Zinhle Nzama, Acting Chief Convention Bureau Officer, South African National Convention Bureau

As South Africa gears up to host the 18th Meetings Africa trade show, Zinhle Nzama reflects on South Africa’s growing stature as a MICE destination and the major spinoffs from hosting major business meetings.

Annually, South Africa hosts dozens of highly successful conferences, imbizos, and events, drawing audiences and delegates from across the global village. Our beautiful weather and natural beauty, coupled with excellent facilities, infrastructure, and favourable currency exchange rates, make the country the best destination for business meetings.

Hosting major business events goes beyond just displaying a country’s hosting capabilities; it is about generating tangible economic benefits for the host nation and its people. It is a common misconception that the economic advantages of such events solely favour large corporations.

However, this overlooks the substantial impact on smaller enterprises and local communities, which often experience a significant uplift from these gatherings. Solani Eunice Mtshali from the rural Mzinyathi in Inanda, just north of Durban, is a shining example of how small-scale entrepreneurs harness opportunities within South Africa’s MICE sector.

Her journey from a street vendor to an award-winning craft maker began with showcasing and selling her products at Africa’s Travel Indaba in 2018, a significant turning point for her business.

Her stall, a vibrant showcase of handcrafted beads and crafts, quickly became popular, especially among international visitors. Her Masimbonge Club now sustains 15 local female artisans from Inanda.

In addition to her conference presence, Mtshali opens her home to visitors – most of them business delegates to conferences – who want to delve into the cultural heritage of South Africa. This intimate encounter allows visitors to immerse themselves in the art of beadwork and indulge in the myriad tastes of authentic African dishes, providing a window into the country’s rich cultural mosaic.

Attendees’ expenditure at events spans travel, accommodation, merchandise, and local crafts, which all contribute to economic stimulation.

For instance, when a tourist purchases a piece of beadwork at an event, it initiates a sequence of transactions. This purchase directly benefits the beadwork artisan like the 15 members of Masimbonge Club, but it also supports the traders who supply the crafting materials, such as the beads and thread, and reaches back to the producers of these raw materials.

It’s a clear illustration of the wider economic impact.

Catalysing economic benefits for enterprises of all sizes underpins Meetings Africa. In this premier business meetings trade show, associations and professionals from the meetings industry from across the continent converge to present a vast array of business event services and products to international buyers.

From the 27th to the 28th of February 2024, the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg will once again be buzzing with thousands of international guests seeking to make significant business deals, many of whom will also find the time to enjoy the tranquillity of some of the best tourist attractions sites Mzansi has to offer.

The 2024 instalment of the Pan Africa trade show promises to surpass previous events in scale and more economic impact can be expected. The 2023 Meetings Africa was a notable success, attracting 273 hosted buyers and 355 exhibitors from 22 African countries. It welcomed a total of 2,964 attendees, with 684 (23%) coming from Gauteng, 1,420 (48%) from other provinces within South Africa, and 860 (29%) coming from different locations outside South Africa.

According to an economic impact assessment study commissioned by South African Tourism, the event’s total contribution to the South African economy was R388.5 million, comprised of a direct economic contribution estimated at R133.9 million and a further R254.5 million generated through indirect and induced impacts.

The event also delivered tremendous value for exhibitors as they reported an average of 32 meetings each during the event. Exhibitors typically secured one deal from these meetings, valued on average at R559,400. For South African exhibitors, the average value per deal closed was R276,000.

Another essential element for event-related economic activities for business meetings is their ability to create a complex web of employment opportunities. How they create employment is that these events typically lead employers to either increase the hours of existing staff or hire temporary workers rather than expand permanent staff.

Sustaining and creating jobs is critical in countries where unemployment remains stubbornly high, especially for a sector whose workforce was severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that Meetings Africa 2023 contributed to creating or maintaining approximately 753 jobs (451 direct, 61 indirect, and 241 induced) within the South African economy. Another crucial aspect is workforce training opportunities presented by hosting a significant event like Meetings Africa 2023. This event offered training and skills transfer opportunities, the chance to earn a salary, valuable experience, and enhanced participants ‘prospects for future employment. Yet, the actual value of events like Meetings Africa extends beyond economic figures. They contribute to the country’s brand image, showcasing South Africa as a capable, hospitable, and vibrant destination. This asset is crucial for attracting future events and investments.

Through extensive local and international media coverage, Meetings Africa heightened awareness of South Africa’s tourism offerings. Consequently, the event also played a crucial role in promoting Johannesburg, Gauteng and South Africa as desirable tourist destinations.

Events like Meetings Africa also bolster tourism directly by drawing delegates who contribute to the industry during their stay and often extend their visits, which translates into additional revenue for leisure-based businesses.

This ‘leisure’ trend – which involves extending a business trip for leisure purposes before, during, or after the work-related event – is a boon for hotels, restaurants, small businesses, and tourist attractions, with the extended stays pumping discretionary spending into the local economy.

An increasing number of travellers are incorporating personal vacations into their business trips. Thus, events like Meetings Africa present an opportunity to convert business travellers to leisure travellers.

The Tourism Masterplan mandates us to execute a global marketing programme to reignite international demand. Hosting Meetings Africa links to that vision as it bolsters a bidding pipeline for attracting and hosting future local and international conferences and mega-events.

The continuous successful hosting of Meetings Africa adds to the country’s experience and profile when bidding for other major events. South Africa already has a good reputation as a global player in hosting major industry events worldwide.

This stature was confirmed by the 2022 International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) Country and City Rankings report, which placed South Africa at position 41 globally after hosting 55 in-person and hybrid meetings that year.

This ranking reflects the number of meetings hosted per country, with the USA leading with 690 meetings and Spain and Italy following with 528 and 522 meetings, respectively. In the city rankings based on the number of meetings, Cape Town ranked 63rd, having hosted 30 in-person meetings in 2022.

Vienna, in Austria, leads this ranking after hosting 162 meetings, with Lisbon (Portugal) and the French capital, Paris, trailing closely at 144 and 134 meetings, respectively.

The MICE sector is experiencing significant growth and shows promising signs of maintaining its upward trajectory, which was previously interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The industry’s vital role in boosting employment and revitalising the economy is undeniable, highlighting the necessity for ongoing innovation and collaboration.

Events such as Meetings Africa are pivotal in fostering this innovation, providing platforms for exchanging ideas and showcasing new developments. By leveraging such events, South Africa is strengthening its position as a premier destination for MICE events in Africa further enhancing our diverse tourism appeal.

The upcoming Meetings Africa 2024 is anticipated to contribute to these efforts substantially, further promoting South Africa’s stature in the global tourism and MICE sectors. While events like Meetings Africa are highly successful, their success and economic impact are not easily visible to the public.

As hosts of such events, we need to communicate more not only about how such events benefit the whole value chain, from transportation, accommodation, and food, to mention a few, but how they put extra rands in the pockets of small businesses and create much-needed jobs for our country, which is drowning in record unemployment rates.

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