One of the mainstays of the hotel industry in Africa is hosting conferences and other events. The experts once said that video conferencing and other technology spelt the death of the meetings industry – everything would be virtual! Wrong again – a survey by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) of a specific segment of the market, international associations, shows that, whilst Africa only had a 3.8 per cent share of the worldwide associations meeting market in 2009 (314 events out of a total of 3,800 global events), this is more than double the number of events it hosted in the previous record year of 2005 when there 163 meetings across the continent.

South Africa is the most established international meetings destination in Africa.  It has seen significant growth in the number of events from the international association sector in recent years.  In 2009 some 90 international events were held in the country, up from 71 in 2000, and is ranked the 34th highest country worldwide with a 1 per cent share of the market.  This must, in part, be because of the development of major events facilities throughout the country

In Johannesburg there are three large venues: The Sandton Convention Centre, The Expo Centre and the Coca Cola Dome.  Durban’s International Convention Centre opened in the mid 1990s and the World Travel Awards named it ‘Africa’s Leading Conference Centre’ in 2010.  The Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) opened in 2003 and is one of a number of conference venues in the city.  And the East London International Convention Centre opened in early 2010.

Egypt was, in 2009, the second most popular African country, ranked 48th with 32 events.  Morocco has seen significant growth in recent years, largely due to new facilities being developed in the country.  The ranking of other countries varies from year to year.  Nigeria posted a strong performance in 2009 with 15 events, up from just five the previous year.  In other West African countries Ghana and Senegal both hosted 12 events in 2009, an improvement on previous years.  In East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania are the most successful locations for international events.  Cape Town is the most popular city in Africa for international association events, hosting more than double Cairo’s 21 events in 2009.  Marrakech has been growing slowly and is now in third place.  Johannesburg is also popular and in 2009 Abuja, Dakar and Accra also hosted more events than in previous years.

Table 1 details the number of international association events held in African cities over recent years.

Table 1 -Location of African International Meetings by City
  2007 2008 2009
Cape Town 43 42 49
Cairo 17 16 21
Marrakech 12 12 16
Nairobi 10 n/a 14
Johannesburg 13 13 13
Source: ICCA

Many of the large convention centres in Africa were built to host a specific high profile government event, such as the African Union annual meeting, which rotates around African capitals.  Some centres have been built as ‘gifts’ from other nations, particularly China.  Whilst these venues offer competition in the scale of facilities that they offer they are never commercially-inspired, nor market-led, which means that the facilities frequently do not meet the specific requirements of the meetings market, and their effectiveness is diminished.

Many large convention centres worldwide, including in Africa, are operated and developed by governments.  The aim is to attract business travellers to a city and to enjoy the economic benefits that accrue.  In addition the existence of a world class convention centre, and the increased visitation that results, can bring considerable PR value to a city.

Table 2 details of some of the leading convention centres in Africa, along with a summary of their facilities:

Table 2 – Major Convention Centres and Large Conference Venues in Africa
Venue City Largest Room Theatre Style 2nd Largest Room Theatre Style Total Other Conference Rooms Total Conference/Exhibition Space m2 Bedrooms on Site
West Africa  
International Convention Centre Accra 1,600 200 3 n/a Kempinski project
Le Méridien President Hotel Dakar 648 200 60+ 2,000 378
Palais De Congrès Cotonou 1,200 300 4 n/a 305
Grand Theatre Project Dakar 1,800 n/a n/a n/a n/a
South Africa  
Sandton Convention Centre Johannesburg 4,500 4,100 13 22,000 1,000
International Convention Centre (ICC) Durban 5,200 2,250 40+ 51,000 inc exhibition centre 327
International Convention Centre (CTICC) Cape Town 2,400 2,200 33 11,400 483
East London International Conference Centre Eastern Cape 1,400 600 5 3,920 261
North Africa  
Intl. Convention Centre Cairo 2,500 800 11 58,000 close
Palmeraie Golf Palace Marrakech 1,500 500 23 4,000 700
Mazagan Beach Resort El Jadida, Morocco 1,300 270 6 2,000 500
East Africa
United Nations Conference Centre (UNCC-AA) Addis Ababa 850 650 24 5,700
Arusha International Convention Centre (AICC) Arusha 1,350 200 12 5,000
Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) Nairobi 4,000 800 6 7,196
Source: W Hospitality Group research

Nigeria has several large conference venues, as shown in Table 3.

