The world meets in Africa

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Africa is waking up to the potential offered by the business events industry, with new conference centres popping up across the continent. It’s also an interesting time for the incentives market, as Richard Holmes found out as he delved into the ever-changing African MICE space, once again.

“People will always meet, either in good economic times or in bad.”

That’s the bullish sentiment from Ben Asoro, Director of Marketing and Sales for the Calabar International Convention Centre in Cross River State, Nigeria, the latest addition to the meetings and conventions industry that is fast becoming a cornerstone of corporate travel across the continent.

Asoro may be right, and the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events (MICE) market is certainly more resilient than other sectors of the travel industry, but today’s steady growth comes off a few years of poor demand due to the worldwide recession.

“If you look at where we’ve come from in 2008, when everything tanked, in the last few years there has been a gradual improvement across the world, and in Africa,” says Rick Taylor, Chief Executive Officer of The Business Tourism Company, a South African-based consultancy working across the business events arena with clients such as the Rwandan government.

Adriaan Liebetrau, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry, based in Johannesburg, puts a more positive spin on things: “The industry has been growing year on year. All round it’s been a very positive few years off the back of a few major international events held here.” Liebetrau’s reference is to South Africa, but SAACI is trying to play an even greater facilitation role in the rest of southern Africa.

The events that Liebetrau refers to do indicate increased demand for Africa from international associations, alongside increased corporate investment in Africa. Add into the mix a handful of fast-growing economies and it’s easy to see why conference and meetings-related travel has become a key player in the African travel market.

“Corporate meetings and conferencing demand has been extremely strong since last year, and more so into next year,” adds David Barillot, Director of Sales and Marketing for Four Seasons Hotel Westcliff in Johannesburg. “Many of Four Seasons’ global clients in our 96 properties worldwide are doing business in South Africa and the sub-continent. Our opening in Johannesburg naturally extends to this region.”

“Professional associations in Africa are getting stronger and better managed,” adds Asoro. “The future looks even better with increased intra-African connectivity, as African airspace keeps opening up with increased connectivity, driven by leading African airlines and their codeshare partners.”

However, while the conference market is recovering it’s more competitive than ever.

“Lead times are getting shorter and shorter, particularly in the government space. It’s not unusual to receive conference bookings for more than R500 000 ($40,000) only a few days before arrival,” says Kevin Clarence, Director of the Birchwood Hotel and OR Tambo Conference Centre in Johannesburg. “Generally, we have seen a slowdown in government conferencing by as much as 30%… from feedback it appears that treasury has applied more stringent budgets and only in very specific cases can spend be taken off-site.”

Despite the dip in government enquiries, “the current market is stable with some growth year-on-year. Infrastructure exhibitions and corporate conferencing has contributed to the growth and there is a new appetite for consumer shows to be held within Sandton,” says Mati Nyazema, Executive Director of the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg. That being said, Nyazema also believes the recent changes to South Africa’s visa regulations are a major deterrent for Asian exhibitors and delegates.

Another factor playing into the concern around softened demand is the increased competition for a slice of conference business. African destinations are upping their game when it comes to their product offering, with a host of new convention centres under construction, or already open, across the continent.

One of the most exciting new additions to the conference and convention landscape is the long-awaited Calabar International Convention Centre (CICC) in south-eastern Nigeria.

The $90-million CICC offers over 35,000 square metres of space, split between 18 exhibition floors and meeting rooms, and is capable of hosting up to 5,000 delegates at a time. The centre also forms part of the extensive Summit Hills development, which will eventually include a golf course, hotels, hospitals and residential property.

“We are in the process of ‘applying the last coat of paint’, as the centre is set to open in the third quarter of 2015,” explains Asoro, who says the CICC received a positive reception from the market at both Meetings Africa (Johannesburg) and IMEX (Frankfurt) earlier this year.

The CICC has already won bids for events taking place over the next few years, including the 6th All Africa Anaesthesia Congress in 2017 and the African Public Relations Association Conference next year.

