, General Manager at Hilton Durban, situated alongside the Durban ICC (Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre). “In line with this, there is a trend for a reduction in pre- or post-event stays.

“Companies are also revisiting delegate profiles, and reducing the number of participants to one key participant, where previously there would be a number of representatives from a company.  The MICE market, like all markets, is looking at the value-adds a destination, organiser and property is bringing to the table.”

To improve its offering to MICE clients, Hilton Durban is undergoing a major rejuvenation project, which got underway in 2014. The main lobby is being revamped to include a new coffee shop, The Coral Lounge, to serve as a meeting point for guests. New restaurant and bar facilities are set to open in September, while in 2016 rooms throughout the property will be refurbished and a new Executive Lounge will be built.

And yet while value is important, it’s not the only factor clients take into account when deciding where to host a meeting or conference.

“Budgets are always a consideration, but not at the expense of location, standards, security and comfort for delegates, which are all still high on the priority list when choosing a venue,” adds Stephen Banks, Area Director of Sales for the Middle East and Africa for Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts.

Airlift, ease of travel and quality of local infrastructure are other key considerations for meeting planners. With global airlines increasing their destinations and schedules into Africa, the knock-on effect for the MICE industry is set to be substantial.

Less tangible, but no less important factors taken into account are the health, safety and security of delegates.

This was brought into stark contrast in 2014 when the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa. Although the outbreak was confined to a relatively small area of the continent, the fall-out affected both business and leisure travel across Africa.

“External influences such as the media frenzy surrounding the Ebola outbreak have undoubtedly placed the meetings and incentive travel market in Africa under severe pressure,” says McIntosh.

Happily, with the outbreak under control, the impact on destinations in West Africa is beginning to wane.

“The recent health crisis in neighbouring countries has had an effect on us in Accra, however already this year we have seen many of the postponed events now taking place and our meeting facilities are extremely busy from April,” adds Banks.

Whether it’s health concerns or personal safety of attendees making their way from hotel to conference centre, safety and security is a huge concern for incentive and conference organisers, says Robin Mcleod, Manager: Sales & Marketing for Dragonfly Africa: “Corporate clients cannot be seen to be putting their invited guests or delegates at any risk whatsoever.”

While the physical security of delegates is obviously paramount, the increasingly competitive world of business means security often extends to ensuring sensitive information discussed in executive breakaways and conferences doesn’t leave the room.

“Clients want to know that whatever they are discussing is absolutely private and confidential,” says Stacey Hopkins, Director of Sales at The Westin Cape Town. Ancillary to this is the security of data networks and the provision of fast, secure Wi-Fi internet connections, ­ideally with technical support to-hand, both of which are becoming essential for business travel destinations.

“Today’s meetings are real-time. Attendees are constantly plugged in, communicating with each other during meetings, likely giving opinions of the meeting while the meeting is happening,” says Daniel. “For this reason, Wi-Fi is a must in all destinations. Hotels that charge for Wi-Fi are not competitive and Wi-Fi is always a negotiated point.”

In fact, the provision of free Wi-Fi is becoming just the starting point of connectivity requirements for 21st-century conferencing and exhibitions.

“What is also required is the hotel’s ability to offer higher bandwidth speeds, ISDN lines, simultaneous translation and dedicated support,” suggests Banks. “Although the hotels may work with third-party providers for more sophisticated systems and solutions, the client needs evidence that the hotel can deliver, and in turn the clients are prepared to pay for a seamless technology solution.”

Clients are also prepared to pay for memorable food and beverage experiences. Napoleon believed an army marched on its stomach, and the same could be said for the hordes of hungry conference delegates. The food and beverage offering is increasingly becoming a point of difference for hotels and event venues, with in-house chefs quick to respond to the ever-changing tastes of global travellers.

While the Banting trend is yet to take hold, “gone are the days where one could fill up your delegates with buffet-style meals loaded with carbs, starch and sugar!” says Daniel. “We are finding that clients are more frequently requesting healthier options from a food and beverage perspective. To give a couple of examples, a tea and coffee break is now often replaced with a smoothie station; working lunches now comprise of a ‘build your own’ salad station; and overall, more vegetarian, low-calorie and allergy-friendly options are required.”

