The successful hosting by the South African National Convention Bureau (SANCB), a division of SA Tourism, of the 2022 Meetings Indaba – the first time since 2020 – must herald a sure sign that the South African conferencing sector is up and ready for business.
The Mission of the SANCB, which celebrates its tenth year of existence in 2022, is to market and sell South Africa as a business events destination. For many years, South Africa had been the darling of the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events) sector because of its impactful global marketing, well-established infrastructure, famous city destinations such as Cape Town, Sandton (Johannesburg has become harder to add to destination sales messages), and Durban (e-Thekwini), with smaller towns coming close behind with offers of smaller venues and memorable “out-of-city” experiences, including floral, faunal, and coastal exploits.
According to Glenton De Kock, CEO of the South African Association for the Conference Industry (SAACI), the sector’s recovery process is underway, but these are still early days before we have a fuller sense of where things are.
“The key is to manage the recovery without any hindrances or restrictions. As an industry, we have demonstrated that we can meet safely and responsibly, as repeatedly communicated over the past two years,” he said, calling for a lifting of all remaining restrictions on gatherings.
2022 Meetings Africa
This was a good test of resilience by the SANCB and its industry partners from South Africa, the rest of the African continent, and other parts of the world, despite the financial and emotional ravages brought about by the advent of the coronavirus over the past two years. If the sector is to recover fully and to grow, many things will have to be done differently.
One of the key realities will be the extent to which “hybrid” will remain with the sector even as restrictions on physical gatherings gradually fall away.
Humans might be social beings, but the realisation that one can still be part of an important gathering without having to physically attend it will stay with us. Age, other professional commitments, financial, and health reasons on the part of highly sought-out expert conference speakers will make it harder for conference organisers to exclude them from their programs on the basis only of not being able to travel to a physical conference venue to be part of the gathering.
Digital is therefore here to stay.
The other challenge over the past year has been how to fully monetise virtual events which, thankfully, seem to be gradually making way for hybrid and some return to full-on traditional events.
Few traditional sponsors – those who have survived the pandemic – have been readily open to embrace virtual events, as they struggled with making sense of how to extract a return on investment from them. This should explain why many are now happy with the return of the kind of events where their representatives can walk across a room again to physically meet someone, exchange some pleasantries and discuss possible future business.
SAACI acknowledges that many corporate clients remain hesitant to fully return to business, but believes remaining restrictions on gatherings are a hurdle that must be lifted as soon as possible.
Some of the early industry observations are:
- There is a familiar look and feel to business events meetings and exhibitions, but with some notable differences; plenty of Covid-19 protocols, the wearing of masks, social distancing, sanitisation and, at times, a request for proof of vaccination.
- Some business events and exhibitions are ready to host bigger delegate numbers on condition that they’re all vaccinated, as is the case in other parts of the world. This is a compromise the sector will have to live with for some time to come.
- Industry sales and marketing teams who have stayed in constant communication with past and potential clients are beginning to reap the rewards of their investments. They might have been restricted in movement but that did not stop them from engaging and strengthening relationships.
- There will be increased competition from business event offerings from other parts of Africa as the world begins to open-up again and the hunger for a return to normalcy is felt across the continent. South Africa cannot afford to be complacent as destinations like Kigali (Rwanda), Nairobi (Kenya), Accra (Ghana), Lusaka (Zambia), Cairo (Egypt), and others who have sent delegates to the 2022 Meetings Africa aim to attract the same events that South Africa is targeting through its global MICE marketing.
Going by conversations at the 2022 Meetings Africa, it has become clear that most industry professionals remain of the view that in-person interaction will always drive greater connection. And people buy from others they feel a connection with. How such connections happen, in a meeting room or through other social experiences, must inform the planning of business events going forward.
A steady return of international airline connectivity is also crucial for the business events sector’s revival. With most high-spending event delegates coming from Europe, North America and, increasingly, from the Middle East, and with Dubai positioning itself as a hub and destination of choice for global business events, planners in South Africa and the rest of the continent have their job cut out for them.
Enablement by governments through smart infrastructural investments will, more than ever before, be needed. Also, countries that have well-functioning, ably stuffed, national convention bureaux and proactive industry bodies stand a much better chance of increasing their slice of the MICE cake than those who continue to rely on luck to bring business to heir shores.
In a late 2021 SAACI communiqué, ahead of learning that the SANCB would go ahead and host the 2022 Meetings Africa, the industry body’s national chairperson, Kim Roberts, had expressed frustration with the constraints imposed by the National Disaster Act on the sector and their impact on corporate South Africa, which needed venues to host year-end events.
“People are ready to leave their computer screens and meet in person,” she opined at the time. “With palpable interest for people to travel and attend in-person events again, the sector should begin doing what it must for the recovery to be smooth and lasting.”
It remains to be seen whether African National Convention Bureaux will join hands on a pan-African strategy to position the continent’s many business events offerings while allowing room for healthy competition amongst themselves or continue working in isolation against sure, well-funded, competition from places like the UAE.