CEO of BON Hotels, Guy Stehlik, says: "Along with information gathering and sharing that are at the heart of these activities there is the one vital factor that cyberspace will never be able to provide: the one-on-one often spontaneous interaction with other humans that happens when we network in a room, during break and meal sessions or over coffee while waiting for meetings to begin or a glass of wine with fellow delegates.
"And often, it is at exactly these important interludes when the most successful business contacts are made and collaborative ideas are sparked."
The good news for the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) industry was the recent relaxation around "advanced" level 3 lockdown that once again allows conferences and meetings for business purposes to be held, as long as they adhere strictly to safety guidelines.
"However," says Stehlik, "the key to the successful reopening of this industry will lie purely in how these safety measures are rolled out to give organisers of conferences and meetings the peace of mind they will need, not only to plan events but to convince participants to attend."
The group will itself be implementing strict guidelines at its own reopened BON hotels which have conferencing facilities, including BON Hotel Bloemfontein Central, BON Hotel Waterfront Richards Bay, BON Hotel Empangeni and Die Kliphuis Standerton by BON Hotels.
With the minimum safety measures currently including a maximum delegate attendance of 50, and the holding at this stage of only business-related events, Stehlik believes far more is required to re-establish the confidence that will ensure attendees have peace of mind.
In other words, the more social distancing spread over a number of rooms the better, explains Stehlik: "Another one of the set guidelines required by government is that a two-metre space must exist between delegates. Therefore, at a trestle table that previously comfortably seated two delegates, we will now only have one delegate."
But even with social distancing in place, the networking will still be possible – a vital component to successful and cost-effective business planning and implementation.
At a recent MICE-oriented webinar hosted by international events organising company AviaDev Africa and VoyageAfriq Travel Media, research revealed that an hour of face-to-face interaction was worth five hours of video conferencing, 10 hours spent on the phone and 20 emails.
Speaking at the event, Jon Howell, CEO of AviaDev said: "At the end of the day, we are human beings with a need for personal interaction. The lockdown period is an opportunity for us to reset and reinvent our businesses."
But, stresses Stehlik, the reopening of physical conferencing and meeting spaces will not be reliant entirely just on government rulings or the lifting of lockdowns: “The key to re-opening the industry will be the willingness of the delegates themselves to attend.
"If, as an industry, we can assure them that this is top of our minds through the interventions we take to ensure their safety, we will not only successfully start to re-open the industry, but re-invent and future-protect it."