Shanghai may be the meetings and events monolith of eastern China, but the scene beyond the megalopolis is starting to diversify, and two historic cities are leading the way: Hangzhou and Suzhou.
Improving infrastructure and more international quality hotels and venues have raised the creative meeting and events bar, while China’s ongoing high-speed train network rollout has made it easier to access these two national treasures. Suzhou is a 30-minute jaunt by train from Shanghai, while Hangzhou takes 50 minutes. Hangzhou also has an international airport, with flights to and from Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur.
One of the historic capitals of China, Hangzhou’s primary attraction is nature. Boasting a picturesque setting around West Lake – which in June was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List – it is back-dropped by verdant hills clad with tea plantations and dotted with temples and monasteries. For centuries, the lake has been an inspirational retreat for emperors, poets, painters and philosophers.
Eight Unesco-listed ancient Chinese gardens are Suzhou’s prime draw, alongside the Suzhou Museum, designed by Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei as a contemporary vision of a traditional whitewashed Suzhou home. By contrast, the thriving Jinji Lake area of the Suzhou Industrial Park is being touted as an emerging MICE and lifestyle destination.
Suzhou and Hangzhou are frequently utilised as a “second destination” for twin-centred meetings and events starting or ending in Shanghai – but both cities are now emerging as destinations in their own right.
“Everyone in China knows Hangzhou as a famous destination, but it is not so well known outside of China. The WTO is currently preparing a report on the city’s development as an incentive and meetings destination,” says Vivian Xu, deputy general manager, Inbound MICE and Incentives, Zhejiang CYTS Travel. Economics are a driving force behind Hangzhou’s growing profile. “The economy of Hangzhou and Zhejiang province is very strong, so a lot of companies are doing business here, and hosting meetings enables them to spend time with clients and customers,” says Xu.
Hangzhou’s revered status as a leisure destination has enabled it to attract considerable meetings and events business from China’s major cities. “Based in Beijing, our clients will usually pick between Hangzhou or Shanghai, with the other being a complementary city to visit,” says Adlyn Adam-Teoh, founder of Hias Gourmet, which offers culinary-themed activities as part of cultural and heritage programmes for corporate clients. Hias Gourmet’s team-building activities range from sightseeing in historic temples to an Iron Chef kitchen challenge, food-themed walks, wine and tea appreciation and visits to tea plantations.
“Hangzhou has a deep understanding and appreciation of the culinary arts. In fact, you will notice a lot more thought put into the menu and design in a regular restaurant in Hangzhou than in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai,” says Adam-Teoh. “Hangzhou clearly takes on ‘quality vs quantity’ thinking. There is depth in the subject matter, and the way things are set up makes it easy to execute logistics. This means that there are quality suppliers for our cultural, heritage and culinary programmes.”
Hangzhou’s diverse appeal also means that niche areas of the meetings market are opening up. “The government has made Hangzhou very accessible to large groups, which is a good thing. But we focus on the smaller, exclusive meetings segment. Locally, a lot of companies want to have board and executive team meetings for 10 to 30 people,” says Rudolf van Dijk, general manager of Four Seasons Hangzhou at West Lake, which counts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a recent corporate guest.
“We also get a lot of business from Shanghai-based companies wanting to have small meetings away from Shanghai, and from Beijing and Guangzhou,” says van Dijk. “Plus, with direct regional flights from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, Hangzhou is increasingly a regional board meeting location.”
The incentives scene is also showing promise. “Hangzhou is a very good place to host incentives events,” says Hartmut Schaller, general manager of the JW Marriott Hangzhou. “The strong tourism market proves that there is plenty to see and do around the city, and Hangzhou is a very strong F&B market, so the food is very good. Hangzhou’s tourism board is also very proactive and professional in promoting the city’s many attractions for meetings and incentives programmes.”
A new option for meeting planners is the Xixi National Wetland Park, located six kilometres west of downtown. This natural habitat for migrating birds and wildlife reopened in 2008 as China’s first National Wetland Park. The area also features additional tourism attractions and nature trails.
“The government is pushing Hangzhou as a MICE destination in a big way,” says Colin Vickers, general manager of the Sheraton Hangzhou Wetland Park Resort. “It is purposefully developing the Xixi Wetlands as a ‘second reason’ to visit Hangzhou, as everyone already knows about the first reason: West Lake.”
