Rudi van der Vyver has recently been appointed as the new CEO of SAACI. We caught up with him to ask him a few questions about his new appointment, his plans and ambitions for the association and, just to feed our readers’ curiosity – how a Mr SA finalist becomes CEO of an association like SAACI.

Q: Would you give us a brief history of your career so far?

A: Having done my degree and honours degree in marketing, marketing and sales have always been my preferred profession, but I actually started out in the financial services industry. I started at FNB as a banker and worked my way up the ranks until I eventually left as National Sales Manager. When I left FNB, I moved to the Credit Bureau and took up a position as Group Marketing Manager for Africa.

After that, I went to a business and risk management consultancy firm where I headed up the marketing and sales team. I was tasked to get their marketing and sales consultancy side off the ground. I wasn’t necessarily responsible for increasing sales in consulting, but rather the backend – the risk and strategic side of things. Funny enough we did a lot of work with incentives. So for example, a large company would never put their sales team on the same plane, because it’s considered a massive risk factor and there are quite a lot of these risks that many people don’t even know about. While I was there, we got a big government contract in Zambia and had the option to either relocate to Zambia or step out, and I simply wasn’t keen on going to Zambia not knowing anyone there.

Soon after this, I took the plunge into hospitality with Orion Hotels and Resorts as their National Sales Manager. I have to say I enjoyed the hospitality side right from the start. Sales and marketing is sales and marketing, it’s simply the products that differ, but the principles stay the same. Compared to financial services, hospitality is very flexible and a lot more creative, so you can be as creative as your budget allows and it’s a really fun environment.

I was with Orion for about a year when the nominations came up for the venue representative on the SAACI board and I was put forward for the nomination after which I was elected to become part of the board. Just under a year later, Adriaan Liebetrau resigned and I applied and was lucky enough to be appointed as the new CEO.

Q: That’s quite a significant jump from sales and marketing in financial services to the CEO of the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry…

A: Well yes, but like I said, I’m really passionate about sales and marketing and from an association’s perspective, it’s really valuable if you understand both of those business aspects.

I also think my banking background has actually really helped me adjust to the role. I can’t remember a meeting we had at FNB where we didn’t ask the question “what is the value proposition to the client?” I know people often think banks are all about interest and taking your money and this and that, but I was part of the Premier Banking team when FNB went through their revamp. It was around the same time the “Steve” ads came out and Premier Banking was the first banking segment that gave you a personal banker at that income level. It was all about having one point of contact at the bank, it completely eliminates the concept of phoning the bank and having them tell you that you’ve got to phone home loans for this and you’ve got to phone credit cards for that. It’s about creating that valuable client experience and that stayed with me all the way through.

Now that I’m starting my journey with SAACI, one of the big things I want to do is to see what our members’ value proposition is and what we’re giving them as benefits. Are the benefits we have at the moment still functional and are they still valid? I personally think that a lot of the current benefits add value, but they’re not really member benefits. That is something I’m going to discuss with the board and one of the first things I want to look at as a three-year strategy for SAACI. We need to decide on proper member benefits and I also want to look at differentiating between the different streams, you’ve got the venues, the suppliers, PCO’s and everyone in between and something that’s going to be valuable for a PCO is not necessarily going to be valuable for a venue, so my idea is to have certain major benefits which apply to all the streams and then benefits which apply to the different streams. This will make it more functional and worthwhile for our members.

Q: That certainly explains why you’re more than qualified for the job and why you were appointed, but how does a Mr South Africa finalist become CEO of SAACI?

A: That was something I did for fun on the side.

I was a finalist and I actually had to withdraw from the competition because of my work schedule at FNB. You constantly have to arrange a new charity event or party and it was simply too hectic to fit in with my work schedule. I had a few other issues as well – I couldn’t choose my own charity, they choose the charity for you and I didn’t particularly like that. At the end of the

However, at the end of the day, that experience should have probably guided me more into hospitality. The hospitality industry is a glamorous industry, so it’s important to create your own personal brand. Even in the business world and in South Africa, it’s all about creating your own personal brand and I think all those kinds of things gives you little exposure and it teaches you a lot of lessons. It’s not always as easy as you think. People on social media are very vocal, they’ve got a lot of followers, it’s a lot of work and you’ve got to watch what you say the whole time. So I think it gave me a lot of background and a lot of lessons in terms of how you create a brand for yourself and then how you link your personal brand with your company brand.

