08:35 pm
27 October 2016

One way Senegal is becoming ‘Africa’s Las Vegas’

TO MANY, the city of Las Vegas conjures up images of wild nights out at the casino and whirlwind weddings presided over by an Elvis Presley impersonator – but another lifeblood of this city, to be taken very seriously, are its conventions.

According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the more than 22,000 meetings and conventions held in Las Vegas each year support about 61,000 jobs and contribute more than $7.4 billion to the local economy.

To grow this industry and take out the competition, the state of Nevada is kicking things up a gear by launching plans for the Las Vegas Global Business District – a vision that looks set to propel Vegas in the next evolution of the trade show business destination whose long-term strategy is to host as many as seven million convention delegates over the next 10 years.

With that much potential, the investments are clearly worth it.

The conventions business seems to be something that Senegal had in mind when launching plans for a new city near the town of Diamniadio.

While the town has garnered international attention with plans for a new airport, university, state ministries, and industrial and technology park – the only thing that has been finished so far is the Abdou Diouf International Conference Centre.

Completed in less than a year, at a cost of approximately $68 million the conference centre was partially funded by the Senegalese government, with the majority of funding coming from Eximbank Turkey. It was finished in October 2015, just in time for the 15th Francophone summit – a fantastic advertising opportunity for what is now Francophone Africa’s most impressive conference facility.

Designed by Turkish firm Tabanliolu Architects, after driving through barren and dusty landscapes, the enormous, gleaming conference centre is like an oasis in the desert. It has a very contemporary design, with interior and exterior surfaces that gleam yet compliment the landscape, and is said to have been heavily inspired by baobab trees—a national symbol.

Inside, from the escalators to the seats, stages and lighting, the facilities are world class.

In fact, the country’s entire infrastructure around the conferencing facilities are incredibly well developed.

There is fast and reliable broadband throughout courtesy of heavy investments in the country’s ICT sector, efficient translation teams with high quality listening equipment for all participants, bus fleets with a multilingual crew to effectively usher participants in and out of hotels and the venue throughout each day and catering options that are consistently staggering – the amuse bouches, canapes and hot and cold stations are nothing short of what you would expect at a fine dining restaurant.

What is incredible is the sheer volume of people the centre, and this infrastructure, is prepared to seamlessly cater for. The main conference hall for example can seat 1,500 delegates.

The conference management and teams surrounding it have all clearly had a lot of practice and demand.

Easy conferencing

For years the country has acted as a de facto conference hub for the region – attracting a variety of high level meetings and endorsed by the attendance of President Macky Sall who rarely misses a big one. When looking at 2015 statistics Senegal ranked 5th behind South Africa, Morocco, Kenya and Egypt as the African country with the most international meetings – those organised or sponsored by international organisations or having significant international character.

This is expected to grow. When looking at tourism statistics, spending by tourists on business travel is expected to outstrip that of leisure travel by 2025. Leisure travel spending is expected to grow by 7.1% in 2015 to XOF386.3bn ($662 million), and rise by 3.5% pa to XOF547.5bn in 2025 while business travel spending is expected to grow by 5.3% in 2015 to XOF367.4bn, and rise by 4.8% pa to XOF589.7bn in 2025.

The centre itself has already seen this burgeoning growth. One of the conference centre’s administrators in an interview said that since the conference centre was opened they have already hosted 15 major events. That means at least 1,000 people per gathering (speaking to a regular conference organiser in Africa this level of event over three days would cost almost a million dollars) – all of whom will need travel options, easy access to the conferencing facilities and accommodation close by.

Senegal already offers this with ease.

To start with, there are no visas to be bought meaning participants can attend at the drop of a hat and painlessly make their way out of the airport. Secondly, Dakar itself is extremely well connected. There are direct flights to Washington, Paris, South Africa and good connections with East Africa too.

On the ground, the conference centre takes approximately 30 minutes to reach from the city centre but will be even more accessible when the new Blaise Diagne airport (expected to dwarf Dakar’s main Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport) is built. Construction work is also beginning this year on the regional express train which will link the old and new airports with the possibility of transporting up to 115,000 passengers a day in less than 45 minutes.

In terms of accommodation, in 2014 Senegal was in Africa’s top 10 for countries with the most hotel chain developments in the pipeline, with five hotel chains coming up which would provide 914 rooms, each with a capacity of about 180 rooms. This will be further boosted by hotel developments that are happening as part of the plans for Diamniadio.

Senegal’s new conference centre and city looks set to propel the country into a new “conference powerhouse” league. With this unique economic endeavour there is now huge potential to rapidly speed up the country’s ambitions towards emerging market status by 2035.