STRATEGY

Convention bureau, key to Kenya's MICE industry growth

Tourism and Wildlife CS Najib Balala unveiled the Kenya National Convention Bureau(KNCB) in 2019.

In Summary

•It is tasked with driving the country's Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) sector into greater heights, and place Kenya as a top destination.

•CS Balala appointed former Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) director for marketing, Jacinta Nzioka-Mbithi, to head the bureau.

Kenya National Convention Bureau National Coordinator/CEO Jacinta Nzioka-Mbithi/HANDOUT
Kenya National Convention Bureau National Coordinator/CEO Jacinta Nzioka-Mbithi/HANDOUT

Tourism and Wildlife CS Najib Balala unveiled the Kenya National Convention Bureau(KNCB) in 2019, tasked with driving the country's Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) sector into greater heights, and place Kenya as a top destination. He appointed former Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) director for marketing Jacinta Nzioka-Mbithi to head the bureau. The Star's Martin Mwita spoke to Jacinta, the National Co-ordinator/CEO  for the bureau, on the current industry trends where covid-19 has disrupted the tourism and MICE sector, and future outlook.

Not many people know about the bureau. In a nutshell, tell us about the Kenya National Convention Bureau?

Kenya National Convention Bureau (KNCB) is a government entity whose mandate is to sustainably increase Kenya’s regional and international meeting, incentive travel, convention, event and exhibitions (MICE) market share, resulting in improved social and economic contribution to the nation.KNCB was gazetted in August 2019 with its strategic role within the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife anchored in the Kenya National Tourism Blueprint(2030) and with its own Board of Directors. We represent the best interests of Kenya’s industry stakeholders to the world of MICE, offering free impartial advice, guidance, and support to global meeting, exhibition and event planners and organisers. Our role really is to increase the number of meetings in Kenya and as well grow the legacy impact of meetings.

What necessitated the formation of the bureau?

World over convention bureaux acts as importers and exporters of knowledge, and brokers of innovation. In its formation, Kenya NationalConvention Bureau will play an enhanced role as a connector between local(socio-economic) sectors and events, building bridges and encouraging dialogue; an economic development catalyst, driving the benefits of tourism beyond leisure. The Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife leadership recognised that a strong and vibrant meetings industry has an overall economic transformation for Kenya as a destination and is currently supporting the operationalisation of a future-fit bureau that will be the source of Kenya’s MICE legacy for generations. The agency will manage all MICE activities in the destination and ensure an aligned brand positioning, professionalize the meetings industry and actively promote the meetings industry.

Who are your key stakeholders locally?

The local MICE value chain comprises numerous stakeholders with differingobjectives and requirements. Government (National and County) is the bureau's strategic partner. Government provides support in enabling and strengthening the country’s market position as an international MICE destination with excellent infrastructure, facilities, professionalism, quality and a safe and attractive environment in which to host MICE events. The private sector is the bureaus preferred partner and includes facilities(meeting venues and hotels), products and service providers often represented by private sector industry professional associations as these generate meetings, Professional Congress / Conference Organisers (PCOs), Destination Management Companies (DMCs), event managers, event organizers and meeting planners, the academia and the media. KNCB continues to work in close partnership with industry stakeholders to support the industry growth in line with the broader socio-economic development goals of the government. A strong business events industry will produce broader transformative social and economic impacts that go well beyond the hospitality industry.

Where are we as a country in terms of the MICE industry?

Kenya has been actively engaged in the MICE sector for decades. Nairobi was named Africa’s leading business travel destination at the World Travel Awards in 2019; Kenya was ranked 5th on the ICCA Africa country ranking for association meetings with Nairobi ranked number five on the city rankings, and Mombasa at 13th in Africa. The gap in proactive MICE marketing and bidding and general information about the market readiness and available facilities to host meetings has been an inhibitor to growth of the sector. The competition has also been investing in world-class convention centers. This can be rectified through appropriate product development, packaging, pricing, messaging and marketing to key target markets. To fast-track the development of Kenya’s MICE industry in a meaningful, sustainable and purposeful way, KNCB has put in place a strategy that will define how the MICE industry will work and measure its success, staying focused on the higher purpose and transformational impact of MICE on individuals, the business world and Kenya’s communities at large. In delivery of its mandate to provide leadership in expanding the economic benefits and impact of MICE tourism, KNCB will be recognized as the center of excellence and catalyst of Kenya’s MICE industry. Success will depend largely on fostering strong partnerships, collaboration and teamwork between all stakeholders, both public and private sector.

