As companies adjust to new fiscal realities, off-site meeting and event budgets are being slashed. Yet the Chinese market still appears vibrant, with a large number of venue options operating, and new venues still opening. According to the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) sector is projected to grow to US$2.9 billion by 2010 and US$14.6 billion by 2020.
"The China market is at an interesting stage," said Shannon Sweeney, editor at CEI Asia Pacific, a MICE industry publication. "There are plenty of new hotels in Beijing and Shanghai, new convention facilities in Beijing, and all of this is bookended by the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Expo."
Glut of options
The kinds of places opening up speak volumes about what industry leaders are thinking. Hilton Hotels recently decided to open China’s first Waldorf Astoria Hotel on the Bund in Shanghai in 2011. In Beijing, the newly opened The Opposite House offers a mix of traditional and modern interior designs in the midst of lively Sanlitun.
In Chengdu, one of the most economically dynamic cities in China’s southwest, it is possible to host meetings of almost any size at the InterContinental Century City. This glut of options means that the only factors inhibiting meeting and event bookings in China are time, money, and marketing.
"The danger these new facilities face is that they are private-sector, and can only do so much in terms of attracting business to themselves and the city," said Sweeney.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board plans to take the future of its MICE future into its own hands, by starting Meetings and Exhibitions Hong Kong (MEHK). MEHK is already promoting dual destination itineraries with Macau, and heavily marketing what Hong Kong has to offer in terms of meetings and incentives packages.
According to Sweeney, Shanghai and Beijing are at the stage where the local governments need to create their own convention bureaus.
"This is the sort of message that international associations and some large corporations are looking for," she said. "Sure, the hotels and facilities are in place – but what can the destination do for us at an official level that will make us think about bringing 10,000 people to town for a large-scale event?"
This could be what causes problems for second-tier cities, which unlike Beijing and Shanghai do not immediately conjure mental images of sophistication in the minds of most Westerners and many Chinese.
For example, Chengdu boasts a large convention center that plays host to the annual West China Trade Fair, and a busy airport with direct flights from all major cities in China, Bangkok and Europe. Chengdu also has enough communications bandwidth to allow businesses to connect with clients and partners in Europe and in China’s coastal cities. Despite these advantages, Chengdu’s MICE sector remains nascent. Convincing potential clients to host events in China’s interior requires better marketing and more multinational investment on the ground.
However, even good marketing can’t persuade most companies, which don’t want to fly hours away from their offices just to save money on facility costs. William Chea, general manager of the Sheraton Changsha in Hunan, says that most companies want to meet in the same city they work in, or in a "resort" location.
"Having a company move over to Changsha to do a meeting is very rare," Chea said. "That’s despite the fact that our costs are around 40-50% cheaper. You can’t compare us with a location like Sanya."
The entire meeting planning process requires time: time to plan, time to organize venue details, and of course time for the meeting itself. Anything that can save time, and can keep business people connected during a meeting is going to be a boon. After all, time is money.
Fortunately, many venues have made it easy to initiate the booking process with online forms. Quick, easy-to-use, detailed submissions take the hassle out of being put on hold, and get clients a same-day quote with follow-up questions. The Shangri-La Hotel’s online booking form, for example, is quite user-friendly, giving clients access to any one of the Shangri-La’s hotels in China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Once you have your space booked, staying connected to real-time information is key for many businesses during the actual meeting. Andrew Thomson, deputy COO at KPMG Asia Pacific in Shanghai uses the JW Marriott for large conferences. He always sets up a dedicated business service center next door to the meeting room, giving delegates remote access to their offices.
"I won’t have people disconnected," Thomson said.
The technology to stay connected and run a visually impressive meeting does not come cheaply, though. At the Westin Bund Centre in Shanghai, a meeting for 20 people with projection equipment and coffee service costs up to US$3,000. If dates are flexible, discounts are available. For example, the Kerry Centre in Beijing offers what it calls "super value dates," offering discounted rates for meeting rooms on particular days. These dates are searchable online, and available over the phone.
While budgets may be tight, the increase in the number of venues make this a good time to hold an event in China. Costs are lower, selection is wider and the beaches and golf courses of Sanya are still available for post-conference schmoozing.
In addition to hotels and traditional convention centers, a little bit of creativity and a lot of technology has engendered a wide variety of alternative ways to convene and stay productive.
For many companies, the amount of time and money it takes to meet face-to-face isn’t always worth it. Thanks to deepening bandwidth connections, however, it is now possible to meet virtually in second generation 3D web environments.
Linden Lab’s SecondLife is the market leader but there are a host of Chinese competitors in the works such as HiPiHi. These virtual worlds are structurally similar to online role-playing game environments like World of Warcraft, the only difference being attendees usually don’t have to worry about being eaten by monsters.
While virtual meeting spaces cannot duplicate true face-to-face interaction, they do offer compensating advantages. In virtual reality, conference attendees can do things impossible in the real world, like flying or viewing virtual product prototypes.
For a time, bandwidth sharing issues prevented users in China from communicating reliably and securely with users in Europe or the US. SecondLife responded by releasing a product called SecondLife Grid, which allows companies to site a virtual environment on their own servers, thus micromanaging performance, optimizing bandwidth and guaranteeing security. IBM and NASA already conduct conferences in SecondLife Grid, and virtual conferencing service providers are springing up online. Unfortunately, SecondLife still lacks a Chinese language interface while HiPiHi’s beta version doesn’t work in English.
Regus has 30 locations in mainland China and Hong Kong. Meeting packages can vary by location due to facility size. Meeting rooms generally have access to projectors and screens, plasma TVs, wireless internet, teleconferencing and video conferencing equipment, catering services and a kitchenette. www.regus.com
You can book a meeting room through Servcorp in any one of their nine China locations with a quick phone call, or by signing up online. All Servcorp offices are interconnected, making it possible to hold meetings between locations, print documents from Shanghai in Beijing or even work with any one of their other global locations from a Servcorp meeting room in China. All Servcorp centers have at least one boardroom and one small meeting room. www.servcorp.net
For less sterile ambiance, the Bookworm chain does a brisk event business by combining the features of a café, library, restaurant, bar, and community space. There are two locations in Beijing, two in Suzhou, and one in Chengdu; management is considering a Shanghai location. There is no charge for reserving space.
The main Beijing branch can accommodate up to 120 people, while the Ying Yang branch can hold 30. In Suzhou, the main branch holds up to 70 people, and the Pinjiang branch 30. The Chengdu location can comfortably seat 100. Meetings have access to a projector, screen, microphones, and in some locations, video conferencing equipment. Attendees typically end up browsing the library, and staying for an extra drink. www.chinabookworm.com
If you have the money to buy the equipment, video conferencing is becoming an attractive alternative to travel. Popular products include Hewlett Packard’s Halo, Microsoft Live Meeting and Skype. While initial costs for a system like Halo can be high, Andrew Thomson of KPMG believes that his company’s switch to video conferencing for internal communication has more than paid for itself in the short time they have used it.
Videoconferencing is not just for large companies either. The general manager of a manufacturing firm in western China, who asked not to be named, said he is considering buying video conferencing equipment to facilitate daily contact with factories across China. He prefers videoconferencing because a telephone conversation doesn’t allow you to observe non-verbal reactions. One drawback is that videoconferencing is insecure when linking with another system with different security specifications.