The Sheraton Wetland Park Resort is located at the Westbrook Resort – which, when completed, will comprise hotels, a luxury retail mall, cinema, bars and restaurants, and the China Wetlands Museum. The complex already features a Banyan Tree Resort, and slated openings include a boutique hotel by Hangzhou-based Landison Group.
Engaging with nature is the Xixi Wetlands credo. In addition to offering restaurants with outdoor decks and indoor and outdoor pre-function areas, Sheraton Wetland also has bicycles for guests to use. “One of the great things here is the outdoors lifestyle. You can easily cycle into nature,” says Vickers. “We have the wetlands themselves, but within 10 minutes you can also cycle into the hills and visit Hangzhou’s famous tea plantations.”
“The recent influx of high-end accommodation in Hangzhou has made the city a comfortable and relaxing getaway,” says Nancy Tan, marketing manager for Beijing-based WildChina. “Guo’s Garden, the top of the Wu mountain and the Qian Wang Temple at West Lake are great venues for events.”
Spectacular scenery beyond the city also offers myriad meetings and events options. WildChina suggests an imperial Chinese water town for holding a board meeting in an ancient granary, attending a gala dinner beneath a temple pagoda overlooking the Hangzhou-Beijing Grand Canal and staying in restored merchants’ houses.
“For one company client, we arranged a WildRace challenge in the water town of Wuzhen, about an hour from Hangzhou,” says Tan. “We worked with the local government to challenge clients to create a three-minute marketing video to boost Wuzhen’s tourism. Clients needed to talk to locals and survey the area to understand its best features, available activities and accommodation.” The event utilised the Wuzhen Clubhouse, a pair of intimate boutique properties built by merchants during China’s Imperial past.
Beyond Hangzhou: Moganshan
Sixty kilometres from Hangzhou, the stunning hillside setting of Moganshan, clad with bamboo and tea plantations, is developing as a rural-themed retreats destination. Celebrating five years in 2011 is naked Retreats, a cluster of farmhouses repurposed as a sustainable, rustic-chic mini resort. Recent corporate clients include Coca-Cola, Clark Morgan, The Peninsula and Grand Hyatt.
In October, naked Retreats hosted 103 players, coaches and staff of the Melbourne Australian Rules Football Team, in advance of it taking part in the first AFL match played on Chinese soil in Shanghai. “For many of the players, this was their first experience of China, as they flew into Hangzhou then came directly to naked Retreats,” says Teun Hanegraaf, the resort’s sales director. “Over two days, the footballers embarked on a range of activities designed to introduce China and Moganshan culture.” These included tea picking, a photograph challenge amid the bamboo fields and lessons with a tai chi master from Beijing. “The brief was for a motivational and fun programme. The players were ultra-competitive,” says Hanegraaf.
In October, the company will open the naked Stables Reserve – a larger resort, also on the Moganshan slopes, that aims to achieve the prestigious Platinum LEED sustainable certification. In addition to nature trails, an organic farm, a spa with treehouse treatment rooms, conference centre, three restaurants, a kids’ club and equestrian centre, the Reserve will offer “team-building events that take clients out of their comfort zone”, according to Hanegraaf.
The old city of Suzhou is a long-established leisure tourism magnet, and its Unesco-listed Chinese gardens are popular places for evening galas and banquets.
“Suzhou is a big city and the historic parts are dotted around it. Clients like it,” says Peter Danford, founder of Beijing-based The China Guide. “I suggest spending at least a night in Suzhou, then you can fit in more sights. There are plenty of nice hotels and places to stroll in the evening.”
Excursions beyond Suzhou are also popular for incentive and meetings guests wanting to connect with local Jiangsu province culture. “I would recommend adding an excursion to one of the water towns, such as Tongli,” says Danford. “The water towns are very intimate and charming. They are also pedestrianised, so you can stroll through them, and also enjoy a canal boat ride and dinner in a canal-side restaurant.” Another intriguing and unexpected attraction is the Tongli Sex Museum, which narrates the history of sexual relations in China.
In contrast to the historic allure of the old city and the surrounding water towns, the thriving Jinji Lake area of “New Suzhou” is emerging as a business events and lifestyle destination. This vast lake is particular popular for water sports. Located on the lakeshore are the Suzhou International Expo Centre, which hosts a year-round programme of exhibitions, and French architect Paul Andreu’s visually stunning Science and Culture Arts Centre.