“Food should be designed to meet delegates’ needs, “says Paddy Brearley, Managing Director of Legacy Hotels & Resorts. “It’s not always the quantity but the quality that matters in this slimming ‘keep-fit’ age.”

Nyazema of Sandton Convention Centre agrees.

“There has definitely been a trend to review healthy food options,” she says. “Clients want healthy options offered within their breaks and we have been investing in different menus to ensure that we meet their requirements. We have also responded to the ‘food truck’ trend and the need for quick, fresh and easy – and often innovative – meal options that can meet these needs, as and when required by our clients.”

For many clients, the menu of food and beverage choices is increasingly becoming part of the ‘wow factor’ of the event, with the final venue chosen specifically with this in mind.

“We see many MICE clients looking to us to help them with innovative ways to entertain their employees and/or clients, such as exciting food options available at the property and location,” explains Michael Farr, Group General Manager Brand and Communications at Sun International. “For this reason our flagship properties The Maslow in Sandton, the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town, and Sun City in the North West of South Africa are very popular destinations in the MICE market.”

In essence, F&B is a selling point for the properties that get it right, and a death-knell for those that don’t.

 “The food and beverage offering is a deal-breaker, should you not be able to adapt to the requirements of your respective clients,” says Basson.

Whether it’s co-ordinating special menus or arranging for limousine transfers for delegates, the key to winning business is making life easy for conference organisers and the client footing the bill.

“In today’s market the conference buyers are experienced, busy people, so fast responses, tailor-made solutions, a dedicated contact throughout the event, and the ability to offer and deliver diverse and memorable programmes, are all key to the success of any event,” adds Banks. “Delivering on promises and transparent pricing are also unwritten requirements, but the aim should always be to exceed expectations.”

“Clients want to have a one-stop-shop to make the organisation of the group an easy one – they want to know that their hotel will co-ordinate all plans,” says Hopkins. “They want everything to be housed under one roof, which is very important, as it cuts out unnecessary expenditure for logistics. The Westin Cape Town is offering this service by dedicating a sales person to the MICE planners and by providing personal assistance whilst on the property.”

A one-stop-shop is precisely what’s on offer at one of the most exciting new conference and exhibition destinations on the continent – the new Calabar International Convention Centre in Cross River State in Nigeria, set to open its doors in May.

Situated in the Summit Hills development – that includes a 300-room 4-star hotel, medical facilities and 18-hole golf course – this $90-million investment into the business travel industry will offer 18 independent venues capable of hosting up to 5,000 delegates. Plenary sessions can accommodate up to 2,200 delegates at a single sitting, while breakaway rooms are flexible enough to handle one-on-one meetings. The venue is a 30-minute drive from the Margaret Ekpo International Airport.

“Nigeria’s entrance, with the Calabar ICC, into the international meetings industry is significant, not only because of the country’s large population, but also for its projected continuous economic growth,” said Paul D’Arcy, Chief Executive Officer of Calabar ICC.

In a further bid to entice large conference and exhibition business, the Calabar ICC is located in a free trade zone, with exhibitors and conference organisers exempt from value-added tax and other national and state-levied taxes. Exhibitors are also permitted to bring in display items and samples duty-free.

With Nigeria overtaking South Africa as the largest economy in Africa, there is enormous potential for growth in West Africa’s business travel industry, suggests Mike Lord, Project Manager at Alliance Venue and Facility Management (AVFM), operating company of the Calabar ICC: “South Africa and East Africa for so long have led the African Renaissance for the MICE industry in Africa. It’s West Africa’s turn to grow and highlight the potential of the region, and with Calabar International Convention Centre, the first purpose-built ICC of the region, we stand to unlock this potential for West Africa.”

Lovegrove of Tsogo Sun offers a similar sentiment.