At Orion I literally almost had to be the face of the company, so I always had to represent the company at functions and all of those things. Some of the lessons I learnt in the Mr SA competition carried through. For instance, out of the group of people you work with, you don’t know anyone, so it kind of forces you to network a bit and go and introduce yourself. It’s one of those things where often the people who are out there the most are really shy and networking, for them is a learnt attribute. It’s kind of a veil that you put up so you look confident, but it’s just a story you’re telling yourself.

At the end of the day, it was something different – a lot of exposure, a lot of fun, but most of all a lot of lessons in terms of how you create a brand and what you should do and what you shouldn’t do.

Q: On that note, what would you say is your personal brand?

A: I would say, for me the biggest thing is to do everything with passion. I don’t believe in doing anything at 50%. You either do it or you don’t do it, that’s kind of where I operate from and what I try to instil in the teams that I’ve managed. At the end of the day it’s business, but if you can be passionate about that, it doesn’t make it work.

As an example, I love FNB and I would still defend the brand. If someone were to say anything bad about FNB, I’ll be quick to say “but you’re just not using it right, this is how it works”. I was really passionate about that brand but more so about the people. In the companies that I’ve worked, you don’t always get along with everyone, but the nice thing coming from a sales/marketing background is consumer psychology – it teaches you how to work with people. So if you don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with someone, you’ve got to know to deal with them a little differently than you would someone else. I don’t mind going out of my way to satisfy a difficult client or co-worker if in the end, it means I reach my desired goal and help my company get ahead.

When I started at FNB it was kind of just to get a foot in the door, I started off as a banker which wasn’t actually what I wanted to do, but it taught me that you’ve got to put some time in and you’ve got to prove yourself to a certain extent. I think that’s where the passion grew so you prove yourself, you really start to know what the product is and then, maybe more than everything else, is the support and assistance from the people around you. I had a mentor at FNB who always said that he didn’t become successful because of what he did, but because of the people he surrounded himself with. He never said it, but he had an extra component to that, the way he treated his teams and his people. I think the people in the company are definitely your most valuable asset, so in terms of

To sum it all up, I think the people you work with are definitely your most valuable asset, so in terms of my own personal brand – passion and the way I treat my people are what defines it.

Q: That is a brilliant answer indeed, but let’s get back to your new appointment. What is it about SAACI that you really respect?

A: Long ago, I’m talking if you go all the way back in SAACI’s history, SAACI had a bit more teeth. I think there are one or two of these things that I would want to get back for SAACI. These days, everyone is so concerned about the members’ reaction if we were to reprimand someone. They’re so afraid that other members will cancel their membership, but I want SAACI to be an association where it’s an honour to where that little badge on your email signature or on your business cards. It needs to be more exclusive. I want SAACI to be almost like a watchdog.

As I said earlier, I also want to look out for our members, that for me is a big thing. Creating that benefit through various engagements and collaborations. We’re actively involved with government and our sister associations, so we could really bring the whole thing together. Potentially see where we can bridge some gaps, make life easier for our members and simply make their business better at the end of the day.

However, for those members who break down the industry, their behaviour will no longer be tolerated and overlooked. That’s something that I’ve seen in the two years with Orion – from event organisers to venues, to people who advertise – people simply don’t follow through on their promises and it’s almost like they just don’t care. I’ve come across event organisers who literally connect the client and the venue and then they don’t do anything until the day of the event. You’re there to guide the client and leaving them stranded like that leaves a bad taste in the client’s mouth and it doesn’t help the venue. I mean they’re a venue, they shouldn’t have to put everything together, especially if there’s a conference organiser.

I think the fact that SAACI’s been around for 30 years shows that there’s longevity and there’s a reason for their existence and the members see that, otherwise we wouldn’t have been around for 30 years. That being said, I do think it’s time to get back to a place where we can say, “you know what, if you’re not honouring our code of ethics, sorry, you can’t have the honour of using our logo”. This way we protect our other members that actually do follow this code. That to me is really a big focus and something that I want to get back into the association.

Q: Our readers are predominantly event planners, is there anything specific benefits planned for them as part of your new strategy?

Like I said earlier, I want to differentiate between the different industry streams and I want to create a platform where we can get all of them together. All of our members are either clients or suppliers to all of the others, so I really want to create an easy, safe, simple, open and friendly platform where we can bring together the event planners, venues, suppliers and even the young people wanting to start their own business. It provides people with a platform where they can do business or find suppliers and between SAACI members you get a better rate, those types of things. So people help each other build the industry up.

I mean it’s not easy – if you, as a young event planner, ask for a business loan, chances are they’re not even going to look at you. That’s where we come in, we’ll be able to give them that guidance and support through a platform of like-minded individuals in the industry.

