Organiser charged R8 000 a ticket for conference with 'fake' list of speakers

2018-05-04 14:29

An events management and training company has been accused of duping attendees into forking out R8 000 each to attend conferences coordinated by "speakers" who aren't even aware of the event.

Meanwood Strategic Business Services and CASI Training Solutions provide and organise training, conferences and workshops, according to their websites.

However, they are accused of fraudulently using well-known subject matter experts to market their training and networking conferences, even though the speakers are not aware of their involvement in the event.

They allegedly used the impressive speaker line-ups to dupe prospective attendees into forking out more than R 8 000 per person, which is non-refundable, according to the fine print on the registration forms.

Leaked Information

News24 was contacted by two speakers, due to attend the biennial Water Loss Conference and Exhibition 2018 in Cape Town from May 6 to 9, 2018. The conference is one of the world's largest water loss conferences and is expected to attract more than 500 participants from more than 50 countries.

But Tim Waldron and Malcolm Farley, both renowned experts in water loss management, expressed surprise when colleagues alerted them to another workshop they would apparently speak at in Johannesburg on May 24 and 25. This one was called the Non-Revenue Water and Leak Detection Masterclass.

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They were especially astonished because neither of them would be in the country at the time.

The organiser of the alleged bogus conference, Meanwood, circulated registration forms touting Waldron and Farley as speakers. But both have denied any involvement in the event.

"I will definitely not be attending a conference organised by Meanwood. The only conference I will be speaking at in South Africa is the International Water Association conference in Cape Town from 6th to 9th of May." said Waldron.

News24 contacted several others on the list of speakers, who have also denied that they would be attending any conferences organised by Meanwood.

Some were not even aware that the event was planned. 

"[I] made it clear that this is fraudulent and [misleading] marketing.  I therefore requested them to immediately remove my name from the course and their database," said another speaker, who wished to remain anonymous.

To add to their confusion, two separate registration forms seen by News24 promote the event on the same day with the same speaker, but at two different venues. Representatives of both venues deny that they have any bookings confirmed for the dates indicated on the registration forms.

"I can confirm that we are not holding a booking for Non-Revenue Water & Leak Detection Masterclass 2018 on 24 and 25 May at Emperors Palace," said Julie van Wyk, Peermont's group public relations manager on behalf of Emperors Palace.       

Focus Rooms has also confirmed that it does not have a booking confirmed for the days indicated on the registration form.

Focus Rooms indicated that Meanwood has frequently requested quotations for delegates attending training and facilitation meetings, but never went as far as paying a deposit to secure bookings. 

Management for Focus Rooms also confirmed an instance in which delegates from neighbouring countries pitched to attend a non-existent training session organised by Meanwood.

This is not the only conference in which experts have been used to market Meanwood events without speakers' knowledge.

Matt Braune, a stormwater and rainwater drainage expert, was named as a speaker for Meanwood's "Stormwater and Drainage Systems Masterclass" in 2015. Braune denied speaking at any of the five workshops Meanwood advertised and was not even aware that his name was being used.

Despite marketing material that advertised five workshops across South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, News24 was later told that this Stormwater and Drainage masterclass never took place.

Redirected refunds

Meanwood's modus operandi is simple: It punts prominent experts as speakers at an event and charge attendees a non-refundable registration fee. Some are then cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

News24 has seen correspondence in which Meanwood confirms it has already lined up at least 25 delegates for the "Water Wastage" workshop. This is the same event where at least four of the main speakers are either unaware of the event, or deny being involved at all.

At R8 000 per head, Meanwood has apparently scored a cool R200 000 for the event, without even a single speaker lined up.

Course content advertised by Meanwood also appear to be plagiarised from online sources.

For example, all of the below courses offered by Meanwood appeared to be plagiarised from online sources:

Construction Contracts: From a Johannesburg based website ;
Boiler Maintenance: From international websites found here and here;
Oil and Gas: From international websites found here and here; and
Stormwater drainage, Sanitation and Sewers: From an international website found here.

After questions were posed to Meanwood, many of the course outlines were removed from their website. The Construction Contracts course remained, but the outline for another course was apparently plagiarised from here.

Meanwood positions itself as a training and development consultancy based in Ferndale, Johannesburg. Google Streetview shows the business premises is located on a shared property with several other businesses.


The business address for Meanwood and CASI Training. (Source: Google)

CIPC Records show that Meanwood's sole director is Ms Carol Mwaba Chiyassa, a Zambian national. Her husband, Mr Chileshe Sikota, is the sole director of CASI Training, a company that works in association with Meanwood on certain courses.

A search on Hello Peter uncovered several complaints against CASI Training, accusing it of being a scam, and reneging on its training commitments after it received money.

Comments that read "SCAM!!!! CASI IS SCHEDULIING DUBIOUS TRAINING WORKSHOPS BEWARE (sic)" and "Changing the training date and not paying back", litter reviews from as far back as September 2015.

Website ownership records also confirmed that CASI Training and Meanwood share a landline number, and CIPC records show that they share a business address. Website ownership records also confirmed that a third company, Pacecomm, was registered to Meanwood.

All aboard

Meanwood's management denied any impropriety, and insist that it is conducting business above board and according to established practices in the training industry.

Sikota, speaking on behalf of both Meanwood and CASI Training, relied heavily on a clause contained in the registration forms which prohibits the refund of registration fees. Once the R8 000 registration fee has been paid, not even several postponements are enough to trigger a refund. 

Meanwood maintains that registrants must attend a course, either personally or by proxy, or alternatively forfeit their registration fees.

But this did not explain how Meanwood could advertise speakers who deny their attendance. When pushed for answers on this, Sikota claimed that the speakers gave their verbal agreement to attend.

On Wednesday morning, after Meanwood responded to News24's enquiries, the course was again circulated to prospective attendees. The course advert still used the speakers that denied their attendance.

Meanwood told News24 late on Wednesday evening that the attendees have now been informed that the event has been postponed. Their website was also updated after News24 sent questions to Meanwood. The Water Leak Detection conference is now being advertised for an unspecified date. It remains unclear when the 25 delegates, who have already registered and paid, will be able to attend the conference.

Sikota diverted questions about the structure of the course content, the attendance of speakers and the number of people that signed up for the course to an external consultant, Mr Spinola Dube.

Dube, a consultant working for Meanwood, CASI Training and Pacecomm, is listed as the research director on several of the brochures and registration forms circulated. Many of the speakers that News24 spoke to also confirmed that he was their contact person at Meanwood.

Dube was sent detailed questions about the structure of the courses and the nature of the conferences he organised. 

Despite several follow-ups and undertakings provided by the management of Meanwood, Dube failed to respond to detailed questions posed to him. These included whether he plagiarised the course content and whether he confirmed speakers' attendance before taking money from prospective registrants.

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Read more on:    johannesburg  |  crime  |  fraud

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