“Nigeria will be the fastest-growing market over the next five years with a projected 22.6% compound annual gain,” she says. “Growth will be facilitated by an increase in available rooms and large gains in stay unit nights fuelled by a booming economy. However, recent terrorist activity in the country may impact negatively on future prospects.”

Another destination increasingly tapping into business tourism is the island of Mauritius. Long a popular choice for leisure and incentive travel, the island’s fast-growing financial services and telecommunications sectors are pushing greater corporate demand.

“Mauritius is increasingly becoming a business and financial hub in Africa, driving meetings and corporate negotiations,” says Carla da Silva, Regional Manager: Africa and Latin America for Air Mauritius. “We have seen an increase in small groups, meetings and strategic sessions being held in Mauritius.”

With bullish economies and world-class facilities, it’s no surprise that the outlook is bright for Africa’s MICE industry, says Pillai: “Forecasters are practically unanimous in their predictions that 2015 will witness continuing growth in meetings, events and business travel generally.”

“Our expectation, based on the increase in enquiries for African member properties is that the demand for MICE travel – for both international and domestic companies – will continue to show strong growth in the coming months,” adds Daniel.  “This market segment has returned in robust form, showing a trend towards longer booking windows and lead times. For the first time since 2009, companies are starting to increase their budgets… including key business destinations in Africa.”

For major hotel groups such as Sun International, the future lies firmly in Africa, says Farr: “We are placing a very big focus on growing our Africa market segment covering all segments from African associations to corporate meetings and weddings. We expect the healthy momentum in the MICE market in Africa to continue, and we anticipate year on year growth.”

Durban ICC’s Marketing, Sales & Events Director, Mala Dorasamy, is similarly bullish.

“I believe that the MICE market will continue to reflect the economic realities of the country (South Africa) as a whole, although the industry should perform slightly better than the sluggish growth rate demonstrated in the national economy in recent times,” she says. “Whilst business is still tough for many sectors, the need for direct interaction through meetings and business events remains strong, as organisations strive to find solutions to the prevailing economic climate.”

That all sounds pretty positive. Here’s looking forward to a booming African MICE market in the remainder of 2015.

Dubai draws MICE crowd

With direct flights from over 200 worldwide destinations, and more than 85,000 hotel rooms on offer, it’s little surprise that the Gulf Emirate of Dubai has fast established itself as one of the premier conference, exhibition and incentive destinations on the planet.

Add to that its ideal geographical location – roughly halfway between almost any point on the globe – and it’s clear that the fast-growing city-state is the perfect choice for global corporations with far-flung offices to meet and entertain clients.

“The city is a commercial hub and gateway, which is perfectly positioned between East and West,” says Wendie White, Director of Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing Southern Africa (DTCM SA). “The city caters for all budgets with venues and hotels ranging in star rating.”

While hotels across the Emirate offer state-of-the-art business and event facilities, the premier conference, exhibition and meetings hub is the area of Business Bay.

“Business Bay is an incredible project in the heart of Dubai – an entire city with an infrastructure well-equipped to promote business, trade and luxury living,” adds White. “Hotels in this area cater for all types of business events.”

Another key destination is the Dubai International Convention Centre at the Dubai World Trade Centre Complex, which has hosted mega-events including Arab Health Week and Arabian Travel Market.

While conferencing and exhibitions are important sectors of the MICE market, the city is also becoming increasingly popular as an incentive destination thanks to Emirates’ excellent direct flight connections from over 20 African cities.

“Destinations like Dubai and Abu Dhabi offer unique cultural experiences, the ‘wow factor’, and are reasonably accessible in terms of flight time and flight cost,” says Jim McIntosh, General Manager – Business Development & Marketing for Tourvest Destination Management.

If there’s a downside it’s that Dubai is no longer a bargain destination. After recovering from the 2008 crash, the city is best-suited to clients with healthy budgets, says Johan Venter, Executive Head: Incentive Travel for Uwin Iwin: “Dubai is frequently requested by many clients, but often their budgets cannot stretch far enough to offer an all-inclusive programme along with all the frills participants have come to expect from an incentive trip.”

