WITH a population of 1.3 billion, the fastest growing economy in the world and its role as the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, the People's Republic of China has stepped into the spotlight of special events. Here, two American event producers share their insights into working there.
Peekskill, N.Y.-based S+A Creative Services was part of the creative team behind the opening night ceremonies for the Fortune magazine Global Forum, held in Beijing last May. The forum brings together some 600 business and government “thought leaders” to examine world economic and political trends. The setting was Beijing's 580-year-old Temple of Heaven, a park-like setting consisting of manicured grounds and 10 architecturally distinct areas.
In January, San Jose, Calif.-based Ellen Michaels Presents created a networking reception at the Grand Hyatt Beijing for 300 China- and Asia-based business associates of a California venture capital firm. The event heralded the opening of the venture capital firm's Beijing office.
Q: Which event tasks were easy to accomplish in China?
Christine Somers, president, S+A Creative Services: In China, corporate events are an emerging industry. Our team needed to develop a common “vision” so that we could understand the expectations from both sides. Unlike in the West, labor is the most inexpensive line item. The Chinese are willing to build or create many elements that in the West would have been cost-prohibitive. The registration signage was embroidered silk, and the set pieces were handcrafted. The workmanship was beautiful.
In designing our set, our team followed standard Western procedure by creating multiple drawings with meticulous measurements of the venue, stating size and placement of set pieces, stage and screens. One evening, our Chinese government partners brought in a large Chinese crew that put the outdoor screens in place without consulting our drawings. When the safety committee conducted their review, they said one of the screens was too close to one of the ancient buildings. That evening the Chinese crew returned to move the setup two inches. In the West, we would never think of doing that because of the cost of labor.
Q: Which event tasks were tough to accomplish?
CS: The lack of a common event language played out over the floral centerpieces. Our team requested upscale, elegant centerpieces for the opening night event. Our Western vision was one of floral pieces designed with bold colors, possibly with roses, calla lilies or orchids. When the local vendor returned with the samples, they were created using pastel colors such as powder blue and pink. They had used peonies, which is the national flower of China. While these arrangements were lovely, they did not meet the need of a Western corporate event.
Patti Fortunati, CMP, program manager, Ellen Michaels Presents: I wouldn't say that any part of planning is more difficult in China if you know what you are doing. Basically, to be successful in China or any international location, you need to have extensive international experience and great local partners. Ellen Michaels Presents has both, so there really aren't any obstacles.
One challenge is the time zone difference. From the West Coast, there is a 15- to 16-hour time difference depending on the time of year, so the end of our day is the start of their next day. This sometimes requires late-night calls, but it's workable.
Also, sometimes certain menu items don't translate especially well from Mandarin to English. An example: A Mandarin menu may be translated to read, “hand-pulled noodles with stewed fungus.” “Fungus” is the correct term, but we would of course use the word “mushroom” instead.
Q: How would you describe the maturity of the Chinese special event industry?
CS: Capitalism is just starting to emerge in China. The concept of corporate events is new there, and so are special events. Past events have been state or governmental in nature and have been organized and implemented by government personnel. State protocol is clearly defined in China — as in other governments around the world — and as a result, there is not the kind of flexibility that is common in a corporate event.
PF: They have advanced rapidly in a remarkably short time. Virtually all services for any type of program can be delivered. They are tremendously interested in doing business with the West. They are enthusiastic and responsive to customer needs. If a request is unusual for them, they will always try and deliver, and they will really want to understand why it is important. In other words, they are very interested in our standards and practices. I get the sense that they see our work as the benchmark for the industry, so they are very interested in how we go about planning programs.
Q: If a foreign event company wants to do business in China, what partners are crucial to have there?
CS: At the time we were in China, there were not really any “partners” in mainland China. While the Chinese government was encouraging us to use local companies, we found that we had to draw on resources from Taiwan and Europe to support technical items like audiovisual.
PF: You must have proven and experienced local contacts who can deliver whatever is required, which we do. We work with all hotels directly, we partner with full-service local DMCs, and we have a whole network of production professionals and audiovisual partners. Between these three groups, you can deliver virtually any type of program, from a user group to an incentive and everything in between.
As with any international program, you do have to have an understanding of local culture and be respectful of that at all times while delivering Western-based programs. Anyone doing programs in China needs to make sure that their U.S.-based meeting planning company has extensive international experience.
Ellen Michaels Presents, 408/264-0108, www.emp1.com; S+A Creative Services, 914/734-1617, www.somersandassociates.com. Next month, we share the China diary of Will Holditch, CERP, CSEP, a Texas party rental professional who spent two months last year working in China.