Anyone pursuing business interests in China will quickly become accustomed to two things: an absence of certainty and the importance of the "big meeting".
Usually taking place over an equally big meal, the big meeting serves to develop the relationships, lines of communication and mutual understanding that grease the wheels of business in the Middle Kingdom.
Since China started opening up to foreign investment, the tradition of the big meeting has found a still relatively new but profitable outlet in the form of a booming event management industry.
"In Chinese culture we like to have meetings and conferences, so it is only natural for this to become a major business," said Samuel Wu, an industry veteran who has worked at several of Shanghai's major event management firms.
Just how big is difficult to say; unlike trade shows, which must register with the local government, business conferences do not require official authorization. A recent survey by the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office estimated that 70% of Shanghai's five-star hotels were in the process of holding business conferences at any given time.
The boom in conferences has set major hotel chains scrambling for increased space and facilities.
"We're constantly busy, even with added capacity we're seeing growth that has met and exceeded our projections and we're looking for stronger growth next year," said Harry Pangalos, director of event management at Shanghai's Shangri-La Hotel.
According to Larry Li, president of conference organizer CDMC, based on venue prices alone, China is already the hottest conference spot in Asia. The market is expected to become hotter still. As China concludes its WTO accession period in 2007, many conference planners are expecting foreign firms to step up the finalization of their own China strategies.
"We've been seeing 20%-a-year growth for the last five years or so," Li said. "We expect 2007 to be the high water mark."
Greeks bearing gifts
As with any booming industry in China, event management has attracted its fair share of cheats and fly-by-nighters. Some organizers promise high-ranking speakers who never materialize or who simply pack up and disappear after they receive payment from conference goers.
On the other hand, the same low barriers to entry and relatively low capital requirements that attract the con artists have also driven the number of legitimate conferences through the roof.
"When I started in this business, the fax machine was like an ATM, you just couldn't miss," said Wu. "Now there's a lot of competition for conference ticket sales."
Figuring out which conference to attend and which ones to avoid can add a great deal of stress and there are enough "can't miss" conferences around that attending every single one could fill up an executive's calendar in no time.
Still, Larry Li is keen to defend the industry.
"These business conferences give foreign firms access to state-owned industry executives and bureaucrats who otherwise would be very cautious about talking with them, as well clarifying important regulation.
"Some firms aren't credible, but just like everything else here you just have to get references and be careful if you want big rewards."