At first sight, Guangzhou might appear to be something of the ugly duckling of China’s megacities. Beijing has culture and history as well as political clout, Shanghai has chic and commercial expertise, while Guangzhou is seen mainly as an industrial hub with little to commend it.
Yet, Guangzhou has history and culture aplenty and these sit alongside the Guangdong capital’s position at the heart of the Pearl River Delta, which for the past three decades has been the engine of global manufacturing.
China’s economic reforms of the late 1970s put Guangdong at the centre of the transformation of China, with three of the four Special Economic Zones set up by Deng Xiaoping based in the province.
The result was that foreign investment flooded in, creating a modern workshop of the world. Multinationals from Europe, the US, Japan and elsewhere flocked to the province. Where business goes, corporate meetings and related events are never far behind.
Although Guangzhou is best known for its exhibition sector, crowned by the colossal Canton Fair, business meetings and conferences have naturally gravitated here to be closer to suppliers and manufacturers.
Ease of access to Hong Kong and with air routes that link the city not only with China’s key centres but increasingly with transcontinental destinations, means that Guangzhou can increasingly stake a claim for regional meetings and events.
Ronnie Cheng, general manager, The Garden Hotel Guangzhou, says: “While we are in a period of economic uncertainty, the local economy here will still grow at high levels compared with the rest of the world.”
The city is one of China’s wealthiest and this is reflected in ambitious plans to develop Guangzhou’s infrastructure, with plans to finish a seventh subway line by 2010.
But Guangzhou is not all about hard-headed business. The city has culture too. Unlike nearby Shenzhen, a fishing village turned super-city in little more than two decades, Guangzhou was long a major urban centre. It has therefore retained its Cantonese flavour in a way that has been lost in some other cities, where migrant populations from other parts of China have overwhelmed the local traditions and cultures.
The Cantonese love to eat and Guangzhou provides not only myriads of local traditional-style restaurants but also some of the best fine-dining options in southern China, Hong Kong included.
The city’s fascinating history is bound up both with the opening to the world and to the emergence of a modern Chinese nation.
From 1684, when the imperial throne allowed foreigners to trade with China until the British forced open other ports and annexed Hong Kong in 1842 following the Opium Wars, Guangzhou was the main trading point between China and the west.
However, long before the arrival of the Europeans, Guangzhou was a magnet for traders and merchants. The city claims to have the oldest mosque in China, with some claiming that it dates back to the earliest years of Islam.
It was here that modern Chinese nationalism took root. National hero Sun Yat-sen was born in Guangdong and his political party, the Guomindang, was largely centred in Guangzhou as he tried to unify the country under the banner of Republican China. Slightly later, in the mid-1920s, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai based their revolutionary activities in the city, while Deng Xiaoping’s policy of opening up China’s economy saw Guangdong at the heart of an unprecedented economic experiment.
At every step of China’s development, Guangzhou has been a major player, acting as an entry point for international business.
In the past few years, a number of new international-brand hotels have sprung up. Both the Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou and the Grand Hyatt Guangzhou are based in the Pearl River New City area in the Tianhe district of the city’s southeast.
This area is still a work in progress but already houses some major financial companies and will, in a few years, act as a major business, consular, residential and leisure area. This part of town will also become something of a cultural hub, with the Guangzhou Opera House and Guangdong Museum of Art, within its precincts.
Veronica Wong, marketing communications manager, Grand Hyatt Guangzhou, says: “The hotel is perfectly positioned for growth. The Pearl River New City will effectively become the new CBD.”
This is a view echoed by Angelina Law, director of catering and conference services, Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou.
“We have a fabulous new property here and in the next few years, top-end international companies will be moving in around us.”
Situated right opposite the Guangzhou International Convention Centre, the Shangri-La Hotel Guangzhou is a natural choice for trade show visitors, especially during the twice-yearly Canton Fair, when the hotel is full to capacity.
Ronda Chua, director of communications at the Shangri-La, points out that once again location is a key factor for choosing the hotel.
“The exhibition and convention centre is still expanding and that means many business visitors are very familiar with our property. The view from our higher floors over the river is stunning.”
The new arrivals have encouraged long-established properties to spruce themselves up.
At the China Hotel, a Marriott Hotel, general manager Meng Lo, says: “We’ve been conducting a massive multimillion-dollar refurbishment project to meet the challenges of the future. We recently renovated all our guestrooms and the final phase will involve upgrading our restaurants and meeting spaces.”
Despite the obvious difficulties in the world economy, Guangzhou is likely to be at the forefront of China’s continuing modernisation project for years to come, assuring the city of a growing role in corporate meetings.
Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport is the city’s main airport, and the home of China Southern Airlines, whose extensive mainland routes connect to most of China’s main cities. A number of Asian airlines fly into Guangzhou including the flag carriers of Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and Thailand. There are growing numbers of flights to Africa and the Middle East. Lufthansa and Air France offer connections to Europe.
A rail link with Hong Kong connects the two cities in just under two hours and there are numerous coach services.
Recent restrictions on visa applications mean it is wise to check with travel agents or local Chinese embassies and consulates well in advance of the planned trip.
Guangzhou is located in China’s subtropical area with an all-year pleasant climate. Guangzhou’s spring is humid and rainy; summer is a little hot with occasional typhoons. Temperature in autumn is very moderate, cool and windy. The good weather of autumn often lasts to November and December; the period from October to December is the best travel time. Winter is a little chilly but short.
Cantonese and Putonghua are most widely spoken. English is spoken in the large hotels and major events venues.
Sitting opposite the Guangzhou International Convention Centre, the Shangri-La Guangzhou is an obvious choice for many business travellers. When the centre is not hosting major events, the hotel provides a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
Reach for the sky
The Grand Hyatt’s Sky lounge is located on an air bridge joining the hotel’s two wings. The 365-room hotel has six meeting spaces and a Grand Ballroom.
Outside is In
Living up to its name, the Garden Hotel may be located in the heart of the city but events can be held in its beautiful landscaped grounds. The hotel’s 828 rooms make it one of the largest in the city.
Situated next to CITIC Plaza, home to the majority of the Fortune 500 companies in Guangzhou, the Westin Guangzhou is minutes from the main rail connection to Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, it has become a top choice for the business events sector.
One of Guangzhou’s newer entrants, the 351-room Ritz-Carlton brings a level of top- class elegance to the rapidly developing Pearl River New City mega-district.
Old friend, new face
The China Hotel, A Marriott Hotel
One of the city’s longest established properties has just finished a multimillion-dollar refurbishment of its guestrooms. The next stage will see major remodelling of its restaurants and meeting spaces.