Forget the bulging biceps and cheering crowds – for the hundreds of chief executives and celebrities who poured into Beijing last month, the games were all about slurping Champagne and rubbing shoulders at glitzy parties.
This was the biggest corporate schmooze fest ever to hit China, and a long-awaited opportunity for the country’s rough-edged capital city, too often in Shanghai’s shadow, to show that it can party with the best of them. For corporate sponsors shelling out millions of dollars to host the best parties, the challenge was to add luster to their brands by convincing the world that they – and Beijing – were cool.
Adidas, the official sportswear sponsor of the Beijing games, kicked off the Olympic party season with a lavish gold-themed bash for hundreds of guests that netted a string of famous Olympians, models and film stars.
Not to be outdone, Budweiser – which fought it out with Tsingtao and Yanjing as one of the three official beer sponsors – took over the National Agricultural Exhibition Hall to set up its Club Bud party venue in central Beijing. Club Bud came complete with a nightclub, lounge bar and outdoor pool bar, and hosted eight parties for a total of around 15,000 guests.
But the gold medal for corporate schmoozing went to Beijing’s funkiest property developer, Soho China, which invited 1,000 guests to the exquisitely modernist Commune Club by the Great Wall for a night of stargazing. Hosted by Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the starriest couple in mainland business, guests included media mogul Rupert Murdoch, New York fashion designer Vivienne Tam, US music legend Quincy Jones and Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung.
Does all this matter? Clearly, yes, for the companies spending the dollars.
For corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola – which pulled out the stops with three specially built venues – hosting glitzy parties was part of a wider strategy to use the games to imprint their brand names on the minds of a global audience in general and the mainland China market in particular.
But the parties were also intended to sprinkle stardust on international perceptions of China and its capital city.
Tired of being known as the workshop of the world, China wants to become an attractive international destination for genuine tourists, not just the multitude of business visitors who presently skew the so-called tourist statistics. And if Beijing is going to become a true international city – a place with international buzz rather than simply a place to get a foot in the mainland market – it needs to get rid of its dour international image.
Increasingly, Beijing’s hardware is in place. It has a new world-class airport, a growing subway network and an impressive collection of iconic, avant-garde buildings. The city has been greened, cleaned and – on a rare sunny day – looks quite presentable. What Beijing needs now is the software. That includes more international know-how, more international creativity and, yes, more international cool.
The games showed the world that Beijing is not just the muscular capital of an emerging superpower, but also a city where the biggest global stars and chief executives feel at home – a sophisticated place where you can have fun.
Although political control-freakery remains a problem, Beijing’s star is rising. The global glitterati have flown home – but they will be back.