Along with the global economic recovery, West Africa is perfectly placed to tap into increased demand for convention space, adds Asoro: “Factors like increased resources investment in Africa, better meetings facilities, and stronger global economies have stimulated the conference market in the region”. Nigeria’s booming economy is also a boon for the CICC, with the country’s resource-driven GDP currently topping $520-billion.

While some inbound corporate travellers may have concern about safety when travelling to Nigeria, Asoro is confident that the “geographical location of Calabar ICC will allay those fears. Calabar has traditionally been a very peaceful state in the very far south of Nigeria.”

“Africa is an emerging market with multiple sectors having a huge boost in investments from around the world,” comments Carol Weaving, Managing Director of Thebe Reed Exhibitions, organisers of the annual IBTM, ILTM and WTM Africa trade shows. “Many countries are also improving or building bigger facilities and introducing convention bureaus within their tourism bodies to manage and attract more business to their countries.”

A case in point is Rwanda, which last year established the Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB) to grow the MICE travel market. The country is becoming increasingly popular with corporate travellers, but its MICE ambitions have been hampered by repeated delays in construction of the 2,600-delegate Kigali Convention Centre.

Regardless, “business tourism is the hot talking point in Rwanda, because it can deliver growing receipts and arrivals,” adds Taylor, who consults for the RCB and says that with a new contractor in place, the capital’s long-delayed convention centre is now set to open in the first quarter of 2017.

In Zambia, firm economic growth and decades of stability have also helped to grow the domestic and regional conference market.

“The corporate conferencing market in Lusaka is very important to all hotels. There are many meetings, events, conferences and training courses happening across the city on a daily basis,” says Michael Hunter-Smith, Sales and Marketing Director for the Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel, the first hotel the Best Western brand has ventured into Zambia with. “This is a growing market which follows the economic trend within the country, and Zambia is a growing economy showing huge potential for very fast growth.”

Also in the region, The Grand Palm International Convention Centre in Gaborone, Botswana, as well as the new Malawi BICC in Lilongwe are attracting “substantial local conferencing support,” says Mark Jakins, Group Marketing and Regional Operations Executive for Peermont Global.

While South Africa remains the dominant player in the MICE industry on the continent, a tangle of governmental red tape around visas and a recent resurgence in violence against foreigners, has cast a shadow over the local industry in the eyes of some travellers.

“Sadly, I think South Africa is not the brightest star any longer. In the last 10 years other destinations have looked up to South Africa, but now with recent political events our star is tainted,” says Taylor. “However, as a destination we can still deliver, and our pricing, compared to many other parts of Africa, is also very competitive.”

The figures speak for themselves. Although the country is facing more competition than ever, in 2014 South Africa remained the dominant MICE destination on the continent, with the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ranking it #32 in the world after hosting 124 international association meetings and conferences. Its closest competitor was Morocco, at #56 in the world with just 36 large-scale association gatherings. Kenya, Egypt and Senegal rounded out the top five conference destinations in Africa.

Cape Town outperformed Johannesburg in the rankings, with twice as many meetings held in the Mother City, and work is already underway to expand the city’s successful International Convention Centre. New buildings to the east of the centre will double the available exhibition capacity, with an additional 10,000m² of space.

But in the hyper-competitive world of large-scale conferencing, there is never time for resting on laurels, and the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal is working hard to position itself as the convention capital of the country.

“As a region, KwaZulu-Natal has a particularly innovative way of approaching business events,” says Liebetrau. “They’re good at looking at a spread of locations – not every conference has to take place in a major city. They understand the concept of spreading the events throughout the province.”

One of the key events slated for the region is the 2016 World Aids Congress, which will be held in Durban’s International Convention Centre next year. Durban beat out London and Istanbul for rights to host the global mega-event for the second time, with over 20,000 delegates expected to attend the six-day gathering.

