Coming or going

Many organisers have dipped their toes in Africa’s water, the majority taking them back again until the conditions improve. EW speaks to one of the more successful players.

A continent currently afflicted by civil war, disease outbreak, terrorism and good old-fashioned piracy, the business of exhibitions in some parts of Africa requires a great deal more than contacts and square metres.

Montgomery has been active in Africa since 1967, almost 50 years. It has a mature business there with brands spanning six core sectors: mining, building & construction, food & hospitality, packaging and printing, marketing and security. The organiser’s business is based in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and from South Africa it has gone to Botswana, up to Zambia in a joint venture with fellow UK organiser Clarion’s local business Spintelligent and onto markets beyond.

However, the SADC region is composed of small markets. For example, Botswana’s tiny population of just 2.2 million makes it difficult to run large shows.

At the region’s heart, South Africa is also the best-known and most popular location for international events in Africa. It is home to the best venues and infrastructure for organisers, is accommodating for international visitors, and is seen as an attractive destination for tourists carrying either a suitcase or a backpack.

Many organisers use South Africa as a platform with which they hope to entice the whole of Africa with the shows they run, but inter-Africa trade is pretty small; contributing less than 10 per cent of total business at exhibitions. Instead, most of the trade is conducted with Western Europe or North America. Trying to get the rest of Africa down to South Africa is, in the words of Damion Angus, managing director of Montgomery (pictured), a pretty difficult thing to do.

But the market does have some key strengths, particularly as a base for resource-based events. Montgomery runs the second biggest mining show in the world – South Africa’s Electra Mining – which it used to enter both Botswana and Zambia. Today it is looking at further markets for its other events in parallel with joint venture opportunities in South Africa.the results of which it hopes will give it a better proposition for entering new markets, notably West Africa.

“Really, what we’re doing is taking our South African core brands up to West Africa, and concentrating on those sectors, in that market,” says Angus. The company entered West Africa in 2008 on the back of a gas show. Since then it has launched a number of  events in Nigeria and Ghana, where it runs the security show Securex. It also has a packaging show titled Propak, a Womens Entrepreurial Conference (WOWe) and it has run Electra Mining in Ghana.

In East Africa, Montgomery runs a hospitality show, a packaging show and a security show and is looking at launching  further events next year. This is largely made possible by a joint-venture partnership with a local entity that according to Angus, works incredibly well.

The company’s progress in the North? Well that’s complicated. After a tough but successful few years in Libya the company is re-assessing its plan for the North. Sub-Saharan Africa is the focus of most organisers active in the continent.

A complicated continent

The organiser’s achievements exporting its events within Africa would be remarkable in isolation. But such achievements are magnified intensely when we look at the extraordinary difficulties an organiser faces making a bed in Africa.

The Arab Spring at the end of 2010 caused no end of problems across the whole of the Maghreb region, that part of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea, as well as neighbouring Egypt and further East.

Libya was one such example of a market that was turned upside down by war. Once appealing to international organisers, today it is practically impossible to land a plane on the runways in post-Gaddafi Tripoli, the main airport is too damaged.

“We did run a number of shows in Libya, in the oil and gas and infrastructure sectors,” says Angus. “To be honest, despite the issues with early partnerships, Schengen visas, Gaddafi and ultimately war, we found Libya a very lucrative market for the time we were there.

“But at the moment there are two governments, the runway at the airport is desecrated, and it’s pretty hard to get people in and out. It’s too dangerous.”

Neighbouring Egypt has had two rulers and “a couple of uprisings”, as Angus points out, but long-term “it’s a good market”. In fact there are a lot of good long-term markets in Africa, he says, so long as you are willing to accept that there is a lot of risk that goes with them. “One needs to have a long-term outlook if you are going to take them on,” he says.

Last September Montgomery had a show in Nigeria, following the much-publicised and universally terrifying Ebola crisis. Despite registering a number of cases, Nigeria actually managed to control the situation remarkably well, according to Angus. “But obviously a disease like Ebola is so horrific that nobody is going to take any risks on contracting it however slim they are, and this had an impact on the shows we have there as well as in South Africa”.

