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The Turn of Events: Will Local Tourism Lead The Recovery Of The MICE Sector?

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With the grounding of the global aviation industry, the money-spinning meetings and events sector is also on a downward spiral. Will local tourism lead its recovery?

Mauritian bride-to-be, Olivia Maurel, was all set for the wedding of her dreams at the end of April. But with Covid-19 playing party pooper, she had to make the heart-rending decision of postponing her nuptials. With three-quarters of her guest-list expected to fly into the sunny island of Mauritius, from every corner of the globe, she had no other option.

“The risks of countries closing borders and key people, such as my fiancé’s grandmother, being unable to come from England, was a huge motivator for us to [postpone],” says Maurel.

The billion-dollar global wedding industry will probably not see any big bridal gatherings for months to come. The cognac and crystal will have to wait so long as Covid-19 is the only attendee that has RSVP-ed.

With the coronavirus cancelling significant conferences and business gatherings worldwide such as the Adobe Summit and the Game Developers Conference; as also mega sports, social and entertainment events such as Coachella, the Cannes Film Festival and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) industry is facing the annihilating prospect of empty venues and nil revenue. Closer home, in Africa, events such as IAB Bookmarks Awards and Summit; and lifestyle and entertainment events such as AfrikaBurn, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and the Bushfire Festival hosted in Swaziland every year, have all been casualties. And alongside that reality, life-changing events such as graduations, anniversaries and funerals are now being conducted on laptop screens.

The meetings and events industry has been impacted disproportionately by the virus. Unlike many other economic activities, the events industry is based on physical interaction between people. It’s a type of tourism in which conventions of large groups, usually planned well in advance, are organized at a physical destination.

Securing major conference events can benefit the local economy of the host city or country – particularly attracting business travelers. Research shows that business travelers are the golden goose in the travel industry. Unlike leisure travelers, they, or their sponsors, often spend more money.

 According to the South African Tourism (SAT) board, the events industry, directly and indirectly, sustains more than 250,000 jobs and contributes an estimated R115 billion ($6.2 billion) to the country’s economy.

“Every year, South Africa hosts 211,000 regional, national and international meetings, conferences and exhibitions,” says the CEO of SAT, Sisa Ntshona. “The industry has undoubtedly been heavily hit by this pandemic, which also has negative bearings on employment and the continuity of businesses in the tourism sector.” Annually, the country attracts a million international delegates for business.

As the virus continues to sweep the continent, abandoned halls and venues are being transformed into field hospitals to be used as treatment centers for patients. South Africa’s minister of health Zweli Mkhize announced in May plans to convert the Cape Town International Convention Centre to become a temporary hospital with 857 beds for patients unable to effectively self-isolate until they are no longer infectious. This comes after the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg was earmarked for the same.

A report issued at the end of March by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates international tourist arrivals could decline by 20% to 30% in 2020 based on the latest measures taken by governments, businesses as well as the patterns observed from previous global crises. The impact thereof translates to a loss of $300 billion to $450 billion in international tourism receipts (exports). Ntshona cautions to interpret data prudently given the magnitude, volatility and unprecedented nature of the crisis. “The true effect may only be accurately calculated and reflected much later,” he says.

 It’s crucial to understand how Africa was positioned pre-pandemic. Henk Graaff, who runs SW Africa, a boutique destination management company in Johannesburg specializing in inbound tourism in the MICE, luxury, golf and leisure travel segments in Africa, affirms the continent has been an attractive destination for tourists, corporates, event planners, weddings and honeymoons. Countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe and Zambia), Zanzibar (Tanzania), Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda were seeing increased interest and growing in popularity as events destinations.

It’s unsurprising as Africa offers a vast array of exceptional, customized and personalized locations that exceed expectations. This is strengthened by improved infrastructure, accessibility, expansion of flights and connectivity services within the region from major source markets such as Europe, Asia and America. Attractions such as the wilderness, the Masai Mara and the mountain gorillas of East Africa are now easily accessible.

But at this time, businesses such as SW Africa are strained and seeking relief. “We received both cancellations and postponements, some of which led to demands for refunds from us and in turn from our suppliers, some of whom have been more flexible than others, leading to tension in supply chain relations,” says Graaff.

 He is pleading with suppliers to become ultra-flexible post the lockdown with regards to price, pre-payment and cancellation terms. He believes this will minimize or eliminate the perceived risk in the eyes of potential clients, who will be both relatively budget-conscious and risk-averse.

Maurel was luckier as her suppliers were more accommodating. “Thankfully, everyone has been super-understanding, and we’re all working together to find something that works for everyone’s schedules,” she says. “Luckily, my wedding dress wasn’t finished when lockdown started, so it’s still at Robyn Robert’s studio – if it hadn’t been, I would’ve been so tempted to run around in it and have a Friends moment!”

 However, some suppliers in the value chain are grappling with an even tougher predicament. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), no airline, regardless of how well-capitalized, would be able to absorb the impact of the Covid-19 groundings for a prolonged period. The government-imposed travel ban, social distancing and maximum limits to gatherings have caused a steep decline in passenger demand for air flights to which airlines have responded by reducing their scope of operations and costs. Many airlines have been forced to park their fleets, with most seeking financial support and debt relief measures amid the low, in some cases, non-existent demand.

 All African countries will feel the impact relative to the scope of their aviation industries, according to aviation specialist and analyst, Joachim Vermooten.

“The regulatory imposition of travel bans to and from specific states and later to airline operations have brought most scheduled commercial airline operations to a halt. Some one-way directional charter and cargo opportunities have arisen, but these are insufficient to maintain any scale of network operations,” says Vermooten. As a result, airlines are now focused on cash retention and several relief measures, including compulsory leave for staff and issuing travel vouchers and re-bookings, instead of ticket refunds to customers. The battle is uphill as several African carriers have remained financially distressed ahead of the pandemic. Air Namibia and South African Airways (SAA), for example, have been facing severe operating issues.

As global citizens navigate the new ways of engaging and working during the lockdown, technology has been both an aid and a threat to the tourism and MICE sector.

Organizations and individuals have embraced and leveraged technology to facilitate interactions. This includes the massive adoption of tools such a Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype. We are also seeing national tourism boards innovating through virtual reality to give travelers delightful “insperiences” from the comfort of their quarantined corners.

 To avoid minimum job losses and devastating economic damage, South Africa’s department of tourism has made R200 million ($10.8 million) available to assist small-medium enterprises (SMEs) in the tourism and hospitality sector who are under particular stress due to the lockdown restrictions.

In addition, SAT is in the process of developing an industry-wide recovery plan. “To ensure that this plan is robust, we are consulting the tourism sector from the large listed players to the SMEs to input into this plan. This plan will be a blueprint on how we move forward as an industry,” Ntshona says.

 With the end of the pandemic indeterminable, it’s currently impossible to speculate what lies on the other side. Due to seasonality and strong preventative measures taken by most African governments, the entire continent has the least positive cases and deaths from Covid-19 than other sovereign states. This might be advantageous for marketing African destinations to be considered relatively safer during the recovery phase. “At the heart of our recovery, will be domestic travel,” says Ntshona.

Even so, domestic travelers may initially favor alternative modes of travel to air, such as motor vehicle travel, further adding strain to the aviation industry.

 This is echoed by Graaff who believes domestic travel will lead the recovery, and then demand will expand to neighboring destinations and eventually further afield.

It may be a while before a new recovery path is defined, but for now, everything hangs in the air.

– Mashokane Mahlo-Ramusetheli

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