KwaZulu-Natal also has big plans to cement its position as the hub of conferencing in southern Africa. Speaking at a recent lifestyle expo, the Provincial Minister for Economic Development and Tourism, Michael Mabuyakhulu, said that the province hopes to build a new convention facility capable of hosting up to 120,000 delegates. Although the project is still in its infancy, the new facility is likely to be built in the region of Ballito on the north coast, close to King Shaka International Airport.

Across the border, the Kingdom of Swaziland also has aspirations of becoming a major player in the conference market, with ambitious plans for an international convention centre capable of hosting up to 4,500 delegates at a time. Currently the country’s large conference facilities are limited primarily to hotel properties, with the likes of Esibayeni Lodge, Happy Valley Hotel and the Sun International property the Royal Swazi Spa Valley.

The international convention centre, to be built near Ezulwini, “will put Swaziland on the map in terms of its ability to cater for world-renowned conventions, exhibitions and meetings,” says Chantal Nieuwenhuizen, spokesperson for the Swaziland Tourism Authority in Johannesburg. “Conferences, incentives, meetings, events and exhibitions all play a very important role in contributing to tourism arrivals.”

The plans for the convention centre include banqueting halls seating up to 3,500 guests, a 1,500-seat auditorium, and a 5-star hotel linked to the venue. No date has yet been set for opening.

“There are a number of convention centres in the pipeline for the SADC region that will come online in the next two to three years, and in the next decade we’ll see double or triple the number of convention centres available in the region,” says Liebetrau. “With its excellent infrastructure, we’ve been lucky that South Africa has been able to dominate the market over the past decade or so. But nowadays we need to be more creative in our approach to winning business.”

Collaboration is key

Part of that creativity comes down to collaboration. While increased competition is producing greater efficiencies and innovation in the industry, what is sorely needed is greater co-operation between conference destinations across the continent.

Although initiatives like the single visa for Zambia and Zimbabwe are a step in the right direction, “countries are still working within their silos,” says Weaving. “There is still competition between countries for events, but the understanding around the need to share events or rotate them is improving. The strengthening of the African Union and the commitment by African countries to work together is strong. However, the benefits of this co-operation of countries working together will only be achieved in the long-term.”

“There needs to be a lot more co-operation, with African countries and conference organisers working together,” agrees Taylor, who has consulted extensively in east, central and southern Africa. “East Africa is already doing this particularly well, with countries working together to allow conferences to move within the region. The whole of East Africa is showing great promise as a conference destination.”

“If we’ve successfully hosted an event there’s nothing to stop us passing it on to a neighbouring country and vice versa,” agrees Liebetrau. “There is still a silo mentality between cities and provinces, and also to neighbouring countries. Business events need to be looked at as a knowledge economy. Yes there’s direct spend, but there’s also opportunity for the sharing of knowledge.”

Improved facilities across the continent are “a growth in our African offering,” says Nyazema. “The international business model and association market is very structured, and countries will need more support than a convention centre. There needs to be both country and city convention bureaus set up in order to attract international business. At the same time, there is still room to exploit pan-African events hosted on the continent.”

Similarly, African convention centres and conference organisers need to refocus their gaze towards the continent.

“As a continent, we’re so focused on getting business out of the United States, Europe and Asia, we forget that there’s huge growth potential on our own continent,” says Liebetrau. “Just look at the corporates establishing offices in Africa and it’s easy to see the potential on offer, yet we are still looking outwards for business, not within Africa.”

In addition, conference organisers and the convention industry need to be mindful of the synergies and opportunities that exist between leisure and business travel. The tourism appeal of a destination has a marked impact on delegate numbers at a corporate gathering, while business tourism is a valuable tool for promoting leisure tourism on return visits.

“Business tourism can deliver growth to African economies. Up to 40% of conference delegates come back as leisure travellers, so Africa’s opportunity to take advantage of this growing tourism trend is to lead with business tourism,” urges Taylor.

“Africa is a dream destination for many,” adds Weaving. “From a meetings perspective, business within Africa is growing, international companies are expanding throughout the continent, and the need to hold bigger conferences and events in Africa is growing.”

