Where to next? Smart conference and incentive destinations for 2009

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With the current economic climate in mind, Michael Jackson – editor of Business Traveller Africa set out to interview Gill Dewar, meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) and corporate product executive for American Express Travel Services and Seekers Travel, with a view to uncovering the latest, hottest, and most financially practical destinations for next year – and discovered that there is plenty of choice around both locally, regionally and further afield…

Gill Dewar remains upbeat and practical concerning the immediate future of MICE-related travel into 2009, even with all the current market volatility and turmoil. “What you have to remember,” she says, “is that companies and organisations are investing more and more into the human development side of their business – and the entire conferencing and incentives arena is a rapidly-growing marketplace as a result.” Regional destinations around Africa are scheduled to do lots more business in this area – with Dewar advising that Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia and even Zimbabwe will become preferred destinations for many clients next year. “It’s our business to be creative for our clients,” she points out, “especially when, as now, budgets are being carefully managed and scrutinised, and we believe selected regional destinations have really come into their own.” Namibia is becoming more accessible thanks to newly announced extra frequencies by flag carrier Air Namibia.

Passengers can now fly directly from Cape Town to Walvis Bay and from Johannesburg to Windhoek to Walvis Bay on its Airbus B737-500 aircraft. “Air Namibia is currently rolling out the blue carpet to stimulate traffic growth and ensure access to the tourism, conference and incentive markets, particularly along the Namibian coast,” says Dewar, “and and we are now better poised to offer a lot more beyond the traditional market of Swakopmund and even into places like Sossusvlei and Etosha – two destinations which are also stunning for incentive travel trips and where we can use the services of a 60-seater DC6 for charters.” For those thinking of rediscovering the delights of Mozambique, Dewar recommends the coastal islands which, although tending towards the expensive side, have undergone a renaissance in recent years. “Pemba and the areas around Vilancoulos are easily reached by charters and are superb,” she says, adding that, “Maputo is also undergoing a make-over of its own and now has some spectacular Jazz-African nightlife to be enjoyed in a multitude of bars, clubs and pubs, as well as the new and popular ‘Vodacom Express’ passenger catamaran which takes passengers to and from Inhaca.”

Zambia, particularly around the Victoria Falls, remains a perennial conferencing favourite, and with the new Protea and Three Cities properties opening there, this is one destination that just keeps on growing. Across the bridge into Zimbabwe which, according to Dewar still offers some fabulous bargains and where, she points out, that ‘Victoria Falls needs to be viewed as a country within a country’. The Elephant Hills resort in particular is offering some great bargains for those adding up in Rands as opposed to US Dollars. Keen to travel further afield and looking for good value for money destinations? Dewar favours the Far and Middle East: “Thailand, Vietnam in particular, and even Bali – which is making a comeback” – remain high on her list of preferred destinations. “The Middle East is also hot, both literally and figuratively,” she adds with a smile, “and with the Gulf and Middle Eastern Carriers like Qatar Airways and Emirates offering really good prices at the moment, places like Doha, Bahrain and Dubai (where the brand-new Atlantis Resort also has some interesting offers) are great destinations.” Closer to home Dewar speaks of a changing trend visible in the local industry.

“Lots more companies seem to be looking for day conferences in their home towns or within a one-hour drive from their offices,” she says, adding that, “pretty soon they might also be spoiled for choice with plenty of new properties and lots having makeovers on the horizon, as the industry prepares for the 2010 World Cup.” “The Legend Hotels, Lodges & Resorts Group is one of those on the up and up, with some fabulous properties across South Africa and Mozambique (Editor: I stayed at the Entabeni resort in the Waterberg biosphere recently and was entranced) and with the Fairmont Zimbali property, a R1.1 billion hotel and resort development having its planned completion on track for the second quarter of next year in KwaZulu- Natal, as well as the new Radisson Hotel in central Sandton coming on stream soon – it seems the whole industry promises to have a whole new look and shape, as well as some healthy business competition in the immediate future. In fact,” she adds, “it’s almost as though there’s a real race on the go to have everything up and ready prior to the World Cup – and the amount of new properties coming on stream is absolutely amazing.”

Two hot tips from Dewar for 2009 conferencing include the refurbished Protea Rosebank Hotel in Johannesburg and the new-look Mount Grace in the Magaliesberg, which is currently undergoing a R135 million makeover, adding 40 new rooms where 12 will be luxury villas. The Resort should be conference-ready by March. “Don’t forget Champagne Sports in the Drakensberg,” she adds, “which remains a perennial favourite and is currently adding new chalets to meet additional demand.” “Whatever your preference,” she says, “just remember that American Express Travel Services and Seekers Travel have a great team of MICE experts just waiting to roll out the red carpet – no matter how wide or narrow you want it to be…” And so it would appear.