Major Convention Centres and Large Conference Venues in Nigeria
Venue City Largest Room* 2nd Largest Room* Number of Other Conf. Rooms Bedrooms on Site
Expo Centre (Eko Hotel) Lagos 5,000 600 16 654
Lagos Civic Centre Lagos 800 200 3
MUSON Centre Lagos 1,000 250 3
Abuja Intl. Conference Centre Abuja 2,000 600 7
ECOWAS Hall Abuja 1,000 500 6
Transcorp Hilton Abuja 1,200 300 24 670
Sheraton Abuja Abuja 1,500 12 540
Source: W Hospitality Group Research

* Theatre style

Although Nigeria has some of the largest facilities outside of South Africa, the majority of demand at these venues is from the domestic and regional market, rather than from international sources.  This is due to the strong demand from local and regional organisations, and because attracting demand from a greater number of international organisations faces the challenge of the image of the country, and administrative hurdles such as visas.

Dakar is arguably the most established international convention and events destination in West AfricaThis is despite the country having no convention bureau and the tourism authority doing little or nothing to promote to this market.  Following the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire in the early part of this decade, and the more recent unrest there, Abidjan has lost its pre-eminence as West Africa’s preferred meeting point, and Dakar (plus to a lesser extent Accra) has assumed that role.

Dakar is the business, government and NGO centre for Francophone West Africa, and strong demand for conferences and meetings in the city is encouraged by the extensive conference facilities that are located in Dakar, especially the flagship Convention Centre at the Le Méridien President.  Other key success factors are the increasing volume of bedrooms available, good air access, political and economic stability, security, and the strategic location of Dakar in West Africa.

A new entrant to the market will be the 2,600 seat Kigali International Convention Centre being developed by Ultimate Concepts, alongside a five-star hotel with 292 rooms, five office buildings and a museum.  This will be a strong competitor to such facilities in East Africa as the Arusha International Convention Centre (AICC) in northern Tanzania, and

Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Conference Centre.  The AICC hosts an average of 100 meetings a year attracting some 11,000 delegates.  Arusha is a popular location for domestic, regional and international events because of the favourable climate (compared to Dar es Salaam and Nairobi), the availability of good quality conference and hotel facilities, and the exceptional pre- and post-event leisure opportunities available to delegates and accompanying persons, specifically safaris in the Northern Circuit.

Hotel venues in Morocco are also starting to have an impact and have the advantage of a close proximity to Europe and short travel times, in a destination perceived as “exotic”.  However, Moroccan venues are more expensive and offer smaller capacity venues than those in South Africa.  Egypt has been a strong market for conferences and also attracts events from the Middle East as well as Europe.  The recent civil unrest there is likely to reduce Egypt’s success in this market, at least in the short-term.

West Africa is still only a relatively small player in the international meetings market, although various venues have had success in the regional market.  The main exception is

Dakar which has been a favoured conference destination for many years, particularly with Francophone countries.  Dakar has good air connections to Europe and some good quality and professionally managed venues, in particular Le Méridien President Hotel.

In the emerging economies of Africa, there is a greater need than ever for Africans to meet and to share experiences, learn from each other and make plans for the future.  This expert believes that the meetings industry – the real one, not the virtual one – has a very, very bright future.

Trevor Ward

W Hospitality Group, Lagos

trevor.ward@w-hospitalitygroup.com