Incentive travel under pressure

That allure of a ‘dream destination’ is also what is driving the incentives industry on the continent.

“We see strong continued growth for the incentive market globally,” says David Barillot from Four Seasons Hotel Westcliff in Johannesburg.  “A new trend has also been revealed in various parts of the world: shorter regional incentive programmes, which we see Africa-based clients begin to enquire about.”

When competing against other global incentive destinations, working in concert with regional and national tourism bodies, as well as government departments, is key to attracting business.

“The incentive business is massive globally,” says Jakins. “The learning from attending IMEX in Frankfurt is that those destination management companies that work hand-in-glove with their respective regional or national convention bureaus and government tourism departments, in a seamless manner, will benefit dramatically.”

The Peermont group’s Emperor’s Palace property in Johannesburg is the most popular incentive travel destination in the portfolio, but business from China and India has been hard-hit by onerous new visa requirements for travel to South Africa, as well as the impact of unfounded fears over Ebola.

“We estimate that we have lost up to 20% of these markets due to these factors, and are working hard to replace it with business from other markets,” adds Jakins, who says that exchange rate weakness and an array of unique product offerings continue to position the country as a sought-after incentive destination.

“The conference and incentive travel market is very tough and competitive at the moment,” adds Joanne Du Plooy, Marketing and Communications Manager for Fairmont Zimbali in KwaZulu-Natal. “The exchange rate and price of air travel most definitely has an impact on the willingness and ability of corporates to travel for conference and incentive purposes. Ebola and xenophobia have both been deterrents to international travel.”

Incentive travel is particularly susceptible to health and security concerns, with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and political instability in South and East Africa taking its toll. North Africa has been hardest hit though, and the volatile political situation has seen the once-lucrative incentive market look elsewhere to reward clients and employees.

The uncertainty in the region following the Arab Spring “has affected incentive travel more than any other segment due to the longer lead times and perception of these destinations,” explains Stephen Banks, Vice-President Sales and Marketing – Africa for Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts, which operates hotel properties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, along with eight cruise vessels on the Nile River.

High-seas incentives making waves

Nile cruises may be struggling in the wake of the continued social unrest, but with leveraging value for money a key consideration for incentive trips, it’s little surprise that cruising is becoming increasingly popular with both planners and clients.

“Incentive business makes up between 30 and 40% of our total turnover each year,” explains Dalene Oroni, Groups and Incentives Manager for Johannesburg-based Cruises International, which represents major lines including Royal Caribbean International, Silversea and Crystal Cruises. “Our incentive groups have tripled over the last three to five years, so it’s most definitely a growing market.”

Aside from the inherent ‘wow’ factor of high seas cruising, the all-inclusive nature of the incentive is a major drawcard for planners, clients and guests. Fares typically include accommodation, entertainment and selected shore excursions, allowing clients to manage their costs carefully. Pre-paid drinks packages can be used for additional reward, or the costs easily allocated to, and managed by, individual guests.

“Most incentive groups want the incentive trip to be all-inclusive, which means full meals and beverages need to be covered,” adds Oroni. “Luckily, a cruise can offer the incentive client just that, with fantastic entertainment and activity options free of charge.”

Cruise lines are also tapping into the trend of incentives combining both work and play. While there’s plenty of time allowed in port and at the poolside, days spent at sea can also be put to good use with conferences, meetings and product presentations.

“Most of our cruise ships are geared towards conferences at sea,” explains Oroni. “They offer complimentary conference rooms with complete audio-visual and sound equipment… there are also technicians on-board who will help you set up your PowerPoint presentation or whatever is needed for your conference.”

Depending on the ship, conference facilities range from intimate boardrooms to theatres seating up to 2,500 delegates.

If there’s a downside, it’s that Africa is poorly placed to tap into the global cruise industry. MSC Cruises offers regular voyages out of Durban and Cape Town during the summer season, and a handful of world cruise itineraries call at African ports. Beyond that, cruise incentives require long-haul travel to Europe, Asia or the United States.

