- I remember many years ago when the experts predicted that video conferencing and other technology spelt the death of the meetings industry – everything would be virtual! People would have no need to travel to conferences, they would go to the nearest video-equipped venue, and join the conference from there. Business meetings would be held through office to office links.
- Well, that didn’t happen, did it?
- A survey by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) of a specific segment of the market, international associations, reports that the number of global events in that segment has grown by 10 per cent each year – that’s doubling every nine years. International associations are one of the most visible parts of the industry and, most importantly, are countable. One of the issues about the meetings industry is that it is really difficult to measure, because of the numerous types of event and organisers of those events, the multitude of venues used, and so on.
- What is measurable is the supply of large scale venues. In Africa, the market has been dominated for decades by South Africa, with one of the premier venues being the renowned Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). Opened in 2003 it is one of a number of conference venues in the city – and that is why Cape Town is the highest ranked African city on the global list of destinations for international association congresses, equal 60th place with – Dubai! Nairobi is the next Africa city on the list, equal 100th place with – Abu Dhabi!
- To a large extent, the conference and meetings industry (not forgetting the exhibitions industry) is supply-led, especially where a destination is concerned. If the venue is not available for an event, then it goes elsewhere, and all the benefits of the event to that destination – commercial, economic, social – are lost forever.
West Africa is still only a relatively small player in the international meetings market (and Africa as a whole has just a 4 per cent share of the international association market), although various venues have had success in the regional and domestic market. One 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. Large-scale purpose-built venues are to be found in Accra, Cotonou, and throughout Nigeria. Dubbed the “Conference Capital” in the country’s Tourism Master Plan, Abuja has several large venues, in the Hilton and Sheraton hotels, and in the non-hotel, stand-alone International Conference Centre and the ECOWAS Centre.
But the largest of these is “only” 2,000 seats, nothing compared to the Expo Centre in Lagos, and some of the planned venues in various State capitals around the country. Cross River State Government recently launched the Calabar International Convention Centre (CICC) – for those with a quirky sense of humour, it is amusing that the launch took place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, Africa’s leading venue! A government-led initiative, the CICC is part of the State’s objective of generating more revenue internally (and thus lessening the dependence on central government hand-outs), and to reap the benefits that a large-scale venue can bring – jobs, jobs and more jobs. Creating jobs increases social harmony, reduces the burden on the State, and spending by the newly-employed boosts other sectors of the economy. The extended families that job-holders support benefit too – better nutrition, less sickness, and educated children.
The total capacity of the CICC is 5,000 persons in 21 different halls, and the State government is already taking bookings for the expected opening date of February 2015 – construction started in 2012, the project is on track for partial-completion by the end of 2014.
- This is a great example of a State government recognising that capital investment in a facility such as this is an essential part of the basic infrastructure. Whilst job creation is, fundamentally, a private sector affair, the public sector has to be there to support. The CICC will be managed by a private sector operator, and it is intended that the vast majority of outsourced activities, such as the catering, printing, equipment hire and so on will be within the local economy. Large-scale convention centres rarely provide a commercial return on investment, which is why government has to step up to the plate and provide the infrastructure. One exception to that in Nigeria is the 5,000+ seat Expo Centre at the Eko Hotel in Lagos, which is entirely private-sector funded – and highly successful. Others are the numerous temporary structures that abound, basically tents, some of which are of high quality, but all of which have a short life-span – if nothing else, the weather is not very kind to them”
- Elsewhere in Nigeria, other State governments are also active in the sector. Ondo State is putting the finishing touches to The Dome, a 3000-person calacity events centre in Akure, which will also have a private sector operator. The Akwa Ibom State government is building a 5,000-seat convention centre in Uyo, and the Enugu State government is looking for investors to complete the stalled convention centre project in Enugu.
- Whilst the international market would be very welcome at these facilities, it is primarily the domestic market that is targeted. It is estimated that there are almost 100 professional associations in Nigeria and, because of the scale of the country, these associations are large, which means that they need such venues as the CICC to host their annual congress, and also to host regional events.
- As well as the associations, there are events organised by central, State and local government, companies, NGOs, private individuals, social organisations and many others. Not just meetings – with the growth in the African middle class, consumer exhibitions are also being held, and the number will increase.
In the emerging economies of West 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 correspondent believes that the meetings industry – the real one, not the virtual one - has a very, very bright future.
W Hospitality Group, Lagos