Shanghai-based dance and performance company Jazz du Funk is currently preparing for the launch gala of Hong Kong-based Sun Hung Kai Properties’ first integrated development in Suzhou. Located on the east bank of Jinji Lake, the complex will feature a 310-metre-high office tower, retail mall and serviced apartments.
Sun Hung Kai will launch the development with two large media events in Shanghai and Suzhou. “We are working on two performances based around the theme of Spring and the Changing Seasons,” says Catherine Cheng, marketing manager for Jazz du Funk. “The first show is being specially choreographed and blends modern and classical dance styles in a romantic concept of flowers and blossoms. The second piece is more ethereal.”
Jazz du Funk fuses various performance styles, including ballet, street jazz, musical theatre, hip-hop, tap and contemporary dance, with high production and costume values, music and video. The company has been performing at corporate events across China, Hong Kong and Macau for 10 years.
“We perform at a range of large events, from one-off brand launches, VIP galas, fashion shows and conferences in Shanghai and Beijing to promotional touring events that often take us to cities like Suzhou and Hangzhou,” says Cheng. Recent performances include the BMW 6 Series launch, tours for Chivas and Noblige, and the 200th anniversary celebration for Perrier Jou?t in Sanya.
A prominent position beside Jinji Lake has enabled InterContinental Suzhou to utilise the lake and local culture in its meetings and events. “In March, we ran a canoeing and Dragon Boat team-building event for a local bank. There were around 40 people racing around the lake, and they all said afterwards that it was an unforgettable way to bond as a team and connect with the local environment,” says Justin Channe, general manager of InterContinental Suzhou.
The city’s historic musical performance culture offers another creative angle. “We worked with an architectural design firm that wanted a different platform for the signing ceremony of a partnership with a local firm instead of using a ballroom and banner backdrop,” says Channe. “We managed to get them into the famous Kunqu Opera Club, which was a really unique setting for the deal-signing ceremony. They then moved on to a Suzhou garden in the old city for the cocktail reception.”
The government is purposefully developing the Xixi Wetlands as a “second reason” to visit Hangzhou, as everyone already knows about the first reason: West Lake.
Hangzhou is 50 minutes by high-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, and Suzhou 30 minutes from the Shanghai Railway Station (a different station than the one to Hangzhou). Frequent flights from major Chinese cities, plus Hong Kong, arrive at Hangzhou International Airport. There are currently direct flights to/from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Japan and Korea.
Located in the eastern Yangtze River Delta, Hangzhou and Suzhou get very hot and humid in summer (July-Sept) and cold and damp in winter (Dec-Feb). The best times to visit are April-May and Sept-early Nov.
Mandarin is the mother tongue. English is spoken at leading hotels, and by other service providers.
Foreign visitors need a visa, pre-arranged through their local Chinese embassy or consulate. There is no visa-on-arrival service.
ONE SMART DRAGON
Business groups staying at the 598-room The Dragon, Hangzhou for meetings and incentives marvel at its comprehensive use of technology, which outstrips that of major global international hotel chains in terms of sophistication and application.
The six-tower hotel is located at the heart of the city’s business, financial and cultural centre and is within close proximity of the Zhejiang World Trade Convention and Exhibition Centre. It just completed five years of renovation, spending RMB28 million (US$4.3 million) to upgrade its conferencing and banqueting facilities, in the process becoming one of the most technology-savvy properties in the world – consistent with its new image as a “smart” hotel.
Depending on requests and largely influenced by the size of their group, event organisers can ask for a touch-screen panel with a built-in seating navigation system that informs delegates where they are sitting by simply tapping their room keycard on the screen. The hotel’s room keycards are embedded with an RFID chip that can be used for a variety of purposes.
Indeed, all of the hotel’s 16 meeting venues, including two banquet halls, are equipped with RFID sensors located at their entrances; these can be turned on for automated registration, whereby event participants need only enter the room for a record of their attendance to be captured by the system. The use of RFID technology can be extended in other ways too: for conferences with multiple sessions, the RFID sensors can track the length of time a person spends in each session.
