by Anel Lewis 25 Jun 2020

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The CTICC becomes a beacon of hope

From Africa’s leading conference venue to the continent’s largest field hospital – the Cape Town International Convention Centre’s transition to the Hospital of Hope has been inspiring. At the helm at this remarkable time in the CTICC’s history is new CEO Taubie Motlhabane. We spoke to her.

When Taubie Motlhabane took over as CEO of the Cape Town International Convention (CTICC) at the end of January 2020, she could never have foreseen that within just a few months, she’d be hosting a field hospital at the CTICC. 

But that is exactly what happened when a global pandemic put a halt to all conferences and exhibitions, and Lockdown restrictions meant that the CTICC could no longer operate as an events venue. “We went from running a conference centre to running a hospital,” says Motlhabane.

Recognised as the leading conference venue in Africa, the CTICC is a key driver of economic growth in the city. But its latest accolade, as host to Africa’s largest field hospital - established to provide an essential health care facility during the coronavirus pandemic - may well be its most remarkable contribution in its 17-year history. As Western Cape premier Alan Winde said when his cabinet opted to use the venue as a hospital: “Since opening its doors, the CTICC has been an important part of the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape, contributing to the travel and events economy, and creating thousands of jobs … its use as a hospital to care for hundreds of ill people during this global pandemic is its most significant contribution to our region yet.”

Tasso Evangelinos, CEO of the Central City Improvement District (CCID), agrees: “The setting up of a field hospital inside the CTICC is to be applauded as it is a huge plus for the city. I believe this is the CTICC’s biggest and most important event yet and certainly the one that will have the most impact and the most far-reaching consequences. The CTICC can be very proud of its contribution to the city’s fight against Covid-19.”


According to the CTICC’s 2019 annual report, it contributed R6.5 billion to the national GDP in the 2018/2019 financial year, and R4.5 billion to the Western Cape’s GGP. Furthermore, it allowed for the creation of 14 620 jobs. In 2018/2019, the CTICC reported a turnover of R277 million, with an 11 % growth in revenue from the previous year. 

Says Tim Harris, CEO of trade and investment promotion agency, Wesgro: “There is no bigger venue for us when it comes to hosting global exhibitions than the CTICC. Exhibitions are big business globally – there were around 30 000 exhibitions hosted around the world last year totalling up to $137 billion worth of business. They’re also a key economic enabler for the Cape, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and co-operation between sectors.”

The CTICC’s impact on local tourism income is considerable, with events generating an additional 566 057 room nights in the Western Cape in 2019. It has hosted numerous congresses, major trade fairs, exhibitions and festivals since its doors opened in 2003. More than 90 international events had been confirmed until mid-2027. 


Volunteers from Ladles of Love which had been operating its feeding scheme from the CTICC.

Covid-19 and Lockdown restrictions have hit the CTICC hard, says Motlhabane. The impact was felt even before Lockdown started on 26 March 2020, when gatherings were initially limited to no more than 100 people. “We have seen a huge impact on our revenue. If nothing happens (no events) from March until December 2020, the CTICC will have lost around R100 million in postponements and R45 million in cancellations.” The CTICC is not alone: the entire events industry is reeling from the impact of Covid-19. Even so, it has responded swiftly to this changing environment. Soon after events stopped, the CTICC teamed up with CBD non-profit organisation (NPO) Ladles of Love to provide more than 1 500 square meters of space – comprising an exhibition hall and kitchen – as a temporary headquarters from 27 April to 30 June 2020. Since 20 March 2020, the NPO has provided 2.5 million meals to Cape Town’s most vulnerable. This would not have been possible without the CTICC's assistance. Says Motlhabane: “We were honoured to be approached to help.” 

James Vos, the City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for economic opportunities, commended the CTICC’s involvement, saying: “This iconic facility contributes significantly to the City of Cape Town in terms of revenue, jobs, goods and services. Now, it is stepping up to assist vulnerable residents.”


Similar spaces around the world have been repurposed as either quarantine facilities or field hospitals. ExCel Centre in London provided an excellent example of how an exhibition space could be converted into a medical facility, says Motlhabane. With its expansive halls, the CTICC lends itself to being used as a hospital.

Aptly named the Hospital of Hope, the facility, commissioned by the Western Cape Provincial Government, opened on 8 June 2020. This was just a month after work started on the conversion of four halls, – usually filled with delegates attending meetings and conferences – into state-of-the-art hospital wards ready to accept patients.

The CTICC has waived the cost of venue hire, offering it to the provincial government for use as a medical facility. The temporary infrastructure build, operating and catering costs for the initial hire period is approximately R47 million. The agreement is for the hospital to remain in place until September 2020, with the option to extend on a month-to-month basis until the end of the year.

