European auto-manufacturing executives seeking options for offsite meetings and company retreats are laying a trail towards Shanghai’s satellite cities using road and rail.
Management teams from the Shanghai Volkswagen plant in the east of the city began to notice the charms of water towns such as Suzhou and Wuxi. In turn, such cities are embracing meetings and incentives as other corporate meeting organisers follow the path taken by their counterparts in the auto industry.
The nation’s high-speed rail connections are making travel to secondary cities much easier, as is the case with Shanghai and destinations in East China. Travelling to Nanjing – 301km northwest of Shanghai’s Hongqiao Station, for instance, takes just over 70 minutes on the non-stop express route; while journey times to Kunshan, Wuxi and Suzhou have also been reduced.
Gloria Hotel event teams in Suzhou and Wuxi were among the first to highlight the trend to visiting trade journalists, and companies based in the big city now comprise a market segment for meetings.
Shanghai is an ideal starting point for post-meeting itineraries taking in the water cities of East China. To the southwest, train journeys to Ningbo take an average of 2.5 hours and with the opening of the Hangzhou Bay and Xiangshan bridges, road connectivity in the region has also been vastly improved.
The Unesco World Heritage-listed gardens of Suzhou are among the attractions for visitors alongside quaint waterways that feed into the Grand Canal.
Hangzhou is famed for its West Lake, another site given world heritage status by Unesco, but group boating tours and dining on a Grand Canal barge are also among the group options.
While Hangzhou’s appeal as a conference and incentive destination is reaching as far as Europe, largely thanks to the efforts of the tourism bureau’s MICE department and a direct flight connection to Amsterdam, the market in Suzhou and neighbouring Wuxi is beginning to gather pace.
Suzhou joined an alliance of Chinese cities to attract incentive tours and promote mutual
co-operation between destinations. Also in 2014, the city also set up a department to promote the city’s ancient heritage to organisers of high-end incentives and to establish Suzhou in the MICE market.
Ideas for groups in the greater Suzhou area range from Kunqu opera performances in Kunshan to trying or watching dragon-boat racing in Shajiabang village on the shores of Yangcheng Lake. Fairmont has a prime property beside the lake with 2,200 sqm of indoor and outdoor event space.
Among the Fairmont Yangcheng Lake’s unique venues is the Wood House that can be used for meetings and a base for a range of teambuilding opportunities. The hotel can even arrange access to an organic farm with delegates able to bond by picking their own vegetables with Chinese cooking lessons at the farmhouse. Outdoor activities extend to bird watching, kite flying, rock climbing and golf.
Fairmont also has a presence with a Swissotel in nearby Kunshan with a 616 sqm pillarless ballroom and an event management team.
Continuing northwest from Suzhou and Wuxi into Jiangsu province, is Nanjing – the former national capital. Nanjing’s ancient city walls and surrounding scenery are being promoted as attractions for visiting meeting, conference and incentive groups while meetings capability has been proven with the hosting of the Youth Olympics in 2014. The city is home to the mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, amid such sites as the Qinhuai River, Ming Great Wall and the former Presidential Palace.
International hotel brands such as InterContinental, Starwood, Hilton and Accor have joined local five-star operators such as Jinling. These make the city a good starting point for groups to visit Yangzhou and Zhenjiang – both famous for their temples, waterways and mountains. Jumeirah is also planning to open a property in 2016.
The Nanjing local government has also set up a MICE office to give access to sites such as the city’s Olympic Sports Center, which hosted the Summer Youth Olympics, and post-meeting options.
The Hexi area of the city is being transformed with the opening in phases of the World Trade Center Nanjing, which will be the centerpiece of a new CBD and consist of four 68-storey towers with a five-star hotel. The city's location on the Yangzte Delta offers groups a variety of excursion options. In the city, a night cruise on the Qinhuai River past the lights on traditional buildings is a charming way to see Nanjing.
The meetings and incentive landscape in East China would not be complete without Hangzhou, a two-hour drive southwest of Shanghai, with the high-speed train reducing the journey time to
45 minutes. West Lake, Xixi Wetland Park, the Grand Canal. Buddhist monasteries and ancient rock carvings have long impressed visiting groups, but a new central business district in Qianjiang where the golden sphere of the InterContinental rises as central Hangzhou’s most recognisable modern landmark, is set to show a new, dynamic face to the city.
New properties will include the 400-guest room Sheraton Hangzhou Binjiang with 1,600 sqm of function space and scheduled to open by April 2016. Also set to join the CBD in 2015 is a Park Hyatt, with Conrad, Jumeirah and Swissotel joining the fold over the next two years. Crowne Plaza Hangzhou Grand Canal was the venue for the China Conference, Meeting & Incentive Travel Forum in March, which was backed by Hangzhou Tourism Commission.
Take the Silk Road to Ningbo
The port city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province was once a major trading point along the ancient Silk Road. Today it boasts a range of luxury properties with meeting space reflecting Ningbo’s cultural appeal for visiting groups.
Shangri-La, Marriott, Howard Johnson, Sofitel and Park Hyatt have been joined by Langham, which has a 143-guest room property with a 820 sqm ballroom at Ningbo Culture Plaza. The plaza includes the Science Explore Center and a Culture & Arts Center
“Ningbo is certainly an emerging market in the MICE scene. A lot of the groups are government related at the moment, however the fashion and auto markets are also quite active,” says Andrew Darnett, the General Manager of Langham Place, Ningbo Culture Plaza.
“Our feeder markets are Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, Beijing and other cities in proximity to Ningbo.”
The hotel is located in East Jiangdong, which is being redeveloped as a financial area with exhibition centre, technology park, government offices, residential and retail buildings. A JW Marriott and Four Seasons are among the brands expected to come online in the next two years.