Growing South Africa’s exhibition sector

Nigel Walker, MD of Complete Exhibitions, reviews the economic status of the country’s exhibition industry.

The value of the exhibition industry is determined in the same manner as the value of anything: by what a buyer is prepared to invest. It doesn’t matter what the seller thinks a company is worth, if there are no buyers or investors, then the company or product is valueless within the market. It’s therefore gratifying to review the economic status of the South African exhibition industry using this yardstick as a benchmark.

Over the past 18 months, the South African exhibition industry has seen a series of new and joint ventures, purchases and investments, notably from the Middle East and Europe. The latest deal is rumoured to be valued at tens of millions of rands. Nothing at the moment indicates that international interest in the South African exhibition industry will abate.

For venues and suppliers the impact is probably more positive. More shows mean more rentals for venues; more shows for suppliers mean more sales. However, for organisers such investment may be a mixed blessing. There are some South African organising companies who are finding it hard to contest with the inflow of capital investment utilised to market, promote and position competing exhibitions.

The investors are here to do just that, invest. And an investment should not only be measured in monetary terms. Undoubtedly there’s the inflow of new insights in management, marketing, operational processes and methodologies. The reinvigorated industry is investing in new products (i.e. shows), as well as expanding and growing existing shows. The smaller ‘independent’ organiser may be hard pushed to compete under such circumstances. Such investments could therefor tip the local competitive balance.

Internationally based branded exhibitions bring with them large international exhibitors who, linked to their local distributors, bring credibility and critical mass to an exhibition. A few years ago who would have thought that a mining exhibition could be so successfully hosted in Cape Town. Most, if not all local, organisers would never dream of holding such an exhibition outside the main mining-focused area of Gauteng or the northern provinces.

The South African industry, with international support and stimulation, is actively looking north towards the African continent. More than one organiser is now regularly operating not only in our neighbouring countries, but further afield in both East and West Africa.

With such interest in the South African exhibition industry, it’s not surprising to note that there are two international conferences focused on the exhibition industry being hosted in South Africa in 2013. These conferences not only expose local industry to international peers and leaders, but also showcase the industry to potential investors. This is a positive feedback loop and illustrates how we’re positioned within the international exhibition sector.

I therefore pose the question: Have we seen the same interest in the South African conference industry? If not, I wonder why? Is the industry not structured in a way that it encourages such investment and to demonstrate value to a potential investor? Are the potential returns for such an investment insufficient compared to opportunities in other countries?