African nation delegates turn to Valley Forge tourism experts for advice

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As they prepare to host a big-league global conference this summer, delegates from the African nations of Zambia and Zimbabwe recently turned to the hospitality pros in our area for some tips.

The cities of Livingstone in Zambia and Victoria Falls in neighboring Zimbabwe are on the cusp of branding themselves as tourism destinations, so the world will be watching closely in August as 4,000 delegates and business people arrive for the 20th General Assembly of the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

“Their interest was to see what kinds of facilities we have here to host large groups for meetings and conventions,” noted Paul Decker, president of the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, who led the delegates on tours of the Valley Forge Convention Center, the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center and the Visitor Center at Valley Forge National Historical Park.

“The philosophy of the United Nations World Tourism Organization is that the more people travel, the more understanding there will be between cultures and the less conflict there will be in the world,” Decker said. “Looking at it with that eye we were asked to walk them through the process of hosting a big convention. They looked to us rather than Philadelphia for their answers because they knew the facilities they would see in Philadelphia were beyond their abilities right now. But we’re all doing the same thing, regardless of how big we are, and when you host people you have to do certain things.”

Zimbabwe Tourism and Hospitality Minister Walter Mzembi has said in interviews that a successful global conference would ultimately result in an endorsement of his country by the international community as an important African state on the socioeconomic landscape.

In attendance for the Valley Forge area tour were Tourism and Arts Deputy Minister David Phiri of the Zambia Tourism Board, Chief Executive Felix Chaila and Livingstone Town Clerk Vivian Chikoti.

“By their comments this was a very successful day for them,” Decker said. “They admitted they are somewhat behind in planning this and don’t have all the expertise in the world to host things like this. The way we approached it was to create a checklist for them, for communicating, telling the world where the conference was taking place and what they could look forward to when they get there. With 4,000 people visiting two cities, they have to have all those people walk away with a tremendous good feeling about their experience and they want their own people to understand the value in hosting these events.”

With one successful world conference under their belt, the countries could host many more events in the future and turn to private investors to help build their infrastructure, Decker noted. “They want to get out the bigger message back home that if they can pull this off, more business will come their way. I’m pretty sure that was some of the motivation of the United Nations for holding this thing in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Last year it was held in Seoul in South Korea, so can you imagine the light years of difference, holding it in a major high-tech industrial nation?”

The delegates eagerly “soaked up” all the information Decker and his staff could give them, he recalled.

“They couldn’t take notes fast enough,” he said. “It was a very positive experience and a very rewarding experience for me and my staff because when you help people do something and they are so appreciative of it and tell you it’s going to make a big difference in how they execute their event, you have to feel good about yourself.”

Touring the Expo Center and hearing its history, in particular, was an eye opener for the group, Decker allowed.

“The Expo Center is one of the best examples we have of how we changed our focus from manufacturing to service. They used to make safes there, and after the company went out of business or moved, the building laid dormant for many years. It wasn’t producing any revenue for the owner of the building or generating any business in the community, and all of a sudden in 2009 it opens up as an Expo Center and has been going gangbusters ever since.”

After hearing the Expo tale, the city manager from Livingstone thought of two huge buildings back home that could be put to similar use, Decker said.

“It’s like a light bulb went off in their heads seeing what we have here, so that was a great thing,” Decker said.

The delegates were further advised on catering and hotel room management.

“There will be people from all over the world coming there with different food restrictions and cultural taboos, which they need to keep in mind,” Decker said. “With the hotels, we cautioned them you don’t want to be giving all your rooms to the media and security people when the ministers of tourism may be told there’s no room at the inn because their assistants might have been slow to the gun. So they needed to know what to do six months before the event down to two weeks before. When they saw all this they said ‘you’ve done all our work for us.’ ”

The experience was mutually beneficial, Decker said.

“We learned something from this get-together as well, that these people understand the value of tourism a lot better than some of our elected leaders here in the United States. Our government hasn’t really had a national tourism organization in close to 20 years.”