Today’s modern traders may head for the shimmering neon of Shanghai, but in 13th century China, the Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo was enamoured with rather different destinations nearby.
If his stories are to be believed, it was the cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou that particularly captivated him. Their many bridges, lakes and canals are said to have reminded him of his native Venice.
It was not simply natural beauty that brought visitors here, the Yangtze Delta was one of the world’s major trading centres of the time.
A famous Chinese proverb developed “Above is Heaven, below are Suzhou and Hangzhou”.
When the European and Japanese empires looked enviously at China in the 19th and 20th centuries, the trading centres of Ningbo and Qingdao were turned into treaty ports, unequal treaties as the Chinese pointed out, which nonetheless brought foreign culture and expertise to the country.
Today, Eastern China’s cities are once again major attractions for tourists and investors. Yet they remain fairly undeveloped as destinations for regional meetings and incentives. However, with major cultural elements and strong business and manufacturing links, Eastern China does have potential. Added to this is direct air access to many of these cities from several Asian countries and in some cases railway infrastructure that makes transfers from Shanghai, quick and painless.
David Liu Yanxiang, president of China Star Professional Programs in Beijing, says of eastern Chinese destinations: “The price is better than in the bigger cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Hong Kong. The eastern Chinese cities have good infrastructure, such as internationally branded five-star hotels and so on.
“Since many corporate clients prefer to rotate their events around China when they have already held events in the big cities, Eastern China seems like a good option.”
Liu also points to the importance of established business and inward investment as a driver for the events sector.
“Eastern China is also an economically dynamic area. It hosts quite many foreign companies, for example, Suzhou has a Singaporean Industrial Park, which has many foreign and local enterprises.”
Pan Wei, director of corporate services at WildChina, which specialises in arranging meetings and incentives off the beaten track, says: “While Shanghai is a wonderful city, there are many other superb destinations for corporate meetings and events. For companies who are trying to enter the China market, it’s easy to focus on the glamour of cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but those aren’t representative of the rest of China. Getting out into different areas of China will give companies a fuller, more accurate picture of the China business landscape. Shanghai can also be quite expensive, almost on par with cities like New York or London, and thus, groups looking to save might consider alternate locations.
“WildChina has had great success producing meetings in places like the watertown of Wuzhen (located within the triangle formed by Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai), where companies can get out of the hotel ballroom and into a more unique setting. We’ve hosted small meetings and breakout sessions in teahouses, where employees are inspired to think differently outside of a traditional setting.
“Another location that WildChina recommends for events is Anhui. Anhui cuisine is considered as one of China’s eight great cuisines, and uses a lot of fresh, wild ingredients and simple preparation. There are also Hui minority villages, and of course Mount Huangshan, which is a World Heritage Site famous for the sunrise over its scenic peaks.”
So what are the main centres and how suitable are they for different kinds of corporate events?
Why choose Suzhou?
Suzhou has three advantages. First is its proximity to Shanghai, it is 30 minutes’ drive from China’s business capital. This makes it a perfect add-on for events held in Shanghai, such as a post- or pre-conference tour, as well as a standalone destination. Second, Suzhou is already a renowned tourist destination, due to its Chinese traditional gardens, ancient towns and the Taihu Lake.
Third, Suzhou is at the heart of the Yangtze River Delta, China’s economic powerhouse. With the rapid development of several of its business sectors, including electronics, information technology, biomedicine, machine building, chemistry, textiles and garment making, Suzhou has an economic volume surpassing many of China’s larger cities and approaching that of Shanghai.
What can you do there?
Take your group on a flotilla of Chinese-style gondolas down Suzhou’s network of canals or plan a cocktail reception in one of the many stunning gardens. You will need a good local contact for this as many are Unesco-listed. Alternatively, plan a Mission Impossible teambuilding treasure hunt through the city. Tom Cruise filmed here for Mission Impossible 3, although the script suggested the dramatic scenes were actually in Shanghai.
WildChina’s Pan Wei says: “WildChina often arranges private garden visits at the beautiful traditional gardens here, as well as events at the IM Pei-designed Suzhou Museum. Suzhou is better for smaller groups of 30 or less, such as board meetings, as its intimate gardens and lanes are more suited for smaller groups.”
What kind of events is Suzhou suitable for?
Small- and medium-size meetings, add-on events from Shanghai or incentives with a strong emphasis on culture and nature.
Why choose Hangzhou?
Some historians believe that Hangzhou was the world’s most populous city back in Marco Polo’s day, with more than a million people. The city was one of China’s major commercial centres and Marco Polo called it “beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world”. Korean and Arab visitors said much the same thing. Hangzhou’s West Lake is one of China’s most popular tourist spots.