For African clients, cruises out of European ports are proving to be the best option, with limited travel time and flexible five and seven-day itineraries limiting time out of the office.

“Our seven-night cruises out of Barcelona and Venice are very popular, and about 75% of our groups are booked in and around the Mediterranean,” says Oroni. Cruises International is also re-launching cruise itineraries out of Dubai, which will likely prove popular thanks to Emirates’ connectivity across the continent.

Verdict

Whether it’s cruising, incentives, meetings, conferencing or exhibitions, as always, Africa remains an exciting and ever-changing market, with the only guarantee that change is usually round the corner.

Just make sure you’re on the right side of it.

Meet and Sleep

Large convention centres are certainly the best option for international gatherings hosting thousands of delegates, but if your conference has just a few hundred – or even only a few dozen – people on the guest list, a large-scale international convention centre may not be the best choice.

While the impressive venue may add gravitas to an event, opting for a hotel-based conference facility is often the smarter choice for smaller gatherings.

“By using a hotel, the trip becomes a total experience,” says Stephen Banks, Vice-President Sales and Marketing – Africa for Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts. “A conference centre can be used for the meeting element, however for a more rounded experience from the moment of arrival throughout the stay – with ground arrangements and off-site experiences, to the hotel accommodation and maybe spouse programme – the hotel is the most important element that anchors the programme.”

“A hotel property definitely offers many advantages over a stand-alone conference centre, especially when overnight accommodation and leisure activities form a part of the itinerary,” agrees Joanne Du Plooy, Marketing and Communications Manager for Fairmont Zimbali in KwaZulu-Natal. “Dealing with one organisational team makes planning a conference or incentive trip much easier than dealing with a variety of suppliers.”

The power of a strong brand also comes into play, offering a reassuring predictability to the standard of accommodation and level of service on offer.

“Many of our clients do all their global programmes exclusively with Four Seasons, and are often on the look-out for the new locations where we will open new hotels, in new countries,” explains David Barillot, Director of Sales and Marketing for Four Seasons Hotel Westcliff in Johannesburg. “Our clients prefer self-contained properties for the convenience. There are some costs savings, but the most important advantage for them is making sure that travel time is used in the most effective way toward the client’s business objective.”

The “convenience and personal service” offered by hotel facilities is what makes them superior to large convention facilities, adds Neelma Maru, Sales and Marketing Manager of Sankara Nairobi in Kenya. “Conferencing demand has definitely been on the rise … most of the conferences that we do receive mostly come with an accommodation enquiry as well.”

But just as important as the improved delegate experience, is the substantial cost-savings to be had.

“To hire a stand-alone conference room or book one in a hotel will cost approximately the same amount, however, if you are booking a good number of rooms the hotels are happy to discount the conference venue hire, thus saving the organisers money,” adds Michael Hunter-Smith, Sales and Marketing Director for the Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel.

“Suppliers also take the total value of a piece of business into account when discounts are negotiated, so keeping your business with one supplier can most definitely assist with cost-savings,” agrees Du Plooy.

Tip-top incentive getaways in Africa

Mauritius

With easy flight connections out of Johannesburg, and dozens of resorts across all price brackets, this easy-going tropical island has long been a popular choice for conferences and incentives. While most resorts offer their own in-house conference facilities, there are a handful of larger convention centres situated across the island. The Swami Vivekananda Conference Centre in Pailles is the largest on the island and can host up to 3,500 delegates at one time.

Pro: There is a bewildering array of activities on offer to keep delegates entertained from dawn to dusk. Tourism infrastructure is well established, and efficient tour operators are used to working with large groups.

Con: The island can lack ‘wow’ factor, with many delegates likely to have already visited the island on another incentive, or on holiday. Resorts can be busy, and expensive, in peak season.

Victoria Falls

Billed as ‘Africa’s Adventure Capital’, this is a dream destination for incentive groups looking to impress clients and colleagues. A range of hotels and activities are available on both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides of the Falls. Accommodation on the Zambian side usually offers more impressive river frontage, while the Zimbabwean side has better facilities for large groups.

