In a previous column I asked the question: Is the competition between Indaba in Durban and Africa Travel Week in Cape Town helping or harming us? Does it not dilute visitor numbers to both shows? Now that both trade shows have come and gone, we have seen that visitor numbers to WTM Africa have increased while Indaba has continued its decline in numbers of delegates (both exhibitors and buyers).

When I first typed out the words shrinking Indaba, I accidentally mistyped it sinking Indaba. Freudian slip, perhaps? The show is definitely shrinking, but I wouldn't say it is a sinking ship. Indaba receives a lot of criticism but it is still our flagship tourism trade show, and I believe it should remain so. Indaba is here to stay, and it will remain, at least for next year, in Durban.

For a number of years now we have heard calls for Indaba to be moved away from Durban. Some believe Cape Town would be a better host city, and would better show off some of our country's top tourism assets. Others believe it should be rotated between Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

While a rotating Indaba may be well received by visitors and perhaps lower the cost of attending Indaba, it will potentially increase the cost for many exhibitors (except for those in the host city). Many exhibitors store their stand material in Durban until the next Indaba. Transporting everything to a new location (or rebuilding a stand from scratch) every year will push up the already high costs of exhibiting.

Another argument put forward is about the brand – Durban has almost become synonymous with the Tourism Indaba, just like Berlin in the case of ITB and London for WTM.

In the end, the challenges Indaba faces will not be solved by merely moving the show to a different city. Indaba is whatever you make of it, and many people (including myself) had another productive Indaba this year. But, as our Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom acknowledged, Indaba needs a boost. The show needs a radical rethink and facelift.

It's all about numbers

The value of Indaba for exhibitors lies mainly in the number and quality of buyers, in particular international buyers. There were noticeably fewer people this year, again. In fact you have to go back to the late 1990s for similar stats with regard to number of buyers. I remember when the ICC was so packed with people that you could hardly move in the corridors, and you had to scramble for a table or chair outside to have some coffee or lunch. This time the corridors were quiet, and there were plenty of free tables and chairs outside.

Likewise, the value of the show for buyers lies in the number and quality of exhibitors. This year, the number of exhibitors declined for the 5th straight year, down by more than 40% from the peak of 1820 exhibitors in 2010. The SADC tent of course is no longer there, and the SADC exhibitors are all in the DEC now, while many previous DEC exhibitors were now in the ICC. And many others were simply gone. Probably decided to exhibit at WTM Africa instead.

The organisers, of course, claim that their focus is now on quality rather than quantity. However, I have my doubts that any exhibitor or visitor was turned down due to not meeting the required quality standards. Indaba is shrinking for two main reasons – the quality and value of the show, and competition from other shows like WTM Africa.

Quality and value

Indaba seems to struggle to stay relevant and meet the needs of our industry. For buyers and exhibitors alike, the value of the show decreases with shrinking numbers. And the quality has decreased in other ways too. For example, there is no longer a downloadable list of buyers or visitors. This is critical for buyers and exhibitors to be able to set up meetings, especially since the matchmaking tool had severe limitations. The organisers seemed to focus on getting meetings set up between exhibitors and buyers, but they forget that many exhibitors have business to conduct with other exhibitors, and many buyers have business to conduct with other buyers.

I also found the matchmaking tool to be very impersonal. It is easy to decline meetings based on a matchmaking invite alone, before you've heard what someone has to offer. Many people would rather pick up the phone and speak to someone in person in order to set up a meeting, or at least be able to send a personal email. This was a lot harder than in previous years, without the complete list of contacts (exhibitors and buyers).

Competition – good or bad?

Indaba was on a downward trend even before the inaugural WTM Africa in 2014. The competition has been a wake-up call for Indaba, but the declining numbers continue and have perhaps been exacerbated by the new trade shows in Cape Town. While WTM Africa grew significantly in 2015 (and is now also a 3-day show), Indaba continues to shrink. Perhaps it is understandable, because this year these two major shows were a month apart. This forces buyers to choose between these two events, which dilutes the value of both shows.  International delegates, even hosted buyers, are not going to attend both, a month apart.

The cost of exhibiting also means that only large companies with big budgets can afford to exhibit at both events. So the value to the buyers is also diluted, because you can no longer meet with all your suppliers under one roof, at one event.

Competition is healthy, but if we want to attract more international buyers to both shows, it would be in the interests of tourism to have Indaba and WTM Africa close together, at most a week apart. If we spread them out, everyone loses. If Indaba remains in the second weekend of May, why not have WTM Africa over the first weekend in May, preceded by ILTM Africa and followed by We Are Africa? Four shows, virtually back to back - a bonanza of travel trade shows for international buyers to attend.

In the end, exhibitors will invest in the show that attracts the most buyers and generates the most exposure and business for their brand, at reasonable cost. And buyers will attend the show with the most exhibitors and best platform for meeting with product owners.