Despite enormous economic changes, Hangzhou has retained its character as one of China’s most beautiful cities, with numerous temples and pagodas. It is a silk and handicrafts centre too. It is home to both one of China’s oldest churches and one of its oldest mosques, a testament to its longstanding international trade links.
What can you do there?
Pan Wei of WildChina says: “Hangzhou is quite beautiful, and boasts luxury hotels and fine dining in a serene setting around West Lake. Formerly an imperial capital, there’s plenty to do and see in Hangzhou, which is also one of China’s wealthiest cities. Sampling the local Longjing tea is a must-do, as is visiting the centuries old Lingyin Buddhist Temple.
“In Hangzhou, we created an event for 500 guests in an ancient temple, before moving on to Guo Garden for dinner. A private garden and restaurant, Guo Garden is considered the best traditional private gardens in China.”
What kind of events is Hangzhou suitable for?
Hangzhou is perfect for the “corporate semi-retreat”, a relaxed city with all the amenities needed for event organisation but without the bustle of Shanghai. Small and medium-sized meetings are easy enough, with a smattering of five-star hotels. However, Hangzhou lacks the infrastructure and venues to hold large-scale events. Teambuilding and out-of-boardroom events should take advantage of Hangzhou’s heritage to introduce delegates to aspects of Chinese culture, such as a guided tour of the Chinese Medicine Museum followed by a consultation with a Chinese doctor.
Or take advantage of the textile expertise here, have your group measured for traditional Chinese silk suits and dresses for the gala dinner.
On the subject of dinner, groups should definitely be encouraged to arrange themed banquets or gala dinners with local expertise. Hangzhou cuisine is rated as one of the top eight Chinese styles of cooking, with delicacies such as West Lake Sour Fish, Dongpo Pork or Longjing Shrimp Meat, washed down by Longjing tea.
Why choose Qingdao?
This was a German treaty port and its legacy in the old town of Qingdao is obvious in the city’s architecture. Mercifully the old town was left relatively untouched by the 2008 Olympic watersports events held in the more modern part of Qingdao. The Olympics also led to an economic boom, 166 of the Fortune 500 companies have operations there, including major Olympic sponsors such as GE and Volkswagen.
What can you do there?
German influence has left one very obvious legacy – beer. Tsingtao (using the old romanisation for the city) is China’s most famous beer brand. You can take your group on a tour of the Tsingtao Beer Museum at the brewery’s 1903-vintage building, sampling the brews as you go or hold a drinks reception here. If you time your visit in mid to late August, you can enjoy the International Beer Festival held in the city.
During the 2008 Olympics, Qingdao was allocated the sailing competitions and the Qingdao International Sailing Centre was built on the site of an old shipyard. It covers a total area of 45 hectares. The aim is to establish Qingdao as the premier sailing centre in north Asia.
In August, the Shangri-La Qingdao hosted the International Blue Economy Summit Forum.
This forum brings together experts on the exploration and protection of the ocean and the development of global ocean economy.
Since August is the peak season for Qingdao, the hotel had to show utmost flexibility in meeting demands of the conference organisers, delegates and VIPs. The successful event was attended by 600 delegates including 12 national vice-ministers.
What kind of events is Qingdao suitable for?
Not to be recommended for teetotallers or those prone to seasickness, Qingdao’s beer culture and sailing options are a huge draw. The architectural ambience of this city does make it unique. Qingdao is very much for the small and medium-sized business group.
Why choose Ningbo?
Beaten in size only by Shanghai, Ningbo is mainland China’s second largest port. Ningbo is primarily a business and trading centre. Some maritime trade experts even predict it will overtake Shanghai as China’s main international port city due to the fact that it’s a deepwater port. Ningbo is a perfect example of China’s rising economic power and this is ultimately the essential reason for holding meetings and conferences here.
What can you do there?
While fundamentally a commercial port, Ningbo does have cultural attractions such as the Tian Yi Library, China’s oldest private library dating back to 1561. It houses 300,000 books. Then, there is Baoguo Temple, which dates back to 880 AD. The main hall was built in 1013, nearly 1,000 years ago and making it one of the oldest remaining wooden structures in the world.
There is a growing number of international-standard hotels too. One of the newest is the Shangri-La Ningbo where Honda organised a new car launch for dealers and suppliers for its Odyssey model in September.
This involved bringing the car into the hotel’s Ningbo Grand Ballroom. The ballroom is the city’s largest at 2,000sqm. With help from the hotel’s engineering staff, the car was taken in through the cargo lift. Petrol had to be drained from the car and staff were not allowed to drive the car from the cargo lift – the only way was to push it.
What kind of events is Ningbo suitable for?