Do we have the capacity to compete regionally and internationally for major conferences going forward?

Kenya has the capacity to compete in the global MICE marketplace. The destination has a range of multi-purpose flexible meeting facilities (venues)up to international standards and accommodation catering to different standards and price brackets. 80 per cent of meetings held in Africa are under 500 delegates in size. There is plenty of availability of market-ready products for that segment across the country. Investment in meeting spaces configured to handle the current market demand post-Covid-19 is required to ensure continuity of business in the destination. The ongoing works at the Agricultural Society of Kenya (ASK) Jamhuri Park Expo and Conference Center, as an example, will see additional meetings and exhibition space added upon completion of the centre in 2022. To remain competitive, KNCB will work with venues to enhance their capacity through training and certification programmes which will ensure Kenya’s offer is at par with any leading international meeting and exhibition venues.

 Are you working with any regional/international players in driving MICE in Kenya?

KNCB plays a leading role in identifying and growing new MICE business opportunities. It achieves this by identifying industry sectors where Kenya has a competitive advantage. The bureau then engages Government institutions, local associations, professional bodies, and universities channels to sourcing meetings aligned to those government priority sectors. These partners , whether local, national, regional, Pan-African or international, fuel the demand for venues, accommodation and other suppliers, through their obligation to bring their members together on a regular basis for annual general meetings, information/training seminars and other events. The Bureau is already a member of the International Congress Conferences and Conventions Association (ICCA) which is a repository of global and international associations as leads for meetings into destinations. We are definitely also engaging with the Society for Incentive Travel and Exhibitions (SITE) International, Meetings Professionals International (MPI)among others.

You recently launched a brand and marketing strategy for MICE in Kenya, tell us about it?

The Kenya National Convention Bureau strategy 2030 aligns with government's National Development Plan 2030 and Ministry of Tourism and wildlife's National Tourism Blueprint 2030 strategic principles and vision for tourism, that is sustainability, transformation, partnerships, geographic spread, skills development, enterprise development, market-driven product development, competitive experiences, and effective knowledge management. The strategy outlines the institutional arrangement of the bureau and recommends tactics for building a strong public-private sector partnership to help drive management, development and promotion of the MICE sector in Kenya. In delivering the strategy, KNCB will build a strong public-private sector coalition, improve stakeholder and government support around a shared vision for the future to accelerate destination development initiatives and adopt digital strategies to improve delivery of meetings and events in Kenya.

What impact has Covid-19 had on the country's MICE industry?

This is the question on everyone's minds whilst the world battles with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc on countries, health and tourism sectors, and the world’s economy at large.The 9th edition of the UNWTO Travel Restrictions Report indicates that as of the beginning of February 2021, 32 per cent of all destinations worldwide (69 in total) are completely closed for international tourism. Governments will play a crucial role in the restart and recovery of the MICE industry in the weeks and months ahead. Even as borders remain open in Kenya, strict measures are in place to ensure the health and safety of the population are maintained. Businesses have quickly adapted to meet the needs of the new virtual meetings environment informed by lessons learned throughout the year of change, key trends, considerations and takeaways in the delivery of future meetings, whether they are virtual or hybrid. KNCB will continue to play a crucial role in industry level ecosystem collaboration, approaching the future in a clustered way that provides the platform to rethink networks, create new networks, and repackage the destination offering collectively.

When do you see meetings and conferences return to their peak?