“At the end of the conference, we submit the report to the client,” says hotel manager Eric Du, who envisioned all the technology applications seen in the property (Du has a technology degree from the US). “The report helps in their post-event business analysis by showing them which topics work and don’t work. The report can also tell them which participant only spent 10 minutes in the conference presumably to get the gift, or who was there just for the lunch.”
Delegates who have to stay connected with colleagues, partners and family while at a conference can save on the roaming cost by carrying with them the smart phone in their room. The IP-enabled unified communications system by Avaya has an “extension-to-cellular feature” that allows the hotel switchboard to route your in-room calls to your smart phone. The mobile devices also work outside the hotel so people on a post-event activity or incentive programme don’t miss out on important calls (in case their roaming service does not work in China).
The Avaya unified communications system also allowed the hotel to fit meeting rooms with phones with built-in conferencing capabilities. A guest can set up a conference call for up to six parties using a bridge number and a password provided by the hotel. This service is especially popular with business travellers who may need to set up a multi-party discussion to secure a deal.
The completion of The Dragon, Hangzhou’s massive renovation is well timed as the city’s local government makes a concerted effort to attract more business events to the city. The hotel can block 70 percent of its guestrooms for corporate groups of up to 800 people.
The hotel is gaining a reputation as
one of the best business hotels in China. The enhanced security that its new IT systems give to the hotel makes it an ideal venue for high-level government meetings and conferences.
“With the opening of the high-speed train six months ago that cuts travel time from Shanghai to 50 minutes, many meetings are now moving into Hangzhou. We have good scenery, friendly people and good hotels. And most importantly, the cost of a meeting here is half the price compared with Shanghai,” Du says.Gigi Onag
Four Seasons Hangzhou at West Lake
A beautifully landscaped 78-room garden hotel overlooking West Lake. The ballroom and three function rooms cater to small- and mid-size meetings. Exquisite Chinese dining is offered at Jin Sha’s 11 private dining pavilions, while the majestic gold and red themed spa is fit for an emperor.
Hyatt Regency Hangzhou
Overlooking West Lake, this 390-room lakeside hotel has long been the leader of the Hangzhou’s meetings and conference pack. Twenty multifunction rooms are complemented by the club lounge terrace, which is popular for lakeview sundowner cocktails, and the period-furnished 28 Hubin Road Chinese restaurant.
JW Marriott Hangzhou
This centrally located 310-room hotel shares a complex with 340-room sister hotel Courtyard Hangzhou Wulin. Excellent modern facilities boast more than 2,069sqm of meeting space, including a 908sqm Grand Ballroom, the new Velocity sports bar and acclaimed Cru Steakhouse.
Sheraton Hangzhou Wetland Park Resort
Opening in the fall, this 383-room resort overlooks the Xixi Wetlands nature reserve. Access to nature is a key lure, with wildlife trails, hiking and cycling. It offers nine meeting spaces, including a 1,150sqm ballroom, plus a spa and outdoor terraces and restaurants.
The company manages two eco-friendly resorts amid the hillside landscapes of Moganshan. naked Home Village is a cluster of restyled farm cottages offering inventive team-building and retreat programmes. naked Stables, opening later this year, is a deluxe resort offering nature-based activities, plus cycling, hiking and horse-riding.
Kempinski Hotel Suzhou
Flanked by Dushu and Jinji lakes and the Jinji Lake International Golf Club, this 451-room hotel in the Suzhou Industrial Park offers a 1,850sqm ballroom, nine meeting rooms and a lakeside terrace and garden for BBQs and receptions.
Located on the shores of Jinji Lake,
this 432-room hotel features a 1,000sqm ballroom and nine multipurpose function rooms. The lakeside open spaces are perfect for receptions, and the lake itself is ideal for team-building events.
Pan Pacific Suzhou
Resembling a grand Chinese palace and overlooking the 2,500-year-old Pan Gate and classical gardens, this venerable 418-room Suzhou business favourite is near the old city wall and downtown. The excellent meetings facilities are complemented by a private water garden for outdoor functions.
Shangri-La Hotel Suzhou
Located in the Suzhou New District commercial zone, this 390-room hotel occupies the 28th to 51st floors of one of the city’s tallest towers. There are two ballrooms (one of which can hold 800 guests) and five function rooms, plus six restaurants and lounges.
Hias Gourmet Culinary Excursions & Events
Zhejiang CYTS Travel
The China Guide
Jazz du Funk