Conference tourism is receiving a boost in Calabar as investors take to the development of ultra-modern event centres in the Cross River State capital.
Off the Murtala Mohammed Highway, extreme north of Northern Industrial Estate, Calabar and over 500 metres away from a lush green rubber plantation stands an ultra-modern building flashing two colours - milk and orange. This structure that looks regal in wall finishing is the Venetian Arena, the latest event centre in the Cross River State Capital.
Extending from the ever busy highway and embracing a broad spectrum of acres of land, Venetian Arena and Venetian Mall by the road and owned by Mike Ogodo are beautiful in architectural design and strategic in location. The two have added to business and leisure drive of the state government.
Venetian Arena is one of those conference centres that have mushroomed in the city. The bourgeoning tourism industry in the state and the traffic of tourists all year round as a result of the peace, serenity and neatness of Calabar have made the city an alternative to others in the hosting of local, national and international conferences.
While tourism and business currents have obviously flowed in all directions in Cross River State, there is little doubt the vision of the State Government is beginning to yield fruits. As a result, more investors and tourists are coming to the state for business or leisure. In all these, the economy is the better for it.
There was a time in the 8th century when Europeans made contact with Calabar and it became the centre of commerce in the Southern Protectorate. During that era when slave trade also boomed, nothing of importance in economics and politics happened outside Calabar, especially within the confines of the Marina Beach. Relics of merchandise of that era still bestride the beach.
As time went on, no European merchant of note made it to Africa without visiting Calabar, the then trading post in sub-Saharan Africa. Upon Nigeria's attainment of nationhood in1960, the centre of Calabar's nightlife and of leisure was the constellation of clubs, cinema houses, cultural dance groups that helped to define the paradise nature of the city.
Time and other withering Post independence dynamics dimmed Calabar's glamour, and attention shifted to other Nigerian cities south coast. But through God's intervention, Nigeria returned to constitutional rule in 1999 whereupon Cross River State was initiated into a visionary leadership- new forces that triggered a renaissance. The young men that found themselves at the corridors of power decided to anchor their economic policy on tourism and agriculture.
And with the ground made fertile for tourism development, the state government took to the development of tourist sites and investment in hospitality.
This explains why many hotels now dot Calabar and beyond. But these hospitality outfits are far from being enough. On the heels of hotels are ancillary tourism facilities to boost the industry. Restaurants, arts and craft shops, event centres, tour guides amongst others come handy here.
Venetian Arena is about three kilometers away from the Calabar International Conference Centre (CICC) under construction near Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort.
But the sheer atmosphere of Venetian Arena sets the tone; an imposing edifice surrounded by generous onsite parking; a site for swimming pool decked with green arcade; a sit out for relaxation by guests and fun seekers. The parking lot accommodates 150 cars.
This centre also offers a full range of conference services-access to recreational facilities; classic exterior architecture; air-conditioned interior; nine conveniences; an elaborate hall for 1,500 guests. If you are planning a conference, workshop or marriage reception that needs a combination of different facilities to feel comfortable, you are likely to find a unique selection at Venetian Arena.
According to the proprietor, Venetian Arena is a purpose design mixed event centre which offers fully fitted prestige halls, highly furnished and well lit too. All facilities have been furnished to the highest standard and include sophisticated air-conditioning, full access raised floors and high quality suspended ceilings and recessed lighting. Last December, this centre hosted the sixth Carnival Calabar Queen pageant. Guests were impressed by its facilities.
Mr. Ogodo is a chartered accountant by profession. He has worked in some commercial banks in the country including Devcom Merchant Bank where he left as senior manager in 1994. He relocated to Calabar in 1996 and went into rubber and cocoa business. He is into exportation of cocoa. Few years ago, he ventured into real estate development.
"I bought this land on which Venetian Arena and Venetian Mall are standing in 2007 to build a hotel, but the proliferation of hotels in Calabar and manner of their operation made me to change my mind. I took to investment in event centre to complement the tourism drive of the state government. There's an aspect of tourism outside hospitality that is missing in Calabar and that is a spacious state of the arts event centre.
"This centre is designed to have a swimming pool and other facilities that can attract and keep visitors to Cross River State. We are developing a smaller hall beside to take care of 250 and 300 guests. There is a sit out annex of the centre at the shopping mall. We are providing every facility that goes with a conference hall. We are working with vendors to ensure that we get a combo package that pertains to having their conference, workshop, marriage reception amongst others, from dressing to food.
"The uniqueness of this place is that it offers potential users class that you find in the western world. We went out of our way to make this place beautiful and comfortable. It has nine toilets, eleven entrances, two kitchens, a huge backstage and two charging rooms. Low-income earners can hire this place. We are sensitive about this. We'll not price ourselves out of the middle class", he stated.
An architect, George Duke designed the structure, which gulped about N500m in construction cost. The shopping mall consumed N300m. Ogodo said it was an insult on his person for anyone to say he was fronting for a top government functionary. He revealed that he obtained a loan from a bank to develop the two structures and was the sole owner. He is also into cocoa cultivation in the state.
Ogodo is on the quiet side. He likes his works to speak for him. As a devout Christian, husband and father, his principles are anchored on biblical injunctions. He is not into politics and hates the way it is played in Nigeria. His business philosophy is prudence in resource management and fairness in all business dealings. To him, hard work and patience are keys to any investment.
But why is Calabar today the hub of conference tourism? Many factors account for this. Cross River State is blessed with many tourist sites that have been developed to international standards. The flagship is the Obudu Ranch Resort. People visit these tourists all year round for fun, sightseeing or relaxation.
In Nigeria, Calabar is one of the cleanest cities. It has won the cleanest capital city awards many times. Calabar is clean and green. The city is serene with a coastal ambience. The mangrove vegetation on its fringes refreshes the city centre with soothing breeze especially in the morning and evening. Its streets are swept clean by women employed for that purpose, while the lawns that fringe the streets are mowed on regular basis.
Calabar too is Nigeria's gourmet headquarter. Here, different cuisines, delicacies are served. Famous among them are Afang Soup, Edikang Ekong, Ekpang Nkukwuo, Afia Efere and Abaak among others. These dishes are well prepared and served too. Thus, other Nigerians desirous of Calabar food prefer to have their conferences in the city. The crime rate is low and security well organised.
An average Calabar resident is receptive to visitors. The women are hospitable, caring and know the way to a man's heart. And ever since the State Government introduced the Calabar Christmas Festival and its Carnival Star event, the city has become a centre of global attention. These variables make it a veritable venue for conference tourism.
The world today is in love with Calabar. Politicians, businessmen and women, bureaucrats, fun seekers amongst others vie for invitation to attend conferences, seminars or workshops in Calabar. Tourism to the state has gone from privilege to fad. Tourist sites are attracting more visitors. Indeed in the situation ethics of economic diversification, many opportunities abound for investment. Conference tourism is set to lead the pack.