How has South Africa experienced and adapted to the pandemic from an event industry perspective? In our first global snapshot, we discuss all relevant regulations currently in place and provide a brief overview of the state of the local event industry.
Our Global Events Snapshots provide insights into how different countries around the world have experienced and adapted to the pandemic from an industry perspective by providing a brief overview of relevant regulations and the state of the local event industry.
Renowned for its spectacular sunsets and warm, welcoming people, South Africa is a country rich in diversity and culture. From the buzzing atmosphere of Johannesburg to the tropical weather of Durban. Big-5 safari adventures, the wine farms of Stellenbosch, Cape Town's Table Mountain, and picturesque beaches of the Eastern Cape. The country offers global events professionals a wide variety of choices in venues and experiences alike.
Current regulations and restrictions
This post was first published on the 30th of September 2021 at approximately 4 pm SAST. Shortly after, the President of South Africa announced the country would be moving from adjusted alert level 2 lockdown to adjusted alert level 1 lockdown from the 1st of October 2021. This post has been updated to reflect current regulations. For further updates, please click on the hyperlinks to be redirected to online resources.
Population: Approx. 60 million
Total Number of Cases: 2,902,672
Cases Daily Average: 1,513
Deaths Daily Average: 138.7 (87,626 in total)
Vaccination Rate: Approx. 15% fully vaccinated (17,505,358)
Lockdown Level: Adjusted alert level 1
Mask Status: Mandatory
South Africa has been in lockdown since the 26th of March 2020, with lockdown levels adjusting depending on the rate of infection - level 5 being the most extreme and level 1 the most relaxed regarding restrictions. The country is currently exiting the third wave of COVID-19 infections.
At present, the curfew is from midnight to 4 am. Apart from permitted workers, no one may be outside their place of residence during curfew. All non-essential establishments and public spaces must close by 11 pm to allow people to return home. To reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions, South Africa has also seen numerous bans on alcohol during the lockdown.
The ongoing curfew and alcohol bans have had a direct impact on the economy and hospitality industry.
Adjusted Alert Level 1 Lockdown for Events
Indoor: 750 persons or less | Outdoor: 2,000 persons or less
Every person attending an event must comply with all health and safety protocols, maintain a distance of at least one and a half meters from each other and adhere to the curfew hours. The measures have been challenging for large live and sporting events with spectators still not allowed to attend in person - the government will consider relaxing these restrictions over the coming days.
Despite the restrictions, hotels, lodges, bed and breakfasts, timeshare facilities, resorts, and guest houses are operating at full capacity in line with protocols.
Adjusted Alert Level 1 Lockdown for Travel
Traveling to and from South Africa is allowed with long-haul flight departures and landings at specified airports permitted during curfew hours.
Travelers must provide a valid certificate of a negative COVID-19 test (recognized by the World Health Organization), obtained no longer than 72 hours before the date of travel. Travelers will be required to do an antigen test on arrival at their own cost should a negative test certificate not be produced. If the traveler tests positive for COVID-19, they will have to be isolated at their own cost for ten days.
We recommend travelers check restrictions that apply to their country before booking and departure.
On the ground with South African event professionals
Effects on the industry
Events have seen a minimal comeback in the region due to ongoing restrictions. "The pandemic has had a direct impact on economic growth and stability. We have seen business and venue closures, job losses, and a diminishing supply chain," said Minister Kganyago from the CSIR International Convention Centre.
With events either postponed, canceled, or moved online, planners have taken drastic measures to ensure business continuity. Pieter Swart, Managing Director of Conference Consultancy SA, noted that his organization had to adopt a remote operational method. And for their clients, an alternative virtual event model. The shift resulted in revenue loss, cutting company expenses, and freezing acquisitions and expansions.
Alarming figures are emerging from industry associations and governing bodies. Associations are regarded as not-for-profit organizations and rely on revenue generated via membership to operate. Internal research from the Southern African Communications Industries Association (SACIA) indicates that 95 percent of their member companies have laid off staff or reduced working hours. And for associations like SITE Africa (the African chapter of the global Society for Incentive Travel Excellence), a 50 percent membership decline has been seen.
