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. The Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events (MICE) market is certainly proving more resilient than other sectors of the travel industry. But today’s steady growth comes after 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.

“The industry has been growing year on year,” says Adriaan Liebetrau, chief executive officer of the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry, based in Johannesburg. “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.

Of Dreams & Bucket Lists

Of course, there’s more to selecting a meeting venue or an incentive package than capacity and cost. The convention industry is keenly aware of the synergies and opportunities that exist between leisure and business travel. The tourism appeal of a destination has a marked impact on attendance 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 percent of conference delegates come back as leisure travelers, so Africa’s opportunity to take advantage of this growing tourism trend is to lead with business tourism,” Taylor notes.

“Africa is a dream destination for many,” adds Carol Weaving, managing director of Thebe Reed Exhibitions, organizers of the annual IBTM, ILTM and WTM Africa business to business trade shows.  “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.”

The allure of a ‘dream destination’ is also what’s 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 programs, which we see Africa-based clients begin to inquire 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 Mark Jakins, group marketing and regional operations executive for Peermont Global. “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.”

Top Meetings and 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 centers 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 available to keep meeting attendees 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 likely to have already visited the island on another incentive, or on vacation. Resorts can be busy, and expensive, in peak season.

Victoria Falls

Billed as ‘Africa’s Adventure Capital’, this is a dream destination for companies 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 updated 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 option for short meetings and incentive trips for African companies, allowing corporations 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 that suit small and large groups with varying budgets. Can be a ‘bucket-list’ item for many travelers, 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 travelers, 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 exclusive and elegant incentive and meetings opportunities. 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 now open, just 10 minutes from Cape Town’s central business district.

The CCCC conference center has a total capacity of 1,900 guests in 20 venues, including 12 meeting rooms and a business lounge. It also offers 125-room hotel, part of a R1billion ($806 million) mixed-use development in the Bridgeways area.

The development was undertaken in response to soaring demand for conferencing and hotels in the burgeoning area, and had been designed to complement Cape Town and Century City’s existing facilities, says Greg Deans, a director of Rabie Property Group, who joined the developers in 2004.

“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, he said, would offer  flexible configurations and a total of 20 different venues

Three adjoining halls will have a total capacity of more than 900 attendees cinema-style, with a fourth hall able to accommodate a further 480 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 so forth.

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

Deans said CCCC, in partnership with Century City Connect, Century City’s open access fiber optic network, will offer attendees and guests world-class fiber optic and wireless connectivity.

He said the wireless network would be built around an open access model, which means that each guest will be able to select which ISP services they would like to make use of.

“Alternatively an event organizer 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 space for a total of 1,300 parking bays.  

By Richard Holmes