Three years have passed since Beijing’s emergence as a global meeting and events destination during the 2008 Olympic Games. Although the Chinese capital’s pace of construction has since slowed and hotel openings have been quieter, Beijing has continued to diversify its events offerings. From sky-high luxury hotels to creative conversions of imperial temples and “Amazing Races” around its landmark sites, there is much to excite creative planners.
Beyond Beijing, the ongoing rollout of new rail and air routes is opening access to fast-developing second- and third-tier cities. Seaside Dalian, European-influenced Tianjin and the icy wonderlands of Harbin and Yabuli are all within convenient reach, offering intriguing multi-destination itinerary options in northern China.
Beijing’s appeal has always been its iconic event locations, such as the Great Wall and Summer Palace. From high-end catwalk fashion shows along the ramparts and strategic planning retreats in the cottages beneath the Great Wall to silver-service dinners in the grounds of the old imperial palace, the historic significance and spectacular settings continue to make these coveted choices.
“The Great Wall is ideal for retreats with excellent meeting facilities and accommodation in the vicinity – or you can choose to camp right on the Wall,” says Peter Danford, general manager of The China Guide and Beijing Freedom Travel. Coca-Cola, NBC, Visa and General Motors are just some of the companies that have opted to host events at The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, a sustainable tourism “village” at the base of the Wall. It offers meeting venues, gardens, restaurants, a boutique inn created from an old glazed-tile factory and an art glass studio with a working hot glass shop.
The allure of Beijing’s historical context endures, but contemporary icons are also attracting event organisers. The 2008 Olympic stadiums have hit their stride in the post-Olympic era. The season-opening 2011 Italian Super Cup, between football giants AC Milan and Inter Milan, played to a packed house – including spectators enjoying lavish corporate hospitality packages – at the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium in August. The Bird’s Nest will also host the IAAF World Athletics Championships in 2015, the most important sporting event in China since the 2008 Olympic Games.
The “Water Cube” Aquatic Centre, meanwhile, underwent a RMB350 million (US$54.76 million) transformation last year into Asia’s largest water park. Happy Magic Water Cube features seven-level water slides, a wave pool, water bar, new-age rides called Aqualoop, Ridehouse, Bullet Bowl and Speed Slide, whirlpools and “deep-sea tornados”. The complex also includes shopping arcades, cafés, event areas and performance stages.
Expansive cultural venues are also the flavour of the moment. The egg-shaped National Centre for the Performing Arts just behind Tiananmen Square was joined in March this year by the revamped National Museum of China. Occupying the entire eastern perimeter of the Square, the cavernous 191,900 sqm museum is the largest in the world with more than a million national treasures in its collection. Its numerous halls also offer plenty of flexibility for prestigious receptions and exhibitions.
The National Museum of China’s opening ceremony in April exemplified the potential scope of this awe-inspiring venue. The evening comprised a dinner reception catered by Hilton Beijing Wangfujing, followed by a tour of the opening exhibition and a concert by the Dresden State Orchestra in the Museum’s concert hall. “We created all the F&B set-ups for the opening ceremony including the kitchen area – which was discreetly tucked away behind screens – the buffets and standing tables, plus a seated VIP table in a separate room,” says Ivory Hu, Hilton Beijing Wangfujing’s director of events. “This enormous venue is really flexible and accessible for both visitors and organisers.” In June, luxury brand Louis Vuitton rented four halls of the museum to host its three-month “Louis Vuitton: Voyages” retrospective, showcasing 150 years of the brand’s emblematic designer luggage.
“As well as the iconic venues in Beijing, there is a definite trend toward ‘fusion chic’ venues in traditional settings,” says Pan Wei, director of corporate services and special projects at WildChina. Many of these can be found tucked away in the ancient hutong neighbourhoods near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
Susu, a Vietnamese kitchen hidden down a hutong lane, transforms a century-old residence into a fresh contemporary space with brushed wood floors, original wooden beams and floor-to-ceiling windows leading in to the small central courtyard. The roof terrace offers great views over the hutong’s weathered rooftop tiles.
Nearby is one of Beijing’s emerging heritage hotspots, The Temple Hotel. Built during the Ming dynasty reign of Emperor Yongle (1403 to1424 AD), the compound was originally an imperial printing house for Buddhist sutras used in the Forbidden City. After a painstaking restoration, it is now a highly coveted events venue. Adding to its exclusive appeal, the TRB Temple Restaurant and Bar, helmed by former Maison Boulud general manager Ignace Lecleir, will open this autumn.