Whilst we cannot predict when this pandemic will end, nor when our industry will resume, we do know that great things happen when people come together! Face-to-face interaction is the platform where deals are struck, relationships are forged and ideas are generated. There has been lobbying of governments globally to reopen the sector, underlying the fact that conventions, conferences, exhibitions and trade shows are not generic ‘mass gatherings but rather are organised industry gatherings that have health and safety measures in place to provide the right environment for people to meet, and with access to participant lists for easy tracking and tracing if required. Locally, despite the ravaging effects of Covid-19, business tourism has emerged as one of the most resilient sub-sectors of the tourism industry. A quick glance at the data from the Tourism Research Institute indicates that, by the end of November 2020, business travel was leading by 35 per cent as the major reason for travel to Kenya. In readiness for the sectors continued recovery, the industry should prepare by understanding recent industry trends, addressing good practice guidelines for a safe reopening business post-Covid, implementing staff training, investing in virtual meetings technology and venue improvements. The bureau is committed to unlocking the value of the MICE sector in Kenya’s rebound. We foresee drastic changes in the meetings industry and KNCB will be on the forefront to provide leadership in expanding the economic benefits and impact of MICE post Covid-19.

The private sector, mainly hotels play a critical role in hosting guests and meetings, what would you tell them on post-Covid recovery?

Post-Covid recovery would have started during Covid. It’s actually a co-covid period that we have witnessed that meetings are taking place within health protocol guidelines, and growing their reach through virtual attendance.This Covid-19 economic disruption has allowed hotels/convention centres the time to breathe, focus on the 'BIG' picture, dis-mantle what was not working, identify own weaknesses, and what was needed to be re-engineered in respect of a future-fit modus operandi in the so-called new normal. Hotels, conference venues, MICE service providers must identify what they are going to do differently once vaccines have reached herd immunity status. Give planners/buyers more and more reasons to visit/buy; manage liquidity; target (corporate and leisure) markets that have money in their pockets, reserves that have not been spent on other everyday matters over the past year, but ‘saved’ because there has been little economic-trickle. Industry surveys amongst MICE delegates are illustrating an enormous appetite to meet, to re-gather, to travel - both on business and leisure. The markets are fatigued by virtual interface. There is already an expectation for lower rates…this needs to be cautiously managed. The rest is ready. The exit path will be precarious in some cases. Reflect on lessons learnt because there will be another ‘crash’. Expect change and look ahead. What have we learned! There is no such thing in life as a risk-free ride.

KNCB targets to propel Kenya to the top 50 MICE destinations globally and at least top two in Africa by 2022. How do you plan to do this?

By steering a talented team of best-in-class convention bureau personnel who focus on what needs to be done against measurable goals guided by the Return on Investment (ROI) centric Blueprint, Kenya can regain its status as a leader in MICE tourism in the region and Africa by 2030. Kenya has been boxing beneath its capabilities. The destination can with focus and commitment serve as a stronger pillar of growth. A great future beckons for Kenya: the onus now is on hard work, teamwork and dedication to create a competitive convention bureau. The economic importance of MICE as a sector with its value chain and deep knowledge impacts has become even more evident during Covid-19.

 Any campaigns/drives that are lined up post-Covid?

The current priority for the bureau is to finalise the development of a Kenya MICE Brand this financial year, which will support future marketing and communication campaigns. Finding, understanding, and promoting unique competitive advantages are central to creating a successful MICE brand for Kenya, and are critical success factors in growing market share, delegate numbers, and economic impact.

 Which markets are you targeting?

Domestic and regional market events are predicted to be the first to return; however, we live in a globally connected world with degrees of interdependence that cannot be replaced simply through domestic supply chains. The bureau has put in place a framework for engaging and building the local associations capacity to draw regional and international meetings to the country and to support these associations in strengthening engagement and profile with their international counterparts with an intention to bid for the regional and/or international meeting aligned with industry sector strengths under the government's economic development agenda. We have traditionally focused on leisure tourism, what potential does business and MICE tourism have? While the meetings industry is often regarded as a tourism market segment delivering tourism-related benefits, there is growing awareness governments globally that the MICE industry plays a much more significant role in socio-economic development. The MICE industry at the very centre of both the global economy and the underlying scientific, professional academic, business and social advancements that drive it. A strong business events industry will produce broader transformative social and economic impacts that go well beyond the hospitality industry. Meetings play a key role in strengthening a nation’s global trade and intellectual engagement which in turn helps drive development of its knowledge and creative economies. The industry facilitates the kind of exchange that is essential to knowledge transfer, innovation, collaboration and advancement that make the wheels of the world go around. Business events are about communication, life-long learning and knowledge sharing; they are also about fostering relationships, being part of a community, making connections and forming collaborations. They are catalysts for change that drive long-term economic growth and scientific development.