Despite its long history and interesting cultural buildings, Ningbo is mainly a business destination. Meetings and conferences will be small to medium in size and will most likely have a direct link to maritime trade companies and issues.
Daniel Xu, president, Blue Ocean International Travel:
“As one of the professional DMCs in China, we have handled many events, domestic and inbound. Last month, we organised a small two-day meeting for Merck in Hangzhou. This September, we coordinated with PATA to handle their PATA Travel Mart in Hangzhou, as their event coordinator, including a series events arrangement such as the Guangdong Province Tourism Welcome Lunch, Gold Award Lunch and Macau Tourism Thank You Dinner.
“To be honest, suitable large indoor dinner venues in these cities are very few. For example, there are only two indoor venues that can hold a dinner for over 1,000 people in Hangzhou, (a third one becomes available at the end of year when new Dragon Hotel opens).
“With few options and competition, the service is not on par with international standard. You must be very patient to deal with them.”
Pan Wei of WildChina says:
“If you’re interested in doing something in an unusual or historic place, it’s important to start planning early. Property managers and officials will want to know the exact details of the event you’re planning, and you should make sure to run any changes by them well in advance. If you need a contingency plan (for example, in case of rain), make sure this is also approved and understood. It’s much easier to negotiate details ahead of time than it is when you need something important at the last minute. It can also be tricky to find out who actually has the authority to let you host an event at a historic venue, so you must be sure the people who give you the OK have the final say. You should also make sure you think about what questions they will ask ahead of time – where the food will go, where the fire extinguishers will be, and what the decorations will look like. In general, it’s much easier to work with a restored site than it is to hold an event in a place that is in its original condition.
“Hotel staff in Hangzhou and Suzhou will likely have limited English skills, but it is unlikely that staff in Nanjing or Ningbo will have English capabilities. For this reason, it’s very important that some members of your organising staff speak fluent Mandarin, in order to manage any issues you may encounter.
“In general, hotel staff service experience and education are improving rapidly. But they vary wildly from place to place, despite similar star ratings or price range.
“While planning unique events and meetings can be more time-consuming, it’s ultimately far more interesting and meaningful for attendees. For this reason, we recommend using a travel consultant like WildChina to make sure the tiniest of details are thought of and taken care of well in advance.”
China Star Professional Programs
Blue Ocean International Travel
A short guide to major accommodation and venue options
Four Points by Sheraton Hangzhou, Bingjiang
This is a 366-room hotel with meeting facilities for up to 650.
Hyatt Regency Hangzhou
A 390-room hotel with meetings space for 860 people. Directly opposite the West Lake.
Sofitel Hangzhou Westlake
With meeting facilities that hold a maximum of 150 people, this 200-room property is best suited for small meetings and business events.
Shangri-La Hotel, Hangzhou
The meeting space only holds a maximum of 300 people, but this 382-room property is popular as it overlooks the West Lake and Solitary Hill Island.
Shangri-La Hotel, Suzhou
This property can seat 900 delegates for a conference and has 390 guestrooms.
Sheraton Suzhou Hotel & Towers
The hotel’s Panmen Ballroom can hold 400 people. The 484-room hotel has 15 meeting spaces in total.
Kempinski Hotel Suzhou
Strategically located in Suzhou Industrial Park, the Kempinski has 458 rooms and conference facilities for 1,500, some of the largest in the city.
Crowne Plaza Suzhou
A 402-room property, the Crowne Plaza has some of the largest conference facilities in town, taking up a maximum of 1,150 delegates.
With 314 rooms and a maximum capacity of 500 delegates, the Sofitel Suzhou is located in the scenic old part of town.
Shangri-La Hotel, Ningbo
With a Grand Ballroom that can hold 2,100 people, the Shangri-La can cater for substantial numbers of people. The hotel has 563 rooms and suites.
Ningbo Marriott Hotel
The Ningbo Marriott has 16 meeting rooms, with the largest holding 600 for conferences and seminars.
In the Yinzhou district of Ningbo, this 390-room hotel can hold meetings for 600 in its main ballroom.
Le Méridien Qingdao
This hotel opens in November in the Qingdao Wanda Plaza in the Shi Bei District – designated as Qingdao’s new central business district. It will be able to hold up to 1,000 for meetings and has 11 event rooms.
Shangri-La Hotel, Qingdao
With 696 guestrooms, including a Shangri-La signature Valley Wing, the hotel has one of the biggest ballrooms in Eastern China, holding up to 1,500 people.
Crowne Plaza Qingdao
This 388-room property has meeting facilities for up to 300 people.
Doubletree by Hilton Qingdao Chengyeng
One of the newest hotels in the city, the 320-room Doubletree can hold 800 for conferences.
A 428-guestroom property with 20 meeting rooms, including a ballroom that holds up to 600 people.