As an example, if you want to try and host a government function, what are the documents you need? What are the things you need to have in place? If we can help them with those types of things, it would simplify their life, it would save them time and it sets a standard. This doesn’t apply only to young people in the industry, I think sometimes even experienced event planners struggle with those types of things, especially when things like legislation changes. And it does. Just think about the hotel environment – vendor forms for government differ depending on which department you work with and if you’re loaded on their ‘central database’, other departments don’t work with that same database. This leads to so much uncertainty and there are essentially so many hoops to jump through.

So for the event planners there would be two major benefits in terms of the platform – it gives them the ability to network with other industry roleplayers and ask for advice, but then from my side, I’ll engage with government and encourage them to adopt a standard process. We’re actually making it so difficult for people to get into this business, we say we want to uplift and we want to transform and all those types of things, but we’re not giving them a platform to do that.

I’ve attended quite a few workshops where brilliant ideas are coming out, but it’s almost like that’s not the host’s speciality. I mean these workshops are hosted by procurement departments, they don’t actually get their hands dirty in the industry. So, although these ideas are brilliant, we need to focus it so that it works for the industry.

The watchdog concept definitely applies to event planners too. I want to protect the industry and event planners who screw around should not be allowed to wear our badge. We can’t allow that as an industry, I think we need to up our standard, especially with the larger events coming to South Africa. It’s not just a case of, “oh it’s a small company I screwed up their event”. There should be repercussions and there’s kind of a ripple that goes out. So simply work ethically.

SAACI has a code of ethics and along with the new membership benefits, we’ll look at the current code of ethics and where there’s a general code of ethics, each stream will have a slightly different version that applies to them. That way we can hold them to that and I think within the industry the members are going to start holding other members to these codes and that then creates an environment where people can look for SAACI accredited conference organisers. It carries more weight, because they know with a SAACI accredited organiser, something will probably not go wrong, but if something does go wrong there’s a bit of help, there’s a bit of recourse.

Q: In light of this, what legacy would you like to leave behind in SAACI?

A: Adriaan Liebetrau fixed a lot of things and he built a very, very strong foundation for the association. There were a lot of things wrong before he stepped in and that’s why I refer to the fact that the association used to be strong and then it kind of went through a dip. I mean the whole industry, the whole economy went through a dip and I think associations were hit hard. Adriaan put a lot of work into laying a solid foundation and getting things sorted again, I mean we’ve got a very stable membership base. His effort and hard work have provided me with a strong platform to implement my own strategies.

Now the association has the stability for me to focus on what our members want and the credibility for me to be a little bit cocky and say, “I’m sorry but if you’re not going to adhere to our code of ethics, I don’t want your money, I don’t want you to be a member, I’m not going to drag our other members down just for the sake of numbers.” 

So in terms of a legacy, I’d like SAACI to be that association and I want to have made an impact on the business events industry and I think SAACI gives a perfect platform to do just that.

We’ve got an amazing destination, but SAACI is looking after Southern Africa,, so I told the board that we should focus on getting South Africa right and then we can move into the other Southern African countries. Ideally, I’d like to make a difference here and build the foundation to make that same difference in the rest of Africa.

I’d really like to, after my tenure with SAACI, kind of look back and say, “you know what, you’ve uplifted the industry, made a real difference and the South African industry is much stronger for it.”

Q: In conclusion, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: Wow in 10 years? I can’t remember when last I was asked that question. The year that I’ve been on the SAACI board has already opened up my eyes and it’s opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of meeting people and understanding the industry better.

I still love the marketing side of things, but I love it more for consumer psychology and understanding people.

I always kind of thought I was going to be in hospitality for a little bit and then go back to financial services just because I loved the people so much, but I have to say the hospitality industry just kind of grabbed me. The people are amazing, I mean every industry has got its own politics and stuff, but people were so welcoming and friendly when I came into the hospitality industry and then when I started with SAACI. I think that’s what lead me to the whole idea about wanting to create that platform. Everyone at SAACI is willing to help, they’re friendly when you ask for advice and there’s so much knowledge within the association.

So in 10 years, I would like to still be in hospitality, probably with one of the larger hotel groups. I love managing and working with people and having a team, but I definitely won’t be a GM, I’ll go crazy, so it’ll be more support type of role, I love the strategy behind it. So, I think probably with one of the larger hotel groups in a bit of a strategic role. I do love travelling so if I can get with one of the international groups and I can travel the world constantly, that would be ideal.

So Peermont, Premier, Tsogo Sun, Legacy, Legend, Sun International, Hilton and all the other big hotel groups who have their foot in South Africa – keep your eyes on Rudi van der Vyver, he’s got big plans for the industry and might very well be your go-to guy in a few years.