FIJI TOURISM GATHERING CALLED A BUST

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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Feb. 3) - What was supposed to be a four-day meeting in Fiji at which Pacific tourism entrepreneurs could meet potential investors ended Thursday in Nadi with some disgruntled delegates claiming they were cheated as organizers trumpeting its success.

Called Profit - Partnership Roles and Opportunities for Investors in Tourism - the event was billed as the first large-scale one of its kind in the Pacific.

Sponsored by the joint EU-ACP investment agency, Proinvest, the conference had attracted more than 350 delegates, far more than initially expected and was held in the plush setting of the Sheraton Denarau Resort at considerable expense. (Some estimates put the cost of the event at close to $2 million.)

Eager entrepreneurs from across the region, who had dug deep to attend, thought they would be able to meet and present project proposals to equally eager investors. (Although it was free to attend the conference, all other costs were borne by delegates.) But in the end, for most, it was another talk-shop with little actually achieved except for the contacts made and the free food and drinks.

Some of the organizers insist that this meeting was a start down the road to sourcing investment and that massive interest had been created.

One very upset delegate from the Solomon Islands publicly asked the organizers several times why there were no actual investors ready to commit to projects at the meeting. The man claimed they were wrongly informed there would be investors present instead of their agents and middlemen.

His passionate query was responded to by Erik Holm-Petersen, a representative from Carl Bro International, a consultancy firm contracted to oversee the organization of the meeting.

With over 350 pairs of eyes on him, Holm-Petersen said simply: "Investors don't attend conferences."

You could almost hear a collective gasp from an audience shocked into silence in the luxurious Golden Ballroom.

Holm-Petersen continued: "Do you expect investors to come here with a bucket of money to hand out to you? It doesn't work like that in the real world."

Though he had a point, some of those attending the conference felt patronized by the way their concerns had been brushed aside.

Another delegate from Micronesia, although not as impassioned as his Solomons colleague, stood up and said that despite being given a page-and-a-half of names listing people to meet, not one of them was present when he looked for them the next day.

True to the bureaucracy that it is, the EU's Proinvest had contracted Carl Bro to organize the meet. Carl Bro in turn hired a local agency, as well as international ones. These people in turn outsourced to other firms to manage various aspects of the conference. This, as one senior regional journalist described it, created the perfect buck-passing system. A query made to Proinvest would be directed to Carl Bro, which would be directed elsewhere - indicative of how complex the entire organization of this one event had become.

One of the key features of the conference was, supposedly, a sophisticated matchmaking computer program that would pair investors and businesspeople.

The program threw up over 1,000 meetings, unthinkable in the four days and ironically without the big investors.

To be fair, lots of meetings did take place and some undoubtedly were fruitful. And most - not all - workshops presented useful information. Some panelists offered great insights with practical experience. But by the final day, there were lots of empty seats, a sign people had lost interest.

The overall impression from delegates was what they thought would lead to great new opportunities instead led nowhere except perhaps to the fine sandy beaches of the Sheraton Denarau Resort.

February 4, 2005

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