Motlhabane explains that halls of the CTICC have been converted into hospital wards, with oxygen provided for each of the 862 beds. The massive oxygen tank, resembling a silo, stands outside the CTICC and is visible from the highway. An administrative area that also houses offices for medical staff and other essential services is incorporated.

In stark contrast to the way visitors to the CTICC would have entered the building for an event such as the Jazz Festival or a conference, patients arrive via ambulance to the back entrance. The marshalling yard is now a multipurpose site, with patients’ portable ablution facilities, as well as stations for physiotherapy and other treatments. 

Motlhabane explains that the Hospital of Hope is a stepdown facility where patients come to recover from Covid-19. The first patient was admitted on 8 June. The management of the hospital rests solely with the Western Cape Department of Health. 

The 40-strong commissioning team focused on various aspects, including infrastructure, engineering, IT, health, technology and staffing, and more than 100 people from various contracting companies worked on the site. The hospital was erected in four phases: planning and design, construction and commissioning, the fitting and testing of the wards and finally the phased activation of the beds.


Hospital beds at the CTICC.

The design objective was, of course, to reduce the risk of infection. As such, each bed is numbered and linked to a paperless system so that all admissions and paperwork can be done without moving files and papers around. No visitors are allowed, but patients have access to Wi-Fi to contact loved ones. Rainbow-themed artwork drawn by children has also been placed above every bed, to add some cheer. A specialised waste management system incinerates medical waste and the staff showers are on a separate floor so that the 900-odd medical staff can shower and change after their shifts to minimise the risk to their families. 

Motlhabane adds that the CTICC is also supplying these patient meals. The CTICC’s food and beverage team, in consultation with the Department of Health and with strict adherence to healthy dietary guidelines, prepares the meals for patients. Says Motlhabane: “It has been a huge learning curve for us, and a great opportunity to expand our skills and knowledge to do things differently.” The CTICC’s elevators have been converted into “dummy waiters” to move patient meals, packaged in disposable cartons, from the kitchens below the hospital to the wards. 


The economic fallout from the pandemic will be significant, says Motlhabane. “The CTICC is fortunate in that we had a lot of years of good success, and we have therefore been able to slightly cushion the blow, for now.” The hosting of the hospital has also helped to bring in some revenue to keep the lights on, she says.

Social distancing will be a part of the CTICC’s reality for at least the next two years, says Motlhabane. “As much as people think things will go back to normal (when Lockdown is lifted), it will absolutely not be the same.” This means that occupancy rates at the CTICC are likely to drop. Finding the balance between still being able to operate successfully as a business and understanding that event organisers are also struggling to generate revenue, will be a challenge.

Furthermore, the CTICC’s costs are likely to escalate as it adjusts to new ways of doing business. Stringent hygiene protocols and additional cleaning services, especially of hard surfaces in high-traffic areas, will add to the CTICC’s running costs. Other steps to ensure the safety of staff and visitors will include screening at access points, and isolation rooms should they be needed. The CTICC may also consider appointing an occupational health nurse to be permanently on-site. All these have cost implications, says Motlhabane.

It will also be challenging to set up for events, as the build-up teams will be smaller (because of social distancing) and will, therefore, take longer. And, it will be a while before events reach capacity again, Motlhabane adds. “It is unlikely that people will travel internationally to visit a conference or attend an event very soon. This is the reality for the very near future and short term. It is, however, not going to be like that forever. Normalcy will return.”


Harris is confident the CTICC will once again contribute to the regional and national economy. “Post the Covid-19 pandemic, we believe that exhibitions will play a key role in reconnecting and restarting communities, sectors and industries. Even if executed in a new way in the future, exhibitions will still be an efficient way to connect businesses to marketplaces, and the individuals thereof to each other.”

Evangelinos adds: “It must be said that this is the most successful convention centre in Africa and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are a temporary setback. I have no doubt that it will bounce back post-Covid-19.”

The CTICC has the capacity to host all manner of events, from small meetings to 20 000 delegate conferences between its conference venues, auditoria, exhibition halls and breakaway rooms. But, with the full take-up of its venue unlikely for the next two years, Motlhabane is looking at alternative uses for the CTICC so that it continues to generate revenue.

One option is to lease the space to businesses such as call centres, says Motlhabane, as many may be struggling to adhere to social distancing guidelines because of space constraints. The sizeable halls of the CTICC would offer an alternative venue for these businesses. Spaces usually used for exhibitions could also be used by manufacturing companies for the assembly of small to large-scale components, for instance. 

But for now, the CTICC’s main focus is on running Africa’s largest Covid-19 response facility. “We are grateful we are able to be part of the solution,” says Motlhabane. “We have to get this (pandemic) behind us so that we can get back to hosting events.”

Premier Alan Winde at the Hospital of Hope - (click here for video

IMAGES: Ladles of Love, City of Cape Town, CTICC