It’s been about ten minutes since I placed my order for an egg-white omelette. It’s peak tourist season in Pilanesberg and the live egg counter is busy. But I don’t mind the wait — sipping on coffee under a sun umbrella, trying to make eye contact with a zebra on the other side of the fence, behind which, is a sprawl of the African savannah. 

The table next to mine is occupied by a group of travelling delegates, presumably from Asia, photographing the striped equid who seems to be enjoying the attention. They’re not here on a holiday, but for a conference. “We generate about 20 per cent of our revenue from Indian MICE groups alone, especially in the months from May to August,” George Mokotedi, Rooms Division Manager, Bakubung Lodge tells me as he draws my attention to the approaching wildebeest. 

About a kilometre away from the fence is a lake where many such herbivores visit to wet their throats. Bakubung Lodge is one amongst many bush lodges built in the very interiors of the sprawling Pilanesberg savannahs. If we’re lucky, we may even spot a wild elephant; all these before the much awaited game-drive. 

Chasing down the last of my omelette with a cappuccino, I follow Mokotedi to the banquet and conference areas. There are three rooms: Makubu for 120 people, Kubunyana for 80 people, and Magarekubu divided into two spaces for 20 people each. Each of the rooms includes a slide projector, TV monitor, DVD player, PA system, whiteboard, and pens and notepads. In fact, wifi is available throughout the property, and surprisingly with a good speed and strong connection. 

Next, we revisit the dining area where Mokotedi points out a certain section that can be cordoned off for an interactive session with the in-house chef. “Large Indian groups usually bring their own chef when visiting. And through them, our chefs have learnt a thing or two about traditional Indian food too, and vice-versa.” Bakubung Lodge hosts cooking classes, more popular amongst accompanying spouses who welcome such activities — all part of the customised package organised by the lodge. 

A 15-minute drive from Bakubung Lodge is Legacy Hotels’ other property popular amongst the MICE segment. Kwa Maritane isn’t very different in its offerings from Bakubung Lodge. They receive about three MICE groups a month on an average who stay for three to four days. 

Apart from the usual game drive, the property’s event planner proposes time at the tennis court, mountain climbing area, and gaming centre for team-building activities. Their conference rooms are built at the back of the property. All four rooms open into a common breakaway area — Rhino for 100 people, Hippo for 16 people, Tau and Nare for 44 people each. Included in the conferencing package are a data projector and screen, microphones, tele-conference set (chargeable as per usage), and high-tea menu. 

Both the lodges also have a business centre with a computer, printer and free internet, not chargeable to in-house guests. A basic MICE package at Bakubung Lodge and Kwa Maritane typically includes one game drive (three hours) per day of the stay, breakfast, and wifi. On certain evenings of the week, a barbecue dinner can be organised at the bush braai, an open-air rustic set-up in the heart of the park. 

For a more modern, and less rustic feel, Sun City Resort is roughly a 3km drive from the bush lodges. This man-made resort-town has four properties within: Cabanas (3-star), Sun City Hotel (4-star), Cascades (5-star), and The Palace (5-star deluxe). Last year (July 2014 to June 2015), 1044 room nights were booked by Indians. Sun City Resort has a total of 1,296 rooms and suites. 

The Palace has five conference rooms on its lower level. These are Royal Chamber (163 sqm), Protea 1 and 2 (81 sqm), Orchid 1 and 2 (81 sqm), Council Room (40 sqm), and Wind Chime Chapel (500 sqm). Each of the Protea, Orchid and Royal Chamber is decorated to emulate an aspect of African culture. 

The Lost City Convention Centre, in the premises has five sections of the Pilanesberg conference room (1,000 to 600 people), three parts of Royal Ballroom (1,200 to 400 people), five Cat rooms (20 to 55 people), four Bird rooms (30 to 100 people), and four Buck rooms (30 to 100 people). 

In the Sun City Hotel is the Letsatsi Conference Centre that has an exclusive reception, auditorium, boardroom and conference rooms. The total capacity of 378 people is broken into smaller rooms for group sizes from 10 to 160. 

“You could say about 50 per cent of Sun City’s revenue is generated from MICE and hotels. The remaining comes from our casinos,” says Herliane Portenschlager, Public Relations and Sites Executive, Sun City Resort. “When I say MICE and hotels,” she continues, “I mean they overlap too because where else will they stay?” I am following her to a car that will take us to the Sun Sky Village built to accommodate a crowd of 6,000. 

It is only a temporary structure until the Entertainment Centre will be completed in November 2016. It will have a gaming centre, retail outlets, restaurants, bars, and conferencing and meeting rooms. In short, it will be much like a mall. 

In the meantime, the temporary set-up isn’t less competitive than what a permanent building will do for meetings and conferences. “We have so many clients who come to us year after year. They book months in advance, and some even book a year in advance. By cancelling bookings just because we’re upgrading the Entertainment Centre, would mean we’re sending them to our competition. It doesn’t make sense, but this structure does,” says Portenschlager as she waves her arm to draw attention to the enormity of the tent. 

Sun City Village is comfortably air-conditioned, has a strong internet signal and is well-lit. Pilanesberg, one of the conference rooms within, can hold 1,000 people and can be divided into two and three parts, so can The Royal Ballroom with a capacity for 1,200 people. Hall of Treasures is usually employed for exhibitions and cocktail dinners for 600 people. And for smaller groups of 75 people, there are the Bird, Buck and Cat rooms that can be broken into four, four and five conference rooms respectively. 

A basic package for conferencing groups arriving at Sun City includes a free hire of any of the conference rooms, mid-morning and late-afternoon tea/coffee, and a light working lunch. An option for vegetarian meals is always available as the number of Indian visitors is high. Portenschlager continues to tell us how important the Indian audience is to Sun City, and perhaps the rest of the Gauteng priovince. About 50 per cent of Indian visitors to South Africa are in the province for business. Most return with families to relive the recreational activities experienced during a MICE visit. 

Hanneli Slabber, Country Manager – India, South African Tourism stated during one our chats: “We have noticed that business travel from India dominates outbound volumes for tourism. Approximately 50,000 Indian outbound travellers to South Africa are business visitors.” 

The province already has a large population of Indians residing here, and the addition of visiting Indians has led to a burst of Indian restaurants. 

Slabber goes on to explain: “South Africa already boasts of 300 Indian restaurants that cater to all kinds of gastronomical cravings including numerous vegetarian and Jain specialties. Catering to the second biggest population of Indian-origin people outside of India; these restaurants are not only equipped with options for Indian’s looking for authentic Indian food but also dish out delicious South African Indian cuisines for those willing to experiment.” 

And so it’s of no surprise how I felt just at home when dining at one such Indian restaurants.