Do you think with the bureau things will change in terms of driving MICE business?

Globally, convention bureaux play a crucial role in industry-level ecosystem collaboration, providing the platform to rethink networks, create new networks, and repackage the destination offering collectively. The MICE sector is increasingly recognised as a specialized, sophisticated and important segment of the tourism industry. In a highly competitive world, with no shortage of locations for meeting planners to choose from, and the constantly improving competitiveness of comparative destinations, serious, consistent and strategic investment will be required by the government for destination marketing, capacity building, and MICE business development. In its establishment, the Kenya National Convention Bureau will take up the responsibility as Kenya’s ‘One-stop shop’ for unbiased and neutral advice on all aspects of hosting and organising conventions and business events in Kenya. KNCB is committed to unlocking the value of the MICE sector in Kenya. We foresee drastic changes in the meetings industry and KNCB will be on the forefront to provide leadership in expanding the economic benefits and impact of MICE post Covid-19.

Does the bureau's blueprint have the modalities to drive this mission?

The Kenya National Convention Bureau vision as enshrined in the blueprint is to position Kenya as the premier and authentic MICE destination in Africa by the year 2030. The annual ICCA country and city rankings are one of the most eagerly anticipated statistics reports in the international meetings industry, offering valuable marketing and PR opportunities. In the KNCB blueprint initiatives proposed such sectoral alignment, association meeting development and MICE ambassador programmes are key interventions that will support generating proactive leads for sales activation for the country. Other strategies to adopt will be database mining, a focus on business retention, developing homegrown events, subvention/business incentives, and understanding why bids are won and lost to fill in the current gaps.

MICE currently tops as the purpose of visit since reopening of international travel, how does the bureau plan to sustain this and grow the numbers?

The bureau will sustain this through maintained of positive image on the local, regional and international scene. The image of a destination is a key element to attract tourists. This image is based on the perceptions of individuals about the destination, which determines their touristic behavior and, consequently, their choice of destination. Working with brand ambassadors and influencers will be playing a key role towards this.

CS Balala has set a 5million international tourist target by 2025, what's the bureau plan for business visitors?

The arrival of business visitors is one of our core critical objectives. The MICE arrivals is about 16 per cent of total international tourist arrivals. Global benchmarks for destinations have shown a good balance of around 21 per cent for destinations focusing on both leisure and MICE. Our intention is to drive this sub-sector both in arrivals and in revenues as it is a key socio-economic catalyst beyond arrivals but also enhanced impact of our events. As a specialised agency we intend to bring in strategies such as events and subvention which is geared towards spurring the growth of locally grown events and driving association meetings respectively in the country. KNCB is as well looking to create an incentive framework in conjunction with the national treasury for the business visitors. As an institution, we shall be ensuring that the development in fields of action, such as product and infrastructure development, education, improvement and MICE aligned marketing are put in place. Above all, our positive political and economic frame conditions will be as well key to MICE growth given the current substantial investment from both, private sector and public institutions.

KICC has been the main facility for meetings and exhibitions, have you identified other major conference facilities you plan to work with?

As part of KNCB MICE growth strategy, partnership and collaboration are key. KNCB is reviewing an inventory carried out by the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife through Kenyatta University, to identify ready MICE infrastructure across the country. This will enable KNCB to work with ready players to take MICE to the next level. In the same spirit, university venues, PCOs, and DMCS are not left behind because they are critical in the MICE value chain.MICE is about a comprehensive service provision chain and not just venues.As a government agency, we will promote the destination and work with any MICE-ready products that we can package and create value propositions for the destination. Service providers through their associations will self-regulate and we will support them in alignment and accreditations, as well as professionalising the sector which is a key gap that was identified by the Ministerial TaskForce of 2016, that proposed the establishment of KNCB.