Good Business: Q&A with Laura Saeger at New South Africa Convention Bureau

South Africa Convention Bureau

Backsberg Winery

The new South African National Convention Bureau launched this past spring to address the growing worldwide demand for meetings, incentives and events in South Africa. We asked Laura Saeger, CMP/CMM, Manager of Meetings & Convention Sales, for a thorough update on the country’s MICE scene.

PREVUE: Is there a growing focus on meetings and incentive travel at South African Tourism? If so, why is that, and how is your department evolving in that direction?

Laura Saeger: Yes, and to that end, South African Tourism launched the South African National Convention Bureau in April 2012 to facilitate the increase in numbers of both domestic and international business events in South Africa. As many companies are expanding globally, the African continent is an area that may have previously been untapped. Companies hold business events where they do business or where they are developing business, and South Africa’s infrastructure makes it a logical meeting place on the continent.

Also, as international associations are expanding their reach and growing their membership, they may be more interested in Africa for their congress rotational to address/expand their African membership. These association programs help address seasonality of visitation to the country to cover non-peak seasons for leisure visitors. These events are especially valuable in filling space that was created by the growth in hotels and venues for the World Cup and increased airlift with the expanded airports. In addition, the average spend per delegate exceeds that of the average leisure tourist. South Africa is focusing on both leisure and business tourism as a pillar of its economy; every 12 visitors to South Africa creates one job.

Are there any statistics to illustrate the upswing in group events?

Our recent corporate research indicates that corporate meetings are still holding their own as the reality is that they must still trade and/or do business—training, product launches, user conferences, advisory councils, etc.

In our corporate research completed in June of this year, of the 167 qualifiedcorporations reporting that they have run/will be runninginternational award programs:

  • 100%have selected /will select Europe (upfrom98%in 2011);
  • 35% have selected/will select Africa (upfrom 29%in 2011)
  • 47% have selected/will select AsiaPacific(Asia + South Pacific) (downfrom 72%in 2011);
  • 22% have selected/will select the South Pacific(no Asia) (upfrom 16%in 2011);
  • 4% have selected/will select the Middle East(downfrom 6%in 2011).

Of the qualified event management companies reporting in our March 2012 research:

  • 98% have selected/will select Europe for their programs
  • 80% have selected/will select AsiaPacific
  • 30% have selected/will select Africa. This latter statistic percentage represents a significant increase, i.e., in 2011 it was 22% and in 2010 it was only 14%.
  • A good number of the executives interviewed in March 2012 spoke of an encouraging increase in the number of overseas meetings planned for this year, as well as being given more lead times than in the past several years. These increases are positive indicators that corporations are once again committing to stronger budgets for running international meetings.

Do you feel the growth of interest from the U.S. group market in experiential/eco/green meetings has boosted numbers to South Africa?

To be honest, although there is significant interest in experiential and green/eco meetings, it is difficult to say whether any increase in total business can be attributed to these groups. With the impact of the global economic crisis business tourism events definitely felt the pinch. Walthers DMC in South Africa, a Crystal Site award winner for CSR incorporated into incentives, believes that without the contribution of “experiential and green meetings” we would be worse off, and that they see the contribution from this segment making a significant contribution to their future business.

Has South Africa always been committed to protecting the natural environment and incorporating it into meetings. And do you feel much of the rest of the market is catching up?

Absolutely; fortunately, even prior to true democracy in 1994 South Africans had the vision to preserve large areas of their environment. In certain cases the local population was moved and compensation for this loss of land has and is being addressed. As a result we have iconic wilderness areas such as the Kruger National Park, the roots of which are well over 100 years old. One huge success has been the recovery of the white rhino population which has grown from approximately 50 animals in 1900 to over 20,000 today, although this figure is once again under threat because of a massive increase in poaching in recent years.

Today South Africa is home to over 80% of the world’s remaining rhinos. South Africans have a strong relationship with their environment. They have long realized that business, especially when one needs to strategize and think out of the box, is best conducted away from the day-to-day distractions of the corporate office. Many years ago local companies started the tradition of getting away to the bush, and in the lead up to the 1994 elections many political negotiations took place in the safari reserves. There is something about observing nature that makes one realize that human differences can more easily be resolved. There is even a local word “Bosberaad” or “bush council” to describe this type of meeting.

In other areas South Africa has an established and well-regulated environmental management program for tourism properties. The Heritage Environmental Program has been in place for many years and a significant number of our hotels and lodges subscribe. These properties measure and are independently audited on water use, waste and other environmental criteria. Another organization with strong green/eco links is Fair Trade in Tourism. South Africa is fortunate in that we have large and modern convention centers, and those in the major centers such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban have strong environmental programs on a par with some of the world’s best.

As South Africa transformed from the apartheid era more and more companies realized the need to give back, especially to the communities from which their employees are drawn. As a result CSR in a personal and meaningful sense (more than writing out a check to a charitable organization) has long been something that many companies include in their budgets. At Walthers, for instance, CSR has long formed a part of their company agenda and they are comfortable with offering CSR activities into their proposals. Examples include:

  • Setting up 20 craft stalls at the Cape Town International Convention Centre to enable township women to sell their products to delegates attending a Women’s Leadership Summit.
  • Coordinating donor funds to build a rural school, arranging sponsorship and sourcing of sporting equipment for underprivileged children.
  • Suggesting local entertainment often from underprivileged communities rather than flying in high-priced acts.

Of note, Walthers feels that bringing people from very different backgrounds together is extremely rewarding and they offer their time towards any CSR-related portion of a program on a no-charge basis.

Sustainable initiatives in South Africa’s safari country are obvious, but do you think planners are also aware of the sustainable hotels and cuisine in the Winelands outside Cape Town?

Sustainability awareness is growing and although only a minority of clients enquire about it, we do see a greater awareness when it comes to issues such as from where food is sourced. In a city such as Cape Town, most produce is grown locally and there is access to fresh seafood and Karoo lamb. When selecting menus DMCs such as Walthers will either choose or advise their clients to select items that are sourced locally. For fish, one can use the WWF SASSI (South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) website to check that hotel and restaurant suggestions are indeed safe to consume and are not from endangered or overexploited fish stocks.

Wine is an interesting subject and with so many good wineries to choose from it does make sense to balance a program with a visit to the wineries. There are well-known and hugely impressive wineries, and many many wineries that promote sustainability. Backsburg is South Africa’s first carbon-neutral wine estate and for real hands-on insight visit Nstiki Biyela, South Africa’s first black female head wine maker at Stellekaya. To form your own opinion on the history of the Cape’s wine industry you can visit the museum at Solms Delta en route to Franschoek.

Following are past winners for Cape Town in the Great Wine Capitals’ Best of Wine Tourism Awards, in the Sustainable Wine Tourism Category: Delheim Wine Estate in 2008/2009; Cloof Wine Estate in 2010; and Waverley Hills in 2011/2012.

The Sustainable Wine Tourism Award category is open to all wineries that have implemented environmental practices and sustainable innovations and developments, both in the vineyards (with organic farming practices, for example) and in the winery (for example, with reduced energy consumption) as long as they enhance the visitors’ experience.

Other wine estates that also do good work are: Vergelegen, La Motte, Waterkloof and Spier. If you check out those websites you’ll see some really interesting environmental and social responsibility initiatives. Also check out the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative and the newly launched Sustainable Wine South Africa Sustainability Seal.