The similarly named Contempio Temple Bar in the grounds of a 600-year-old Confucian temple was transformed last year into a cosy lounge and performance space. WildChina recently organised an event here for 150 guests from an international consultancy. An introductory cocktail hour was followed by a banquet dinner and dessert buffet, plus a late-night lounge where guests could enjoy a full bar and dance floor. For those preferring a more chilled-out vibe, there was an area where guests could partake in a traditional tea ceremony with a tea master or Chinese foot massages.
A unique slant
“Clients hosting events in Beijing are looking for exclusivity. It is no longer enough to entice people with fancy venues alone,” says Sarah Keenlyside, founder of Bespoke Beijing. “Exclusive tailor-made experiences are key, incorporating interesting entertainment and attentive service from people who really understand their subject and clientele.”
Tastes of local culture, including calligraphy artists, tea masters and magicians, add a sense of colour and place. Musicians from Beijing’s underground music scene are another upbeat entertainment choice. Between regular gigs at music bars around town, The Beijing Beatles have performed at several corporate parties. “We’re considered to be one of the most authentic Beatles tribute bands in Asia,” says Troy Reilly (aka Jorge Arrowsmith), founder and lead guitarist. The Beijing Beatles perform up to two hours of Fab Four songs in authentic outfits and with an audiovisual backdrop. “We recently headlined the British Chamber of Commerce Annual Charity Ball, performing on a stage that was re-created to look like Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club,” Reilly says.
Spaces and races
“There is also a lot of buzz about new creative public spaces like the ones opening up in Dashilan,” adds Keenlyside of Bespoke Beijing. This restored Qing dynasty commercial and entertainment precinct near Tiananmen Square played host to the 2011 Beijing Design Week in late September. Fringe event NOTCH Art Festival gathered Nordic and Chinese designers, architects and artists to “dig up” Dashilan’s cultural resources and implement them in the creation of works aimed at benefiting the neighbourhood.
Another craze sweeping the capital is “extreme team building”. “We’ve been receiving more requests for team-building events to complement meetings and conferences,” says Pan Wei of WildChina. The company has developed WildRace, a friendly competition based on TV reality series The Amazing Race designed to improve group problem-solving skills in unfamiliar environments, while simultaneously being an immersive tour of historic and cultural sites.
WildChina recently held a WildRace for 45 professionals from the Asia-Pacific department of HID Global. Based on a famous Chinese folktale about a maiden named Meng Jiang, the course allowed participants to navigate through Beijing’s public transport system, requiring them to skip hand-in-hand across the Olympic Green, hunt for supplies in a local Chinese market, prepare Chinese dumplings, and as a finale, test their endurance on the Great Wall.
Despite initial technical and safety concerns, the rapid expansion of China’s high-speed national rail network has shortened travel times between major cities. One result is an increasing demand for previously off-radar event destinations and locations.
Taking guests to a fast-growing second- or third-tier Chinese city enables them to view close up the diversifying growth possibilities – and to connect with new consumers. Companies can better connect with the community in which they are trying to develop their businesses.
Just 27 minutes by train from Beijing, Tianjin is a popular excursion from the capital. An ambitious metropolis, it has attracted numerous international companies – including Airbus, Toyota and Coca-Cola – to invest here, and several glassy towers now puncture the skyline.
With a rich historical legacy of its own, Tianjin offers plenty of attractions for event delegates to see and experience. Itineraries can include the European churches; the Grand Mosque and Dule Temple; Jiefang Bei Lu historic district and Ancient Culture Street with Qing-style architecture.
Another treasured gem is the riverside Astor Hotel Tianjin. Originally built in 1863, it has hosted many global leaders and landmark events, and the last Chinese Emperor Pu Yi and Empress Wan Rong once danced in the ballroom. This landmark 152-room hotel was recently converted into the debut Starwood Luxury Collection hotel in China. It boasts 1,000 sqm of events space, including the domed Buckingham Ballroom and the Windsor Multi-Function Rooms.
Among the international brands that have chosen to host events at the Astor Hotel Tianjin are BMW and Aqua di Parma. “Tianjin’s European heritage and more leisurely pace of life make it a perfect complement to the Chinese capital. The hotel industry in Tianjin is developing quickly allowing more options for event organisers – with very reasonable rates,” says Sandra Qin, director of sales and marketing at the Astor Hotel Tianjin.
