Opinion Piece: Thembi Kunene-Msimang

The past two months have been the most stressful in the more than two decades I have worked in the tourism sector. Overseeing the retrenchment of 35 hardworking, committed and extremely productive experts from my team, all of them breadwinners, 30 of them strong women, has been a gut-wrenching experience.

It was a shocking wake-up call for me to witness the unacceptable strong-arm tactics of the Public Order Policing Unit as they fired stun grenades and water cannon to disperse hospitality industry colleagues taking part in a peaceful march in the streets of Cape Town. 

In the process, a young woman called Bridgette Wutoh was injured while on duty as a front-of-house hostess with the responsibility of seating patrons at Truth Coffee. Her only sin had been to watch the protesters pass her place of work. Within minutes, she found herself lying injured on the floor, with her job security severely compromised owing to the water damage caused to the café itself. I hope Ms Wutoh fully recovers and that the café can get appropriate compensation.

We in the Meetings Incentives Conferences & Events sector (known as MICE) have also not been spared the deep trauma caused by Covid-19, which has been compounded by the government’s regrettable Covid-19 regulations. 

The survey conducted in June 2020 brings this trauma into sharp focus. The survey conducted by Wesgro’s Western Cape Convention Bureau studied an estimated 126 conferences that would have been hosted in the Western Cape, contributing close to R1.9-billion to the local economy during the 2020-21 financial year, with just an estimated 71,000 delegates expected to attend. The harsh reality is that nearly 66% of these conferences have been postponed until “after Covid” (anyone’s guess when exactly that will be), 7.1% were moved to virtual platforms and 11.9% have been cancelled altogether. (The other 15% are continuing in some form, with restrictions).

The ease with which our government officials recite the PR line of the moment that SA’s recovery efforts in its Covid-19 risk-adjusted strategy starts in September with domestic activities, then moves to regional and then into the international front, is cause for reflection. September is five weeks away and we face a very difficult reality as tourism operators and business owners in the face of the country’s continued spike in Covid-19 infections, rising deaths and the damning corruption involving Covid-19 relief funds.

One hopes for stronger, more informed and more coordinated leadership from our government officials in this time of crisis. In the meantime, I suggest a list of priorities:

First, we need to do all we can to support our teams to get to the acceptance stage of the impossible situation we find ourselves in. We need to help them and their families keep as safe as they can and help them brace themselves for the eye of the Covid storm that is surely coming. We must help each other take it one step at a time.

Second, the brutal right-sizing of staff is an unavoidable crucifix which will have to be borne by us all as we attempt to hobble towards some semblance of survival as businesses. 

The last two months have been the most stressful days in more than two decades that I have worked in the tourism sector. Overseeing the retrenchment of 35 hard-working, committed and extremely productive experts from my team, all of them bread-winners, 30 of them strong women, has been a gut-wrenching experience. I pause here to send positive energies, strength, thoughts and prayers to all our colleagues in the sector who have lost their jobs and to those who have seen their salaries slashed with no immediate prospect of recovery.

The mind-numbing three-month delay in the payment of TERS funding benefits borders on cruelty. One can only wonder how the hundreds of government officials within the Tourism Department are keeping themselves busy.

Third, tourism was one of the first industries to develop and adopt World Health Organisation-accepted Covid-19 health protocols which were endorsed by the World Travel and Tourism Council. We must urgently implement these for the few meetings and events we are still planning, to demonstrate to our clients how safely they can indeed gather not more than 50 business delegates at a time and instil public confidence in our capacity to deliver safe events. 

Fourth, we need to take advantage of this brutal disruption of the MICE industry. With the accelerated adoption of virtual meetings, we need to grow our market share. Virtual and Online meetings and events are here to stay. They are cheaper and they encourage dramatically increased participation compared to face-to-face meetings. Hybrid meetings in multi venues provide firm hope for the sustainability of our businesses but I fear these will become hotly contested business opportunities.

Last, we need to pay fanatical attention to cash flow management, without compromising the need to be ethical and responsible corporate citizens in the way we engage our creditors while trying to renegotiate payment terms. Similarly, we need to be kind to our debtors, as much as our resources can allow us, and to avoid destructive litigation which will damage our long-standing relationships when things get back to normal.

Over the next five weeks, until the moment when our government finally allows us to again sell this fascinating, memorable destination called South Africa, many of our colleagues will have suffered untold financial destruction which will be near impossible to recover from. I, as with many other operators, look forward to engaging with our government colleagues to see what strategies they have in place to create a truly enabling environment that will have the “switch on’’ effect that they talk about in their media briefings.