When nations closed their borders and instituted travel bans and other restrictions on movement, the tourism industry received the world’s attention. But not all tourism received equal consideration. The effect of national lockdowns on business tourism, specifically the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (Mice) sector, has been woefully neglected in the national conversation.
South Africa is a global leader in business tourism. We have world-class facilities, internationally renowned experts in the field and an illustrious history of successfully hosting best-in-class international events. These achievements are at risk of being squandered.
Before Covid-19 the exhibition industry was a vibrant, growing sector. According to Projeni Pather, chairperson of the Association of African Exhibition Organisers, the industry contributed R75-billion to the South African GDP annually before Covid-19.
In 2019, the South African National Conventions Bureau submitted 108 bids for exhibitions, which contributed R23-billion to tourism through the one million exhibition attendees visiting the country.
In 2015, the sector created just under 153,000 jobs and paid R13.5-billion in salaries. It supports an extensive value chain, including hotel accommodation, restaurants, tourist destinations, transport, airlines, catering, food and beverage companies, and registration and support staff.
This contribution, these jobs and this value chain are under existential threat. Lee-Ann Alder, association manager of the Exhibition and Events Association of South Africa (Exsa), reports that many of Exsa’s members have had to either put their staff on short time with reduced income or have completely lost their staff. About 20% have lost their businesses entirely, and more than 80% have had to change their business focus to earn an income just to survive.
Here’s a story about one of these businesses. It is, unfortunately, typical.
“They are,” Alder explains, “a family-run business, like many of our members. They were a supplier to exhibitions both locally and internationally. Due to the fact that exhibitions get booked in advance, they held a large amount of stock. They had a large factory, factory staff, machinery, furniture, flooring and specialised equipment.
“When exhibitions were cancelled, clients had paid deposits that had to be returned. This caused the first stress, but they thought it would be only a matter of months. They had to first put staff on half time and then when it was no longer sustainable, were forced to let staff go.
“They sold stock to try and cover costs, but at the end they lost stock, their warehouse and all their staff. They moved to their home garage. They have diversified and tried different ways to earn an income and stay afloat, but it doesn’t make up for the personal, professional and financial losses they have sustained during the pandemic.”
Events should bring thousands of visitors to our shores each year. They offer millions of rands to their host cities, bolster our international reputation and show the world the wonders of South Africa.
Business visitors to our shores invariably take part in recreational activities, spend money at our restaurants, visit our game parks and purchase our goods and services.
Tourism from exhibitions once sustained an estimated additional 47,000 jobs a year. These ancillary effects have been drastically curtailed. Our exhibition halls, conference halls and hotels sit quiet.
Ever since the beginning of South Africa’s lockdowns in March 2020 our industry has been almost entirely prevented from doing business.
Exhibitions are highly mobile and can be relocated easily to an alternative country. Exhibition industry members in other countries have been able to host events that would have previously taken place in South Africa, taking business away from our country.
African countries such as Nigeria and Egypt recognise the vital contribution their exhibition industries make to their economies and have taken steps to permit Covid-secure exhibitions to continue. The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, and an international SailGP event are just two of the many events that South Africa could have hosted, but which have been reallocated to other countries.
We are as committed as any other South African to putting an end to this virus once and for all and protecting one another from its effects. But as we have learnt more about the nature and spread of Covid-19, it has become more apparent that our industry is amply equipped to operate safely within the boundaries of protocols required to prevent its spread.
This is an industry long accustomed to working within the strict confines of a variety of regulatory boundaries. Health, safety and labour regulations are integral parts of the planning and implementation of events and we have successfully observed them throughout our history. There is no reason to expect that we would be unable to do so now.
The tourism and trade, industry, and competition departments play significant roles in the exhibition industry. They oversee international and domestic tourism promotion and development, and national compliance standards for exhibitions, funding and consumer protection.
As has been proven time and again internationally over the past year — notably at the Expo 2020, which welcomed 10 million visitors to Dubai — it is far safer to attend a properly organised exhibition today than to visit a shopping mall.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many would-be travellers to stay at home and attend events or meetings virtually. Some might argue that this solves the problem. I would wholeheartedly disagree. Not only does a capitulation to virtual events have the adverse effects on employment, revenue and small business already described, but it is not a sufficient or equal replacement for the physical attendance of events designed to facilitate networking and deal-making.
Something is lost when interacting from behind a screen. I have heard countless stories of frustration from businesspeople who were exasperated by the lack of human interaction that has prevented deals from being agreed to, that has halted business plans in their tracks, and that has hampered the fostering of the international relationships so crucial for the reinvigoration of the South African economy.
So what is the way forward?
“The African, and particularly the established South African exhibition industries, are important to the global Mice sector,” says Kai Hattendorf, the managing director of UFI, the global association for the exhibitions industry. These are industries worth saving.
We have shown that we can organise safe, large-scale events. Let us do so. Relax the restrictions on these exhibitions and events, which are in any case meaningless given the lack of restrictions in malls and other public spaces. The World Health Organization’s special envoy on Covid-19, among a growing number of experts, has cautioned against lockdowns as the primary measure of control of the virus. Let us heed the experts’ advice.
The Mice sector in South Africa comprises structured, well-run, compliant businesses closely aware of regulations and applicable protocols. Let us do our jobs, keep our valued clients and attendees safe, rebuild lost connections and do what we can to rescue an industry on the brink of collapse — and bring considerable economic value back into our country. DM/BM