Knowing where to stay can be crucial to both sticking within your budget and making the incentive successful, and the first decision to be made is simple: beach or city?

“In terms of leisure incentives, the beach hotels in the Jumeirah strip are still the most desirable as you get the best of both worlds – beach and city,” says Venter. “Conference groups, or incentive groups on a tight budget, tend to favour the city hotels along Sheikh Zayed Road, the new Burj Khalifa or downtown precinct, as well as the Creekside hotels in Bur Dubai and Deira. Festival City also offers a fine mix of business and leisure hotels.”

Dubai in numbers
125
airlines and 7,000 weekly flights connect to over 260 destinations
90,000 square metres of space at Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre
625 hotels with over 85,000 rooms
20,000 – 30,000 additional rooms by end-2016

MICE from A to B

Getting delegates safely from airport to hotel to venue and back again can be a headache for conference and incentive organisers, but the car rental industry has been quick to provide solutions.

Aside from offering bulk-hire options for conference delegates, a host of chauffeur-drive and transfer services have made shuttling delegates as simple as picking up the phone.

“MICE is an important market for the South African tourism industry as a whole and, by implication, also for the car rental industry,” explains Sherl Camera, General Manager of Business Development for Hertz Rent A Car South Africa. “Our inbound tourism flow is seasonal and the MICE segment is the ideal platform to keep visitor through-flow – local, regional and international – constant all year round.”

“While we are expanding our focus in this market, currently for smaller groups Hertz Chauffeur Drive or transfers are popular options, particularly with visitors who don’t know the locations well. When there is demand for larger groups to be transferred, Hertz outsources to a coach charter service provider within the group,” adds Camera, who says that Hertz is also planning to offer special packages to professional conference organisers and event hosts.

The MICE industry is also a key area of growth for Avis Point 2 Point and Avis Chauffeur Drive, says Rainer Gottschick, Avis Budget Chief Executive South Africa: “We structure our MICE rates specifically to suit each customer’s requirements. We have a dedicated MICE team, which will ensure that your experience is hassle-free and will oversee the ground transport during the event.”

With products that take the transport hassle out of conference planning, and a growing MICE industry, Gottschick says he is conservatively optimistic about the MICE market for the coming year: “The exchange rate is definitely assisting from an inbound perspective on conferences. The local corporate market is under pressure in the current economic situation, and we expect this market to review their conference expenditure to be as efficient as possible.”

High-seas incentives

Corporate clients are increasingly hitting the high seas for meetings and incentive travel. Business Traveller Africa asked Clem Galindo, Manager of International CMI & Charter Sales for Royal Caribbean International:

Q: What growth have you seen in the incentive market?
A: The MICE market in North America has grown three-fold in the past six years – it’s a very important channel for Royal Caribbean. Last year we decided to focus on international MICE business to increase this channel from the international market.

Q: Why is cruising such a hit for meetings and incentives?
A: For delegates it’s new and exciting. You’re boarding a ship that is moving through multiple destinations. From a business perspective you also have the participants together, so there’s an opportunity to build relationships. Whatever message the company wants to deliver, we can assist with that… one of our strongest attributes is that we love to do customisation for incentive groups.

Q: Does cruising offer value-for-money?
A: Cruise incentives offer roughly a 30% saving over land-based resort incentives. The cruise fare includes all accommodation, all meals and all entertainment. We offer special group rates and we run different promotions for incentive groups throughout the year.

Q: Incentives are one thing – what about meetings and conferencing?
A: We’ve seen an increase in meetings because our ships are built for business. Each of the 22 ships in our fleet has dedicated conference facilities with state-of-the-art AV equipment, and we don’t charge for the use of either. We’ve seen a huge increase in bookings from continuing medical education, as well as insurance and direct-selling companies.

Q: Which ship/destination is the most popular for MICE clients?
A: Our top choice for meetings and incentives, product launches and trade shows is the seven-night Caribbean cruise out of Fort Lauderdale on Oasis of the Seas. This is the largest ship in the world and it’s truly a marvel of engineering. It’s perfect because most companies want the ship to become the destination.

