Aimable Rumongi, the chairperson of the Association of Professional Conference Organisers (RAPCO), was part of a round table aimed at shedding light on the progress of conference tourism sector early this week.
During the meeting at the Kigali Cultural Village, he talked to Sunday Times’James Karuhangaand shed light on what his organisation does and why the youth need a mindset change when it comes to tapping opportunities in the conference tourism sector.
Rwanda Convention Bureau officials disclosed that conference tourism sector registered $52 million in 2018/2019. You questioned that. Why??
Those are official figures they capture directly from the money that participants or visitors spent in hotels. But these participants who come here do spend in restaurants, in bars, in excursions like visiting the gorillas and many other things such as shopping. Some of those figures aren’t captured.
And they also spend on service providers such as interpreters, journalists, and others. And, as they [RCB] said, they are in the course of collecting and computing the exact figures.
Could we then, most likely, see this figure double if all data is properly computed?
No; I wouldn’t say that. Not probably double, but slightly more than that $52 million.
What about your association. What exactly do you do?
In RAPCO, we register and vet professional conference organisers. You don’t just wake up and come and register a company and off you start. We have to ensure that you fulfill some standards; including that you have an office with qualified staff, having organized at least five international conferences.
We have categories of 50 delegates, 100 delegates, 500 delegates, and 1,000 delegates. Our role is also to ensure that our members get trained so that they know how to bid for international conferences, know how to organize an event, and we help them to register. We help ensure that we abide by international standards. We would like our event managers to also go and pitch businesses in other countries.
How is that?
That is, they go and work in Uganda, Kenya, Burkina Faso and elsewhere. It is doable.
Let’s talk more about the requisite standards and how a startup can get there, Are the requirements not too stringent?
That’s why we, for example, we encourage them to come into RAPCO so that the smaller meetings of 50 participants or 20 participants can be given to new comers so they acquire that experience.
You at some point noted that other countries are not sleeping as regards improving their conference tourism, meaning we need to up our game. What can be done?
Yes, meaning that we need to further improve what we already have. For example, I talked about the interpreting business which is big business and a very important component in conference tourism.
When you see visitors come, go to their hotels, get good food and evening entertainment but the most important function of a delegate in a conference is what they do in a conference hall.
They come to a conference hall where technical aspects are their business, and the communication aspect is very important. Therefore, we need to train more interpreters and more translators so that we don’t have to import them from outside.
What else do you need to work on as regards the bigger picture of your association?
What needs to be done is work with other event organizers from outside Rwanda so that we can also go and bring bigger conferences to Rwanda.
The government shouldn’t be the only one to go and pitch for big meetings to Rwanda. This is a big role we have to play as RAPCO.
We encourage our members to go and bring meetings to Rwanda because there are some meetings that government is not involved in. The government cannot be everywhere.
You also talked at length about the country’s youth and what you, apparently, consider as them missing out on existing opportunities in this vibrant sector. What is your message for the country’s youth?
The tourism conference sector is one of the biggest employers the world over. Wherever you go, in many hotels now they are putting up new facilities for conferences to attract conference participants. They have their usual tourists but they have realized that tourism conferences attract big money.
Now, the youth in Rwanda need to be empowered in terms of creativity. As I already mentioned, here [Kigali Cultural Village], you can walk through but not find any Rwanda made sandals. But you find Kenyan made and Ugandan sandals.
We have to tell our youths that there is a big opportunity in the tourism conference sector. When you go to hotels, do you know which fruits get finished early?
The paw paws, for example. Growing paw paws is the easiest thing you can do in Rwanda. I grow paw paws too, in Muhazi. Another thing, when we have all these big conferences with VIPs, the people who do the servicing such as top bar tenders; we don’t have them. Same applies to chefs in hotels.
How many professional Rwandan chefs do we have? People say they can’t go and train to be cooks. The mindset is wrong. A chef in Serena hotel earns more than the General Manager there. Cooking for these important guests is a rare and special skill.
So you think Rwandan youth need to change their mindset on things employment?
Yes. Mindset is the issue here. It is serious. Government is already doing something; teaching them.
How about you in the private sector? What do you need to do to encourage or inspire the youth?
We shall keep talking to them. And some of them are already active. At one of the stands here they are doing essential oils and that is great. But again, we need to invest in packaging material.
One of the biggest challenges in Rwanda is packaging of bread, honey and other things. And then there is entertainment. Let’s talk about entertainment. How many night clubs of repute do we have in Kigali? It’s probably one or two.
Imagine if someone put up another good night club. This is another opportunity, and our youth need to think about these things. And then there is fashion. There is so much.
And you think the youth should not use government regulations as obstacles?
No, no! They shouldn’t see regulations as restrictions. No. If the government can allow Cobra, do you think it is because Cobra [Eugene Habimana, a.k.a. Cobra] has a monopoly? No. He is a good businessman. He sees the need. He sees an opportunity. And he goes ahead and opens a club.