This Tourism Week. Indaba 2014: the little conversation that didn’t

profile-photo-MartinHatchuel1-96x96I’ve been at every Indaba since ’98 or ’99 – except this last one. It might just have been my most interesting yet.

By 2013 it was clear that Indaba was in trouble: soaring costs, dip in buyer quality, falling numbers.

SA Tourism told us they heard our concerns, and SATSA went to great lengths to convince us that the organisers were working very hard to make Indaba 2014 better than ever it had been (although, at least in the case of SATSA’s visit to George, not many people turned up to listen to what they had to say. Not surprising, though, since almost no one in the area knew they were going to be here).

I’ve read one or two – and only one or two – comments saying Indaba 2014 was great. But looking at all the other comments on line it seems that the people who’re upbeat about the show went to a different Indaba than everyone else. (Although you have to ask if they actually went to Indaba, or perhaps they went to We Are Africa. And are Indaba and We Are Africa the same thing or what? AND CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHY WE HAVE TO HAVE SO MANY DAMNED TRADE SHOWS ALL AT ONCE? Sorry. I’m shouting.)

If you don’t believe me about the number of positive against negative comments, please take a look at what readers had to say in response to my article (Indaba 2014 & I’m not there)  on This Tourism Week, or to Tourism Update’s ‘Durban cries foul after trade shows.’

What made my Indaba 2014 so interesting, though, was that, after all the years of being there, I finally got an outsider’s perspective.

It’s not pretty.

Two things: discussion, and Durban.

Now here’s an irony: ‘Indaba’ means ‘Discussion.’ It’s a Xhosa and Zulu word that’s become an English word, too – the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “NOUN South African. 1 A discussion or conference. 2 (informal) One’s own problem or concern: ‘this country is our indaba and no one else’s’.”

From the outside, it seems that last bit describes Indaba 2014 best: “this show is our indaba and no one else’s.”

In the age of the global virtual discussion, the discussions at Indaba were confined largely to the people who were physically there.

Sure, the organisers were tweeting all over the place – but I don’t remember seeing a single reply to any of the questions that followers posed.

In the age of live streaming, I picked up only one live-streamed presentation: the Global Media Face-off hosted by Richard Quest was broadcast on YouTube via Google+ Hangouts (by someone who didn’t know how to use the technology) – but it seems there was no way that anyone not in the room could pose questions. Although why would we? It was the same Global Media Face-off as last year. And last-of-last year. And last-of-last-of-last year: One does not simply introduce open skies to Africa overnight. The SADAC visa question is being held up by rogue states. Our tarnished reputation is the fault of the media.

Even Mr. Quest got frustrated.

Was there any other live-streaming? I couldn’t tell. Doesn’t help that the Indaba web site appears last to have been updated in April: take a look. As of 7:30 this morning – 15 May – the latest news item on the site was dated 17 April 2014. And electronic editions of Indaba Daily News? Latest: 14 May 2013. No typo.

Here’s the thing: in the age of the read-write web, all I saw from the official Indaba feeds was old fashioned, one-way messaging using new-fangled technology.

As Paul Kerton of The Best 100 said on thistourismweek: “It’s interesting when you are not there how you realise that Indaba tends to cover up its homework so you can’t see it and only lets those who are partaking (i.e. paying), be part of the process, which defeats the object surely.”

But this isn’t only an Indaba problem: it’s something that’s common to established shows all over the world.

Ron Mader of (also commenting on thistourismweek) put it this way: “What bothers me about travel trade shows in particular is that it’s all about the people not in the room (my emphasis) – the locals scattered around the country and the visitors, national and international. If there are no attempts to inform and engage everyone, the travel trade show in particular is doing a lousy job.”

Bottom line: sitting out here in the cold was even colder for me because Indaba failed to engage. I feel like the kid whose class has gone off on an outing to a favourite and often visited swimming hole in the heat of summer, but who’s been forced to stay behind and do his homework while images of the party – complete with sunshine, suntans, and smiling faces – flash silently on a screen in the detention hall.

Now to Durban:

South Africans love being victims.

Please see the city of Durban’s statement about Indaba (I read it on Cape Info: ‘Indaba: sour grapes… and kudos to Wesgro‘): Durban’s unhappy because it wasn’t the main brand at Indaba this year.

Firstly: I’m no longer a fan of Durban as the venue. It’s an unpleasant place these days. But I think there was a deeper problem behind the city’s complaint. Quoting from my response to ‘Durban cries foul after trade shows‘ in Tourism Update: for quite a while, many people in the tourism system have been saying to me that they thought Durban was sabotaging the show: by last year, more and more of the buyers were spending less and less time at Indaba because Durban was taking them out of the halls for tours of the city – half a day at the stadium, a day of gastronomic or cultural delights, etc. etc.

I understood from what I heard at the SATSA roadshow that SA Tourism was planning to stop that this year – which could have pissed off both the City and Durban Tourism’s Philip Sithole.

But Durban is also an unpopular venue for Indaba since it means a second flight for many buyers; it has a reputation for rounding up its beggars and dumping them somewhere far away so that it appears clean to the delegates; it has a reputation for hiking its prices during the show; in terms of airfares it’s the country’s most expensive destination; and its new airport is far too far out of town (which makes transport even more expensive), etc. etc. (Full disclosure: I’m of the school that favours Jozi for future Indabas; it’s the country’s cheapest destination for airfares, it’s got the Gautrain, and so on.)

Still, I think of my absence from Indaba this year as a separation, and not a divorce. I’m going to continue supporting it for a while yet because it’s funded ultimately by the taxpayer: it’s our event. If it fails, it’ll fail. On the other hand, if the owners of a commercial show like WTM Africa have a hissy fit in Cape Town, they’ll simply move to another city in another country. Nairobi perhaps. Lagos, even.

Indaba doesn’t have that option. *We* don’t have that option – which is exactly why I will continue to criticise: not because I’m against it, but because I’m very much for it. Like a wayward child, it’s ours. But it needs a LOT of upbraiding if it’s going to have a future.

I coined a word after Vodacom’s recent major PR disaster (it gave all its subscribers a free gigabyte of data to use on its birthday last Sunday – a gift that almost crashed the entire system; it advertises excellent phones although it has no stock of them, and can’t say when they’ll arrive in the country):

  • Vodafail: verb. To create great expectations, and then excel at not delivering on them.

Now. How do we make sure there’s no vodafailure in Indaba’s future?

Comments? Please go here and have your say. 

And remember – I’m available as a writer and speaker: please contact me to discuss your requirments- or 084 951 0574.

Now go away on holiday. It’s in the economy’s best interest
With best Barefoot Wishes – M

MARTIN HATCHUEL, Barefoot Writer

Specialist writer for the tourism industry
Social media & advertising
Media management
Responsible tourism
Cell +27(0)84 951 0574
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63 Wilson Street, Knysna 6570

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