MICE gets hi-tech

While the continued popularity of conferencing and exhibitions is testament to the power of meeting face-to-face and a relationship cemented over lunch, the industry has been quick to adapt to the use of technology amongst today’s hyper-connected business travellers.

“Exhibitions provide the face-to-face meeting opportunity which cannot be replaced by technology, but the influence of technology on the sector is so important,” says Shinu Pillai, Exhibition Manager for ibtm Africa.

Duban ICC’s Marketing, Sales & Events Director, Mala Dorasamy, clearly agrees.

“Hybrid meetings using virtual technology are becoming more popular in South Africa, but I do not believe that they will impact too negatively on face-to-face meetings,” she says. “People still crave and appreciate human interaction. If anything, I think they are making the events accessible to a wider audience and encourage more attendees to participate at live events in future years.”

So, video conferencing, which was long hailed as the death-knell for face-to-face meetings, has also evolved to become a complementary aspect of meetings and conferencing.

“Video technology is definitely having an effect on meetings,” says Lisa Lovegrove, Tsogo Sun’s Groups and Conferencing Sales Manager: Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani. “For example, Skype. Corporate companies are using video conferencing for employees to meet in difference countries as opposed to booking flights (cost saving).”

But what about that personal element?

“It’s clear that people still want face-time and personal interaction. Although our video conferencing facilities are certainly well used, it has not tangibly impacted on the popularity of face-to-face meetings and engagements,” says Michael Farr, Group General Manager Brand and Communications at Sun International.

“Video conferencing has been available for many years and has its place,” agrees Stephen Banks, Area Director of Sales for the Middle East and Africa for Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts. “However, for a major meeting such as an annual conference, an incentive, product launch or sales conference, face-to-face meetings will seldom be replaced.”

Video conferencing is the thin edge of the technological wedge though.

“Business meetings in general are evolving as meeting planners become more interested in experimenting with paperless meetings and using social media apps for promotion and programming information,” says Caroline Daniel, Regional Director of Africa for Preferred Hotels & Resorts.

The ‘social’ use of technology is certainly set to grow, with the increasing use of bespoke event-specific mobile applications.

US-based meetings technology analyst Corbin Ball predicts the top trend of 2015 will be mobile applications going mainstream, allowing delegates to replace paper schedules with digital, and allowing for increased interactivity.

The use of Bluetooth and iBeacon technology will also help attendees navigate cavernous exhibition spaces and allow for messaging based on the attendee’s location. Other benefits include immediate social networking with other attendees as well as targeted alerts and announcements from organisers. [To discover more, go to tinyurl.com/BTA-CorbinBall]

Smartphone apps and bespoke technologies such as the Lumi IML Connector also allow for seamless delegate feedback, whether it’s commenting on panel discussions, poll voting or contributing questions from the audience.

Of course those smartphones, tablets and laptops don’t last forever, and while innovative applications and social communities may be the brave new world of conference technology, Cresta Hotels has implemented a rather crucial technological innovation: a charging table for delegates to keep their devices powered up.

Rwanda – emerging MICE player?

Outstanding biodiversity, a rich cultural heritage, a robust business environment, excellent safety and security, an expanding airlift, and the improving quality of meeting venues and accommodation are some of the key assets on which Rwanda is building its sustainable business events tourism sector. Rwanda Development Board identified the business events tourism sector as providing a clear and long-term opportunity to diversify and grow Rwanda’s export strategy. The Business Tourism Company was appointed in 2014 to implement Rwanda’s National MICE Strategy and establish the Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB). The key objective was to grow the sector, thus contributing to the achievement of Rwanda’s ambitious Economic Development Poverty Reduction Strategy II objectives. RCB serves as the focal point for the co-ordination of all business events tourism industry activities. It is responsible for building the country’s business and events brand and aims to position Rwanda in the top 10 African meeting destinations by 2019-20 (based on ICCA Africa rankings). Under the strapline ‘Meet in Remarkable Rwanda’, the RCB was launched in March 2014 to stakeholders nationally, with a formal international launch at IMEX Frankfurt in May 2014. RCB’s broad objectives are to market Rwanda as a preferred business events destination, work with key institutions (e.g. RwandAir, tour operators, industry stakeholders) to position the country as a regional business events hub, bid for new business and build capacities in the private sector (professional conference and event organisers).

