EDITORIAL: The changing face of conferencing
Technology and the growth of streaming options mean the size of the audience will be almost limitless
Around this time of the year, mining executives from all over the world would have been in Cape Town for a week of speeches, deal-making and relaxation in one of the world’s premier tourist destinations.
Instead the annual Investing in African Mining Indaba, the biggest mining conference on the continent, was cut to two days. It was with this sort of event in mind that the local and provincial government partnered with the private sector to build the impressive Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). There would have been none of that this year, and the future is uncertain.
In addition to the opportunity to wind down and enjoy the best of what Cape Town has to offer, the jamboree offered an opportunity to network and lay the groundwork for potential deals. From Barrick to Anglo American and Sibanye-Stillwater, all the majors had their top executives in town, a great opportunity for smaller players to make contact. That is something that is impossible to replicate over Zoom.
Cape Town is not alone. Last week, world leaders and executives attended the annual World Economic Forum. The difference is that this time they did not travel to the Swiss ski resort town of Davos. President Cyril Ramaphosa, China’s Xi Jinping, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron were among the world leaders who graced the event via computer screens.
This is just one way the Covid-19 outbreak has transformed the way of doing business, with implications for sectors such as aviation, hotel accommodation, restaurants and of course companies that host such events. Business Day’s sister company, Arena Events, is just one of them. Between April and December, it hosted almost 150 online events, including the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies Awards, that would normally have some of SA’s best-known business leaders in one room.
Globally, publications such as the Financial Times have also hosted successful events that have now gone online, such as the Africa Summit in October, which attracted speakers including IMF MD Kristalina Georgieva and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Of course, with the challenges — smaller margins and upstart competitors who do not need to own infrastructure such as big conference venues — will also come opportunities for events companies that can innovate and offer the participants more than just the chance to stare at screens.
Even before the pandemic, the cost of travel and growing investor sensitivity to the climate impact of businesses was putting pressure on the old model. That is bad news for big hotel chains and airlines. Whatever the government thinks it has in store for its new SAA, it is safe to say this is not going to be a huge growth market for it. For cities such as Cape Town, Barcelona in Spain, or Las Vegas, the move to conferencing from home is far from being good news and potentially represents a permanent loss of an important income source.
According to Wesgro, the Western Cape trade and investment promotion agency, the Mining Indaba generated about R38m in direct spending, and is one of its biggest annual conferences. For Davos, the annual WEF meeting was reported to generate about €60m (R1.1bn) for the local economy, creating a dilemma for residents, who welcomed the money but not the overcrowding and intrusive security.
The desire for human interaction and the creativity that can happen in informal settings probably means that face-to-face conferencing will eventually make a comeback. Having initially scheduled to host a physical event in Singapore in May, WEF has delayed that to August due to travel restrictions. But its determination not to abandon the concept is encouraging.
While it may be too early to write the obituary for the old model, it has changed. The human interaction element is likely to be smaller, but technology and the growth of streaming options mean the size of the audience will be almost limitless, and innovators will thrive.
Being able to offer sundowners with a view of Table Mountain as part of the package is going to be the tricky part.
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