A chat with Shaun Bird
Appointed to the position of General Manager at Sandton Convention Centre in August last year, Shaun Bird brings a wealth of experience in the management of convention facilities.
He is the former Complex Operations Manager at the Grand Palm Hotel, Casino and Convention Resort in Botswana, and has worked in hospitality across the world – including the Holiday Inn Kingscross, Le Meridien Waldorf and many others. The Event chats with Mr Bird about his plans for growing business events to the SCC in the next twelve months and beyond.
What have you been doing since you were appointed late last year, and how are you settling in?
I started in the middle of August and since then I’ve done a lot of travelling. We don’t have a Sales Marketing Manager/Director at the moment so I had to pick up the slack on that side as well. Nasrin Hoosen – our International Sales Manager – and I spent approximately three out of the last five months travelling to different destinations to represent the company at industry events and trade shows, meet clients, etc. We had meetings set up in Washington and Las Vegas, then we were off to the ICCA Congress in Asia. I did some client business and then back to South Africa for about three days, and up to Barcelona for ibtm world.
It’s been very exciting in that I’m getting a feel for the sales side of the business.
Have you drummed up any new business in visiting all these trade shows recently?
We have! A lot of these trade show bookings tend to take place two, three and sometimes five years out. So we’ve been very successful in pulling business in for 2018. 2018 is looking rosy; and we have a number of bids out for 2019 at the moment. We have made bids for about 30 events in conjunction with the SANCB, Gauteng Convention and Events Bureau, etc., who would all partner with us to host these international events.
We picked up an event from Singapore recently, a sustainability development conference which will likely happen in September if it is confirmed soon as we are almost fully booked for September. It’s not a massive conference, but it has quite an impact in the sense that it’s very high level and it will bring many stakeholders in the sustainable development forum.
How many association conferences and events do you host at SCC on average?
It depends. There is obviously the local association business which is fairly strong, but without the stats in front of me, I would say they’d probably make up about 10 percent of our business. What we have found is they are good for revenue because the relative spend in terms of the amount of space that they take up is quite extensive – especially with the international associations.
You also book many hotels for events like this so the hotels around us benefit from the rooms, and generally internationals tend to stay for anywhere up to a week. Also, if you maximise your venue space for that period of time, there inevitably will be discussion groups and forums so they tend to take up most of the venue from your plenaries right through to your breakaway venues.
What is your strategic plan for growing SCC going forward?
One of my tasks, and one of the reasons I’ve been brought in is to try and facilitate improvement in what we offer in terms of hotel accommodaion. We’ve never put that much of a focus on accommodation, and the spill-over from our events means secured booking for all the hotels around us. So one of my key drivers this year is to get the integration right and be able to offer clients the best deal in order to keep their business within our portfolio.
Then obviously on the convention centre side, there are three main drivers and these are things that are set in stone: relationship building with our current and future client base; flexibility, and driving home the value we offer. We’re considered to be on the higher end of the scale but when you break it down and look into the value you get, Sandton Convention Centre is more than competitive.
Flexibility, in that we’re not going to tell you how to run your event – although we have advised clients in the past– but we do want to think outside the box and take note of your suggestions to make it work for you. If we need to change our thinking, we are more happy to do so. We strive to build relationships so clients feel confident enough to have those kinds of conversations with us.
We’re cutting down on the bureaucracy in terms of how a request is processed; we’re removing the middle men in our own organisation. to streamline the quote process. Dealing with fewer people to get what you need, builds up the relationship naturally. In the same way, once we have a relationship with a client, we can offer them their preferred products and services because we understand what they want.
Sustainability is a huge topic at Meetings Africa this year. What is SCC in particular doing to remain sustainable?
Sustainability by nature is not always a low cost activity, but we’ve taken the approach that every little bit counts. Tsogo Sun as a whole at has an extremely well-established sustainability programme in every aspect. We’ve looked at the programme and identified how we can implement aspects of it at Sandton Convention Centre. For example, wherever we’ve installed outdoor lighting, we have added motion sensors. In our car park there’s a motion sensor so as you drive in, and the lights will start coming on as you drive through. We’ve also redone our gardens and planted more succulents and cacti because they use considerably less water. We’ve engaged a new company with a horticulturalist who advises us on these matters.
We also look at return on investment because these are projects that need to be able to pay for themselves. That’s not the only criteria, but you have to tie business into sustainability to be able to take it seriously. No company is going to take sustainability seriously unless they see it sliding down to the bottom line. That means attracting new companies to do business with, and it also means saving costs. At the end of the day, we take it quite seriously at grassroots level in terms of the company structure.
For Meetings Africa, there is a greening committee that will meet with us before the trade show, but it changes year on year depending on the focus. We as the hosts go out of our way to support those goals when we are able to. For example, in order to sustain small business, we’re allowing them to bring in a little craft beer stand at the cocktail party. Normally we would sell our own beer and not allow anyone to trade on our premises, but we want to support development of small businesses.
How lucrative is it running a high profile venue on the continent? What trends have you noticed for venues in particular?
Well, the MICE industry is opening up, but no one is really running around building a R500-million convention centre too often. What they are doing is building smaller venues. Whether that market is saturated or not, I don’t know, but in terms of the big players like us, there is really just Cape Town, Durban, Gallagher, Nasrec and us – and to a certain extent on the leisure side, Sun City. We play in that market. That applies right through Africa and the reason for this is the infrastructure. I know Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda all have convention centres. Size-wise they are nowhere near ours, but they will tap into the smaller association market base. Africa is showing a lot of enthusiasm at the moment.
Most of the East African block at the moment is really showing a lot of promise in terms of development and market potential in that they are looking to generate Africa-wide business, by default South Africa will pick up some of that. I don’t think we in South Africa will ever be oversubscribed in our venues. I think as business grows; so will our market. I don’t know of convention centres that have gone out of business in recent years, so I have to make the assumption that business is good.