Pro: Air access is rapidly improving, with improved airport facilities on both sides of the Falls. Plenty of activities, and a range of hotels across price points.

Con: Standards of service can vary widely. It pays to work with an established destination management company that only uses reputable activity providers.

Find the Big 5

Safari escapes have become a popular short break incentive option for African companies, allowing corporates to entertain clients and reward employees with minimal travel expense and reduced time out of the office. Private lodges in South Africa’s Kruger National Park are a popular choice, while the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve a few hours from Johannesburg is popular for family-friendly incentives. In East Africa, the iconic Maasai Mara and Serengeti are geared towards longer incentive trips

Pro: Wide range of lodge options suiting small and large groups with varying budgets. Can be a ‘bucket-list’ item for many travellers, enhancing the incentive.

Con: Limited activities beyond game drives. Conference and meeting space is often not available.   

Zanzibar

The ‘Spice Island’ is fast becoming an exotic choice for incentive travellers, as international hotel brands expand their footprint to this self-governing territory of Tanzania. The beach resorts are superb, but activities are perhaps less varied than on Mauritius.

Pro: There’s more ‘wow’ factor to Zanzibar than Mauritius, and it can be a more affordable option. Air access is improving, although still limited.

Con: Activities are largely limited to sea and beach activities. Except for high-end properties, service levels are not as refined as you’ll find on Mauritius or in the Seychelles.

Hit the rails

For small group incentives or executive breakaways, the luxury rail operators of southern Africa offer an exclusive and luxurious incentive and meetings opportunity. South Africa’s Rovos Rail and Blue Train are the dominant players – Rovos offers a wider variety of itineraries and excursions, while the Blue Train focuses on its Cape Town-Pretoria journeys.

Pro: Flexibility, luxury and exclusivity. If you charter the entire train, bespoke itineraries can be created on demand, and meeting space can be arranged with advance notice.

Con: Cost. The tours aren’t cheap, and are best suited for a small group of high-flying incentive partners or boardroom executives. However, the all-inclusive fares mean you get good value for money.

New kid on the block

The Century City Conference Centre & Hotel is due to open in early 2016, just 10 minutes from Cape Town’s CBD.

A conference centre, with a total capacity of 1,900 in 20 venues, and a 125-room hotel are to be built around a new public square in Century City as part of a R1billion ($806m) mixed-use development in the Bridgeways precinct.

Greg Deans, a director of the Rabie Property Group, said the development was in response to soaring demand for conferencing and hotels in the burgeoning precinct, and had been designed to complement Cape Town and Century City’s existing facilities.

“Not only will it fill a gap in the market, but we believe it will help cement Cape Town’s established attractiveness as a conference destination.”

The Century City Conference Centre (CCCC), he said, would offer flexible configurations and a total of 20 different venues, including 12 meeting and breakaway rooms and a business lounge.

Three adjoining halls will have a total capacity of more than 900 delegates cinema-style, with a fourth hall able to accommodate a further 480 delegates cinema-style. The multi-function venues will also be available for banqueting and exhibitions, while a large pre-assembly area will be available for exhibitions, product launches and the like.

The first floor meeting rooms will be able to accommodate at least 200 delegates in various seating arrangements.

Deans said CCCC, in partnership with Century City Connect, Century City’s open access fibre optic network, will offer delegates and guests world-class fibre optic and wireless connectivity. He said the wireless network would be built around an open access model, which means that each delegate or guest will be able to select which ISP services they would like to make use of.

“Alternatively an event organiser can choose to partner with a specific ISP for the duration of a conference,” said Deans.

Deans said over and above the Century City Conference Centre and hotel, the mixed-use development will include offices, showrooms, residential apartments and service retail, as well as a five-level parking garage with direct access to the CCCC. The entire development will be set over a super parking basement which, together with the structured parking, will provide a total of 1,300 bays.