Rwanda’s capital city is preparing to unveil the Kigali Convention Centre (KCC), due to open in mid-2016. Positioned on a hilltop in the heart of Kigali near parliament, the development is set to become one of the most recognised and iconic modern structures in Africa. With a maximum capacity of 2,600, the KCC will help position Rwanda as a leading business events destination in East Africa. In tandem with the KCC, a number of international 5-star hotel brands are currently under development (Radisson Blu, Marriott, Park Inn, Kempinski) with over 600 high-end bedrooms coming on to the market. Just ten minutes from the city centre, the Kigali International Airport has recently been upgraded and is now able to handle 1,500,000 passengers annually, triple its previous capacity. Coupled with the sector’s basic infrastructure and telecommunication requirements, there is a growing desire to find new meeting and event destinations, especially in the incentive segment, as long as they are considered safe.

(Rick Taylor is the CEO of the Business Tourism Company, a consultancy working across the business events arena with clients such as Rwanda.)

IACC Announces Top 10 Conference Food Trends

Following extensive research among members of the International Association of Conference Centres (www.iacconline.org), the association released its Top 10 Conference Foods Trends for 2015, which are influencing meeting planners when it comes to catering for conferences across the globe.

1. Local is Everything – The importance of adding a local feel to meetings has been identified as a major trend, as attendees want to experience as much as they can about the area they are going to for their meeting or event. 

2. Network your Heart Out – Small plates of food items, continuously served in a reception format add a nice break to an extended event. Another popular choice is to hold a more substantial networking-friendly dining reception mid-way through your event, as it provides a great way for guests to meet up in a causal environment and build relationships while enjoying great food and beverage. 

3. Small is the New Big – Bite-size desserts have overtaken larger portions in popularity. Conference delegates are turning their backs on the big slice of cake and heading for the easy-to-handle signature bite-size dessert station. Warm house-made doughnuts, chocolate truffles, French macaroons, mini cupcakes and house-made cookies are top of the list for planners.

4. In with Flavour, Out with Fats – Healthy choices don’t need to resemble rabbit food and conference chefs are working with exciting new ingredients including whole grains, a protein alternative (quinoa, amaranth, tofu, beans), green vegetables (kales, spinach), low fat and low sugar foods, which sound, look and taste great.

5. Making and Breaking Bread Together – Nothing brings the team together more than food, and having the opportunity to cook with somebody can create a whole new appreciation for and hidden talent not seen in an office environment or company outing.  Culinary team-building has all the ingredients to cook up a winning team.

6. Contrasting Environments – Utilising outside space to create a change in scenery and a casual dining experience will revitalize attendees, especially during multi-day meetings and events.

7. Finale NOT Gala – Make sure the last night of your event has all the components to create a dynamic environment and brings people together to celebrate the end of a great conference. Be creative and choose your room seating layout and dining style to deliver that finale.

8. That’s Theatre Darling – Adding a chef interactive station can also highlight the menu with fresh prepared items (Panini, clubhouse or slider). Remember to ask for gluten-free options.

9. Go Micro for Max Effect – With the explosion in microbreweries offering brews that appeal to all tastes, ask your conference planner if they can make pre-dinner drinks a local affair.

10. Infused Tea Cocktails – The English may drink a lot of it and now the world has caught on to the latest trend, infused tea cocktails. Combine this with trend 9 and you can have a double brew at your next reception!

(Founded in 1981, The International Association of Conference Centres is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting understanding and awareness of the conference centre industry and to giving member properties the tools necessary to provide an exceptional IACC meeting experience. For more information, visit the website at www.iacconline.org.)