The 2011 host city of The Annual Meeting of the New Champions, or “Summer Davos”, which is Asia’s foremost annual global business gathering, Dalian got its big break as a co-host city of the 2008 Olympics. The pretty seaside capital of Liaoning province has attracted a host of blue-chip international investors and is emerging as a hot offsite event and incentive destination for the domestic Chinese market. The impressive waterfront Dalian International Conference Centre will be complemented by several upcoming top-range hotel openings, including Hilton Dalian and Conrad Dalian in the new East Harbour Development, slated for December, and the recently announced The Ritz-Carlton, Dalian atop the 518-metre Dalian Greenland Centre tower – which is due for completion in 2016.
“Two things lure MICE business to Dalian – its weather and its abundant fresh seafood,” says Vlad Reyes, general manager of Conrad Dalian and Hilton Dalian.
Jinan is one of northern China’s fast-emerging urban powerhouses. The capital city of prosperous Shandong province is located on the high-speed rail network – and its hospitality infrastructure is developing apace. The new 383-room Hyatt Regency Jinan, opening in November, has dedicated two floors to event and meetings space, including Jinan’s largest ballroom capable of hosting up to 1,200 guests. “We are pioneering a new level of luxury in Jinan,” says Sam Cheng, Hyatt Regency Jinan’s general manager, citing Jinan’s location and natural landscape of artesian springs, lakes and mountains in the heart of the city as reasons for choosing it as an alternative event location.
North of Dalian, bordering Siberia in icy Heilongjiang province, Harbin has invested RMB3.1 billion (US$485 million) in developing world-class winter sports venues and infrastructure with the aim of bidding for a future Winter Olympic Games. Harbin draws global visitors during the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, which runs through January and February.
Situated 193 km east of Harbin, within former imperial Manchurian hunting grounds, Yabuli is being developed as China’s premier winter sports retreat. At an elevation of approximately 1,374 metres, its ski season lasts up to six months. International ski resort developer and operator Melco China Resorts is transforming Sun Mountain Yabuli into a world-class luxury mountain resort with top-end ski technology, three premium integrated resorts and mountainside resort homes.
In the heart of a national park surrounded by pine forest, the ski-in Four-Trident Club Med Yabuli caters to corporate groups with 284 rooms, a spa, and extensive alpine activities. Tailor-made conference and incentive programmes are available in the 600-seat ballroom and six meeting rooms.
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THE CHINA GUIDE
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Frequent flights from around China and the world arrive at Beijing Capital Airport. Beijing is five hours by high-speed train from Shanghai.
Beijing gets very hot in summer (July-September) and temperatures routinely drop below freezing in winter (December-February). The best times to visit are April-May and September-early November. Avoid the first week of October’s national holiday and Chinese New Year (January/February).
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. Be warned, there is no visa-on-arrival service.
The Temple Hotel
Housed in a 3,500 sqm temple compound built during the Ming dynasty, it features a magnificently restored 335 sqm Main Hall and four private meeting rooms between 77 sqm and 96 sqm, interspersed with oriental gardens and ponds. The TRB Temple Restaurant and Bar opens this autumn and an eight-suite luxury hotel will follow in February 2012.
Renaissance Tianjin TEDA Convention Centre Hotel
Within Binhai New Area’s high-powered Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), this contemporary conventions hotel offers 6,109 sqm of event space along with 543 guestrooms, about half of which overlook the golf course next door.
Conrad Dalian (Opening December 18, 2011)
Adjacent to the harbour and new Dalian International Convention Centre, Conrad Dalian offers 210 deluxe guestrooms, including 90 executive rooms and suites. Level Three is a dedicated meetings, events and business floor. For larger events, there’s the option of the 1,680 sqm ballroom at Hilton Dalian in the same complex. Sample Dalian’s famed seafood at The Sea Grill and Wine Bar.
China World Summit Wing
Crowning the top 16 floors of Beijing’s tallest tower with spectacular views, this Shangri-La managed 278-room hotel offers more than 5,500 sqm of meeting and events space, including Beijing’s largest pillarless ballrooms. The Adam Tihany-designed Grill 79 restaurant and trendy cocktail lounge Atmosphere are on the 79th and 80th floors.
Langham Place Beijing Capital Airport
Located beside Terminal Three of Beijing Capital Airport, the 372-room hotel focuses on the fly-in business events market with 22 naturally lit function rooms and an 800 sqm ballroom with picture windows. Meeting packages include an “Amazing Race”-type activity where delegates compete for prizes, and a “Gourmet Art” dinner in the hotel’s own Art Gallery.