The conference industry around the world has had to adjust to the rigours of the global economic downturn and the commonly held belief that marketing bucks are the first hit. Whilst that may be true in many regions, South Africa remains a prime resort, open for business and very much offering value for money.
At Durban International Convention Centre (ICC), 2012 was a record year for revenue growth, as Scott Langley, Marketing and Sales Manager, describes:
“Last year was a phenomenal year, our best ever; we hosted a busy calendar and one major event. The reasons were a combination of refocusing our marketing efforts, reducing operational costs but of equal importance, we continued to build our client relationships.
“The global impact of the economic slump has not affected the number of events that take place – the effect is much more down to the volume of delegates attending. There are lots of organisations around the world that host annual events and rotate venues between Europe and long-haul destinations. Some of these organisations have tightened their belts but our message is that South Africa is still affordable and value for money”.
South Africa’s only convention centre, with a completely flat floor, is also the largest column-free multi-purpose space building on the whole continent. Indeed, the venue is one of the most advanced conference facilities in the world, living up to its billing: “Where Africa and the world meet.”
Durban ICC is a purpose-built, fully air-conditioned centre with three convention halls that are interlinked but separate. Moveable walls allow for a number of different venue configurations. Alternatively the halls can be opened up to form one large venue with seating for 5,000 delegates or 7,000 square metres of column free floor space. Together with the adjacent Exhibition Centre, the ICC can double its capacity to accommodate 10,000 conference delegates. The centres can function independently or as two halves of one whole. This is achieved by closing Walnut Road, a brick-paved concourse between the two centres, to provide easy access for delegates.
The centre was officially opened by former President Nelson Mandela in 1997, after three years of construction, as Langley explains: “The story began in 1992 with Operation Jumpstart, a collaborative body consisting of political role-players and the private sector and the then City Engineers Town Planning Department, that started to develop in Durban once the City Council had given its approval.
“The first sod was turned in December 1994 and the whole project ran smoothly with government backing. At the time it was an extremely ambitious concept to approve a convention centre, as there was nothing like it anywhere in South Africa.”
The initial construction cost in the region of R220 million and saw the completion of Halls 1, 2 and 3, with an extension being built in 2007, which added the ICC Arena and Halls 4, 5 and 6, on the site of Durban’s old prison.
“There was a lot of history there and the new building has retained the old guard tower and a couple of the external walls, one of which has a number of murals painted by artists, which depict the civil rights struggle in South Africa and in particular the Bill of Rights.
“We have kept these historical monuments as a reminder of our past and we feel this is quite apt, given that the building is now very much a centre of enlightenment and emancipation through the events that we host. We feel it is good to hold the extremes in parallel,” states Langley.
Durban ICC has excellent transport links, located very close to the busy N4 and within 30 minutes drive of the local airport. Situated just a few blocks from Durban’s popular beachfront, the centre offers delegates a convenient choice of nearby hotels and it also close to the city’s central business district. The facility also boasts comprehensive parking for delegates and those loading and unloading equipment for each event.
Events come in all shapes and sizes to Durban ICC, but Langley suggests that there is a very clear season that runs from mid-February to early December each year.
“Whilst seasonality could be an issue, we are able to consistently run events throughout this period as we attract both national and international customers,” he says. “Events vary in length from one day to five days typically and we can run multiple events simultaneously as we have the six separate halls that can be divided up using sound proof walls, whilst we have separate entrances at each end of the building,” he adds.
Durban ICC employs around 120 permanent staff and has an additional pool of approximately 250 casual workers, who work shifts, depending on how busy the venue is. The operational pressures of running a venue of such size are many, with customer service, quality and cleanliness all important factors in delivering the perfect client experience.
Part of the challenge is the sheer number of events, in 2012 the facility hosted 320 – and of course each conference or exhibition needs time to set up stands and technical equipment, while the cleaning team work through the night to prepare the venue for a fresh start the following morning.
“We provide a wide variety of services including the venue hire, a full catering service and technical services that include audio and visual work. We also maintain a list of technical suppliers more additional expertise, according to the client’s requirements and we outsource the stand building, security and cleaning,” Langley says.
“It is not uncommon for workers to come on shift at 11pm and work through to 4am so that the new client can arrive at a clean and ready destination, so we really do work around the clock to optimise use of the building,” he continues.
Durban ICC has developed a strong trend towards repeat customers, which is fostered by the strength of relationships and customer service.
The size of the building has made it an ideal location for some of the world’s biggest events, and Durban ICC has been the setting for prestigious activities including Cop17: the United Nations’ framework event on climate change in 2011, the 123rd International Olympic Committee meeting and the 2010 Fifa World Cup (TM) Preliminary Draw.
Large corporate events including several global medical conferences and the International Nurses’ Congress in 2009 have used the facilities, but perhaps the COP17 event, with approximately 15,000 delegates, is the biggest to date.
Of course guaranteeing safety is of paramount importance and Langley says that a full-time safety officer is on-site and has to sign-off the floor plan for every event before it can go ahead.
“That can sometimes be a challenge and cause conflict with what the client wants to do,” he admits, “but safety is something we cannot compromise and we have to comply with the Health and Safety Act which covers events.
“The building also provides excellent wheelchair access and a Braille pathway which runs the entire length of the building.”
Maintenance is another big concern for Durban ICC and Langley suggests that during December and January, the venue closes down enabling essential maintenance to take place. The past few weeks has seen a major upgrade to the main kitchen, while the main hall has undergone renovation which has seen the introduction of 1,700 seats which are electronically moveable, and can lifted and stored in the ceiling thanks to newly installed motors.
Reflecting on the economic climate, Langley says that Durban ICC has been able to deflect some of the challenges with a little creative use of space. Collaboration is another key factor and the organisation has teamed up with the local tourism board to jointly promote Durban.
Web marketing is gaining popularity, but Langley feels there is still no substitute for good old fashioned face to face meetings and the Durban ICC marketing team will regularly travel around the world to meet with clients and develop one to one relationships which have become invaluable over time.
“You are only as good as your last conference and we want to partner with clients over a number of years, not just for one event,” he impresses.
“Next month we will be hosting the Fifth BRICS Summit which will be attended by some very high profile delegates, while we are currently entertaining the World Soybean Conference and later in the year we will have the World Transplant Games and the World Conference for Women in Policing.
“The global impact of conferences is key to our future and we are all part of Team South Africa. We have recently returned from a Johannesburg conference on the conference industry which determined that there are around 100,000 events around the world each year and Africa only hosts around 3 per cent of these.
“There remains huge potential in Africa.”