Solly Moeng: SA should be grabbing a slice of the business tourism pie

Solly Moeng (SUPPLIED)
Solly Moeng (SUPPLIED)

To many, Yekaterinburg, in Russia, is the city best remembered for the bloody assassination of Tsar Nickolas II, Emperor of Russia, his family, the Romanovs, and a number of support staff members who had been imprisoned with the Romanovs, by the Bolshevik revolutionaries on the early morning of July 17, 1918.

A bloody and glorious yesterday

The executions took place in Ipatiev House, which belonged to a local merchant and in which the Romanovs had been imprisoned for some 78 days before the revolutionaries arrived to finish them off. Ipatiev House has since been destroyed and, in its place, construction began in 2000 for the 'Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian land', and completed in 2003, when it was opened to the public.

However, Yekaterinburg's more recent history is decidedly inseparable from a certain Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president of what is now known as Russia. He's also the man who anointed current President Vladimir Putin to be his successor.

But those who claim to have more intimate details of the story cannot resist adding a conspiracy angle to it, claiming that Putin was in fact not Yeltsin's first choice of successor, but a product of a deal that was struck by an initially reluctant Yeltsin and people who were threatening his family's interests if he didn't give them what they wanted. We shall leave that part to true historians to unpack.

What remains undeniable is that Yekaterinburg loves Boris Yeltsin and is forever grateful to him for having placed it on the world map again, with lots of vodka, colour, music, and dance – or uncoordinated stomping on stages, if you will. It boasts a modern Boris Yeltsin Centre and Museum which buzzes with activity every day of the week, thanks to the commercial tenants who run restaurants, a VIP Hotel that gets used by visiting heads of state and other high-profile guests, as well as several pleasantly themed curio shops.

One of the former president's Chaika cars also sits just inside the front foyer of the centre. Unlike many monuments of its kind, the Boris Yeltsin Centre seems to pay its own bills and is unlikely to be a white elephant any time soon.

Coming into the future

Yekaterinburg is also the capital city of the entire Ural Region of Russia. A more future looking addition to its collection of impressive historic buildings is the Yekaterinburg Expo, a modern International Exhibition Centre which will host two prestigious global conference and expos, Innoprom and GMIS, on 8-9 July 2019, which will target the global manufacturing and industrial sectors.  

At a recent MICE Day (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events), last week, the Russians also made it clear that they're ready to play an increasingly dominant role in this multi-billion rand industry, and that Yekaterinburg is being positioned as the biggest and most future-ready host city for them. The Russians are hungry for knowledge and they're hungry for business. To boot, they're now discussing introducing e-Visas from as early as 2021 to make access easier.

The other sign of a nascent outward-looking attitude is the unusually English name of the 'Yekaterinburg Expo, International Exhibition Centre' written in large letters on the highway facing front of the structure with no translation in Russian. Few things are named in English in Russia, and few Russians speak English.

The few foreign delegates who were invited to the event, including this writer, emphasised that to integrate the global industry, compromise was important on a number of important points.

The need for quality training of workers servicing the MICE industry was highlighted as important; so were language accessibility; how foreign delegates get welcomed into Russia and treated throughout their stay; integration of modern event hosting technology and the need to appeal to younger, yet lucrative, conference delegates whose needs and preferences in conferencing style and incentive packages might be different from traditional offers.

Can South Africa remain competitively in the game?

South Africa, unlike Russia, is generally a lot more open to the world and has been host to many prestigious international conferences and other forms of business tourism for many years. On the whole, it has the skills and the infrastructure throughout the country, especially in big cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (Durban), but also in other smaller ones, including some truly impressive "bush" conference and event facilities, as well as Incentives getaways within relatively reasonable drive from the main centres.

Our people are also known to be friendly towards and welcoming to foreigners, even though this must still be fully extended towards visitors from the rest of the African continent. The fact that we're an English-speaking country, by and large, has also made us accessible to a bigger variety of business visitors from around the world. But we shouldn't rest on our laurels.

And here's the 'but'

What South Africa seems to lack, increasingly, is the appreciation of the crucial link between country reputation - informed by service quality and attitude, leadership conduct in politics, business, and society, safety perceptions, etc. – and success in attracting and retaining lucrative business tourism.

While we're always enthusiastic in sending delegations of business leaders and spinners, all dubbed 'team South Africa', to accompany the president to the World Communication Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to remind potential investors that our country is open for business, too little is being done to reduce the confusing mixed messages that get sent out about our country.

The result of this is that the fancy, colourful, country PR messages get defeated by misplaced utterances made by some powerful politicians about the direction the country is being taken into. As a result, 'team South Africa' spends much of its expensive time at the WEF, Davos, on the backfoot, explaining things they shouldn't have to explain.

We forget that in the current era of ubiquitous digital media platforms, especially social media, investors and business travellers are spoiled for choice, bombarded on a daily basis with a plethora of sweetened country marketing messages on the one hand and, on the other hand, country reports by diplomats, foreign media correspondents, and country representatives of global corporations and organisations telling the truth about the unflattering situations on the ground.

No one has to come to South Africa for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events; we have to sell ourselves in a highly competitive world in which every country brand wants a piece of the lucrative pie. Business travellers will not travel long haul for sympathy. They will do so because the offer is irresistible, and the fundamentals are sound.

So, we need to get our act together before Yekaterinburg joins Kigali in taking food from our collective mouth.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.     
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