“We ran a food show in Johannesburg in late September and had people wanting to pull out for fear of contracting the disease. It was crazy, if anyone in Nigeria thought they were coming down with Ebola they’d probably jump on a plane to the UK rather than head to South Africa,” says Angus, pointing to a common misconception about Africa; the fact many treat it not as a continent but a country. In fact London in the UK and Lagos in Nigeria are both 3,000 miles from Cape Town.

“It was pretty much down to us to phone exhibitors and reassure them, in order to keep them involved. Obviously we lost a lot of internationals, but we still ran the show and had a good event,” he says.

Ebola is not the only highly-publicised African killer to appear in the world’s media in recent times. Nigeria’s terrorist group Boko Haram, now conducting its campaigns of intimidation and slaughter as the Islamic State in West Africa (Iswap), has expanded its activities to Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon, while Somalia’s Islamist group al Shabaab continues to make headlines.

“We launched [Kenyan] packaging event Propak East Africa in 2013, or rather tried to launch it, but the Westgate shopping mall terrorist incident occurred a number of weeks before the show. We had little option but to postpone it but our exhibitors understood and supported us,” says Angus.

On time is too late

So with civil war, active terror cells and often overly-sensational media coverage to contend with, how does an organiser turn a campaign to enter these territories into a profitable endeavour?
“We certainly looked at Africa and decided that the smaller countries are not worth going into at the moment,” concedes Angus. “Instead we try to focus our attention on the ones that we think will be winners. You have to pick which countries you are going for with care.”

Angus says his belief is that you’re always early when launching an event. “By the time you wait for things to be right, two or three other organisers are already there and going for it. That’s why launch shows in difficult markets are never very profitable ventures,” he explains. “You’re in before you probably should be but you have to get your marker down in time to ensure that you get some longevity in the market. We probably go in earlier than we know we should be, but that’s purely a result of competition.”

Keeping conversations going in all these markets is important, particularly in Africa. In Libya, Montgomery is continuing conversations with all its old partners and the big stakeholders to assess the situation, and as soon as it feels the situation is returning to stability, an environment in which it is viable to run an exhibition, it will start putting plans in place to launch again.

Being poised for action is of paramount importance. “If you look at some of these markets where you could do a rebuild-type show, you almost have to have your plans ready to go, waiting for the opportune moment to dive in,” says Angus. “I agree when people say timing is everything. I don’t think there’s an exact science to it; it’s on a gut feeling. Have enough local conversations and get a strong  enough exhibitor base willing to also take that risk, and be there first.”

As with all emerging exhibition markets, venues are the major stumbling block for anyone looking to stage large shows on the continent.

“It’s a huge handicap,” says Angus. “In Nigeria there was one venue with 6,500sqm but it was – I think – the most expensive venue on the planet at the time. In Kenya, the Kenyatta International Conference Centre can only host a 1,200sqm show without the use of marquees. “If you’re looking for large, substantial shows then the venues just aren’t there to support them at the moment. Until they are, its exhibition industry will suffer.”

Montgomery has taken venue matters into its own hands to some extent. It currently operates the Johannesburg Expo Centre, Africa’s largest exhibition venue, with more than 42,000sqm of indoor space.

As for other organisers looking to enter Africa, the traditional expansion model of acquisition is not the most appropriate.

“Organic growth is the way forward in Africa,” says Angus. “There’s very little to buy and most of the countries outside of South Africa are populated by small entrepreneurial businesses that have been able to adapt and run profitable shows on low overheads. That is definitely how one needs to approach it.”

And it’s not all about Sub-Saharan Africa. Aside from Libya and Egypt, the north still presents some opportunity. “People have done well in Algeria, and I think the francophone European countries can tap into French speaking countries,” says Angus. “From Europe it’s not far to deal into Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia,” he says

“You have to take the long-term view. If you’re doing this just to have a pin in the board and say ‘we’re in Africa’, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. You need to be pretty passionate about the continent and really enjoy working in the countries themselves, if you are to make it work. It is a group of difficult markets with many being nowhere near as big as people think they are.”

There are gains to be made. The likes of Informa, Clarion or Spintelligent all set out as successful businesses coming across Africa and are managing to make it work. But as Angus says, without passion the chances of emulating their success is slim.