But there is also a new storm brewing. The country is experiencing a significant brain drain with competent event professionals either exiting the industry or taking their skills abroad. The mass exodus could result in a critical skills shortage of qualified and experienced event professionals in the not-so-distant future.
Adapting to challenges
As Swart recalls, ConfSA hosted its first virtual event in 2018. Virtual events were aimed at increasing brand exposure and not a substitute for in-person events in a pre-pandemic world. But the pandemic saw South African event profs scrambling to pivot from in-person to virtual and now hybrid events; hosted on a smaller scale and in line with current regulations.
“Research. Research. And more research,” said Nombulelo Ndaba, Event Planner for the National Business Initiative (NBI), a non-governmental organization focused on sustainability. Ndaba felt concerned at the start of the pandemic about the ability to pivot, as events played a significant marketing role in adding value to stakeholders and securing funding. The organization has been successfully hosting events online since June 2020 and recently moved to a hybrid format – achieved through a willingness to learn new skills and the use of emerging event tech.
For those in the industry that are still operating, many focused on downscaling, reducing expenditure, and incorporating innovation-focused and revenue-generating strategies within their operations.
Monika Iuel, Chief Marketing Officer at Wesgro, has focused on a few core strategies - promoting the destination to clients in domestic and regional markets. Iuel further adds, “As professionals within the industry, our focus needs to be on ensuring that international visitors understand South Africa is a safe destination that conforms to international safety protocols necessary to host business events.”
The Cape Town and Western Cape Convention Bureau, a strategic business unit of Wesgro, has also recently launched the Western Cape Business Events Support Fund. Designed to stimulate short-and-medium-term recovery, it provides eligible clients with a financial contribution towards conference expenses.
Collaboration between industry stakeholders has been a recurring theme throughout the pandemic. SACIA Executive Director Kevan Jones said, “An example of collaboration was the formation of the South African Events Council – an industry collab between 14 different Associations in the sector. Another example was the #LightSARed campaign. The campaign saw the industry illuminate over 500 buildings across South Africa in red on Wednesday the 5th of August 2020. The objective was to position SACIA, and the SA Events Council, as the organized industry voice mandated to engage with government on behalf of the collective.’’
According to The Cape Town & Western Cape Convention Bureau, there has been continued interest in the destination to host conferences, meetings, and incentive travel. This response is a testament to the resilience of South Africa as a destination and the sector.
The unanimous undertone of South African event professionals seems to reflect global trends. “Virtual components are likely to become fixed features of future in-person events. Whereas virtual events have the potential to become the preferred portal for en-masse participation, the in-person experience will become more exclusive at a premium tag,” said Swart.
Although virtual events can never replace the experience and value of face-to-face interactions, event professionals predict meetings to become more focused, smaller in size and include some form of hybrid format.
Shanna Jacobsen, Managing Editor of Meetings at 3S Media, has observed a stronger focus on diversity, equality, and inclusion and how event professionals can create a sustainable industry that supports the client objectives while delivering exceptional ROI.
From an incentive travel perspective, this sector will most likely take the longest to recover. “It is encouraging to see inbound inquiries on the increase for travel from Q3 2022 and beyond. We expect to see a reduction in group size, for instance, 20 – 30 travelers booking boutique hotels and lodges, but there are also large groups determined to travel,” said SITE Africa President Tes Proos.
For Kganyago, event safety is critical. He believes that guidance from governments worldwide will bring certainty and renewal to our industry. ''As we improve at predicting ways to manage the spread of contagions, we can plan better responses as professionals,” said Kganyago.
“The business events sector is no stranger to a regulatory environment. Throughout the pandemic, various entities and destinations have provided proof of concept events to instill confidence among meeting planners - demonstrating that meetings can happen safely and within health protocols. This process will form part of destination marketing messaging going forward.” - Monika Iuel, Chief Marketing Officer, Wesgro.
With devastating consequences to the sector, the South African events industry has been pushed to its limits. But South Africans are known to be resilient and innovative. And the response to the pandemic within the industry has demonstrated this once again.
“We must harness the truth in the adage that says, “Heroes are born in adversity." All the adversity the industry continues to experience is refining its role players and ultimately enhancing the way we do things.” – Minister Kganyago, CSIR ICC
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