SA lures city slickers to the bush

South Africa, riding the wave of a tourism boom, is touting Survivor-style business meetings to turn it into one of the world’s top 10 conference venues by the end of the decade.

The new “Business Unusual” brand unveiled at roadshows in the United States, Europe and Asia, offers executives a chance to swap pinstripe suits for shorts in the bush while chalking out strategy or ironing out problems.

“What we’re saying is we can go beyond the usual business conferences and meetings,” said Angeline Lue from South African Tourism.

“It might mean bringing in a facilitator who would bring in typical African concepts such as cattle herding, stick fighting or drum beating to build up team spirit.”

Lue said Business Unusual drew from South Africa’s rich history and multicultural tapestry to host conferences modelled on the bosberaad (Afrikaans for bush meeting), and the imbizo, a Zulu gathering where there is no hierarchy and everyone is free to speak their mind.

The concept is part of a concerted effort to turn South Africa into one of the world’s top business conference venues by 2010—the year the country hosts the football World Cup.

“This year, the global conference and meetings sector is forecast to comprise 10% of the estimated $672-billion being generated from travel and tourism activity,” South African Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said recently.

Van Schalkwyk said South Africa was currently rated the world’s 32nd leading conference destination by the International Congress and Convention Association and “we have declared our intention of breaking into the top 10 by 2010”.

South Africa currently attracts 63% of all conferences held in Africa, helping support 12 000 jobs and contributing R2,6-billion ($353-million) annually to gross domestic product, he said.

The infrastructure is in place for mega international conferences, with two centres at Durban and Cape Town each having a capacity of 10 000 and another in Johannesburg which is nearly as large.

The country’s famed game parks, breathtaking natural beauty and other tourist attractions are also going to be used as bait to reel in business travellers, Lue said.

“Business tourists are by definition high spenders,” she said.

“Business tourism is a strong driver of growth because conferencing is year-round and it can take care of seasonality that we experience in leisure travel.

“We are also looking at increased length of stay by offering participants pre- and post-tours.”

Of the 7,3-million tourists who came to South Africa last year, 10% were business travellers, Lue said, adding that the aim was to take the figure of total arrivals to 10-million by 2010, of whom one million would be business tourists.

But others are sceptical, saying the new game plan fails to take into account the reality on the ground.

One of the main stumbling blocks is the widespread fear about security—fuelled by South Africa’s high crime rate—which Lue said was largely due to media hype.

Survivor and reality gimmicks may catch on for a period but my feeling is that they would have a limited shelf life,” said Bill Lacey, economic consultant at the South African Chamber of Business.

“When there are really serious matters at hand, you don’t need to go white water rafting.”

Peggy Drodskie from the Chambers of Commerce and Industry South Africa, said other impediments included the high price of air travel and higher accommodation costs compared with exotic Asian destinations such as Bali.

“South Africa is a very expensive breakaway place for the top management of a US company,” she said. “Added to the high cost of air travel—and these people always travel business class—are taxes.”

“Also the service standards need to be improved.
They compare poorly with the standards in India, Austria or Germany for example,” she said. - Sapa-AFP

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