Beijing did not get much time to bask in its Olympics afterglow, the global financial crisis shook the world and even China felt the vibrations.
However, with a stomping 8 percent GDP growth, China itself seems back on course and may drag parts of the world economy upward with it if it can sustain the recovery.
Pre-Olympics Beijing saw massive investment in its events-related infrastructure, from state-funded Olympic venues, a new airport terminal and road construction, to the private-sector’s spawning of dozens of new five-star hotels and upscale restaurants and bars. And now it’s payback time.
It was always realised that after the torches and medal ceremonies were long gone, it would be business events that would bring in the delegates and groups to pay for it all.
Today, event planners will find a city that has changed beyond recognition. The Forbidden City may be preserved as it was in the days of the Qing Dynasty and Mao Zedong may still gaze down on Tiananmen Square, but neither emperor nor revolutionary would recognise much of the city beyond.
This is part of the exciting challenge for event organisers heading for Beijing today. Creating meeting and incentive programmes that blend the unique and intriguing heritage of the city with its 21st-century style and attitudes is now the aim.
David Liu Yanxiang, president of Beijing-based destination management company China Star Professional Programmes, says: “Beijing has undergone a significant face-lift of the capital’s infrastructure. Total public spending of about US$41 billion has been allocated to the city’s transformation. Accessibility of the city has been considerably enhanced with the completion of the new airport terminal, four new subway lines, new highways and additional roads connecting the sixth ring road.
“In terms of venues, with the completion of the New China International Exhibition Centre and China National Convention Centre (CNCC), Beijing is shaping up its attractiveness as a leading events destination,” he says.
“World-class hoteliers have launched a significant number of four- and five-star hotels in the past two years, with approximately 10,000 hotel rooms, offering high-end accommodation and event facilities in a highly competitive environment,” Liu points out.
Another event specialist, Nicholas Mulley, managing director, Greater China of Destination Asia, also agrees that the Olympic Games acted as a catalyst for modernisation.
“Areas like Chi’en Men 23 brought with it a totally new high-end dining experience to Beijing that was once only available in Shanghai. This as well as the Olympic venues themselves that can now be used for events gives Beijing a competitive edge that it previously lacked.”
While Chinese art has thousands of years of history, there has been a spectacular explosion of innovation among the younger generation. This means event organisers can tap into the local creative community in a way that was impossible before. This might involve modern dance shows at your event, using graffiti artists to decorate your space or choosing one of the many modern galleries to host your function.
Suvi Saxen, general manager of conference and event specialist MCI Beijing, says: “Both heritage China and modern China have plenty of options for creative programmes. From an international organiser’s point of view, it is easier to carry out creative ideas with young modern groups (artists, designers, sport groups, student groups) simply because they have better understanding of international guests’ expectations and tastes. Beijing has also a large number of Chinese-international groups in a multitude of different interest areas, with whom to carry out the ‘craziest’ ideas.”
Chief among the new artistic areas is the 798 area. This is a former defence district and arsenal. The munitions factories have gone elsewhere to be replaced by studios and galleries. Art has grown from the barrel of a gun.
Destination Asia’s Mulley says: “We find that clients want to experience the both old and new China. Most clients have the perception of Beijing of being a very cultural, traditional city, which it certainly is, however the country is changing and there are many aspects of new China that are equally important for clients to experience and understand.
“We try and give the clients a bit of both. We show them the cultural side of the city by using traditional venues at the beginning and also contrasting this with newer venues that show them a side of China they never expected to see. For many corporate groups, it is also very important to show them ‘new’ China, as China represents a new and important business market for their companies.”
Mulley adds: “An example of this would be using a venue such as the Great Wall of China for one event, and then using 798 for another event. This allows the clients to see how far the country has come, as 798 was once a industrial area during the Cultural Revolution, now it is the burgeoning centre of contemporary art in Beijing.
“Another example would be using a venue such as the China Club on one evening and LAN Club on another. One is a very traditional Hutong-style venue, the other is created by one of the world’s leading designers with US$28 million worth of contemporary artwork, which is very much a symbol of new money in China.”
When it comes to contemporary design and architecture, of course, it would be impossible to ignore the world-wowing Olympic venues themselves.
MCI Beijing’s Saxen says: “A vast number of modern new venues for meetings and events, both indoor and outdoor, are at the disposal of meeting and event organisers: the CNCC, Water Cube, Television Tower, Birds Nest, and the Olympic Park Green Areas. As a result of the Olympics, Beijing’s supply is one of the world’s best today.”
Hospitality levels in catering have also risen dramatically. This is great news for planners, who are no longer stuck with endless Chinese banquets but now have a wide range of high-class options. Better still, they are very affordable.
Says Saxen: “The Olympics also brought along high-quality international cuisine and catering services. Yet due to the post-Olympic oversupply of four- and five-star hotels, the price level is also extremely competitive.”
Given Beijing’s size and history, there are still heritage sites that remain lesser known and provide the blend of heritage and modernity groups look for.
Tracy Dai, manager of destination management company Ovation China, says: “Beijing boasts many historical sites and many resources that have not been tapped, especially ones with major differences between mysterious eastern cultures and western ones. For example, organising a group dinner at Tai Miao really impresses clients.”
Of course, there are still challenges. The rapid expansion of the hotel and hospitality sector and the short timescale for training meant that service levels sometimes lag behind. This software-hardware gap will be bridged but organisers need to anticipate potential problems.
As Destination Asia’s Mulley puts it: “Beijing has an amazing culture, history and iconic events that can be used to create an array of unforgettable experiences. What the city lacks in some areas is the service and know how to make an event not only look good, but feel good from a service perspective. Language is also an issue as many service staff only speak basic English, so complicated requests can get lost in translation.”
Saxen’s colleague, Frankie Gao, managing director of MCI China, sees signs of progress: “I’ve witnessed a giant improvement in the creative elements in Beijing events. There is a wave in Beijing to blend trendy and traditional elements to attract young professionals and westerners. We can see there are several international suppliers serving in the city and the local suppliers moving forward quickly to catch up with international standards.”
Beijing continues to move ahead and the transformation in the past few years has been breathtaking, it’s now up to organisers to make the city their own.
Book your event early, especially for Beijing’s heritage sites and venues that need special permission
Always negotiate hard with private-sector suppliers, competition in Beijing is intense
Work with reputable local suppliers that are part of internationally recognised bodies, such as ICCA and SITE
Language can still be a barrier, make sure guides speak your language and interpreters are available, especially for languages other than English
Find young artists, musicians, dancers and designers to work with, they often have a better understanding of non-Chinese groups’ tastes and expectations
Beijing is no longer a “Bike City”, take traffic into account in your timetable – or explore the excellent underground network. Avoid peak times though
Choose your time of year carefully, Beijing’s wind and weather conditions can have a major impact on your programme
Be sensitive to wider political events, these can affect visa applications, use of government buildings and so on. Have a Plan B just in case
David Liu Yanxiang is president of China Star Professional Programmes
Event planners in Beijing often face a dilemma in choosing suitable activities and events for their clients, due to constraints in budgets, availability and capacity of the venues. But good planning of an event with sufficient time, usually several months ahead of the event allows event planners to tailor a programme that addresses the client’s expectation.
In terms of suppliers, we would first need to distinguish two categories, “unique” ones and “common” ones. Unique suppliers are for example the Banquet Hall of Great Hall of People, Forbidden City or Great Wall, these distinct venues cannot be substituted by other places.
The common suppliers are, for example, convention centres to a certain degree, hotels and restaurants. These suppliers usually can be substituted with other industry suppliers with little difference. Of course, it is wrong to simplistically see them as “common suppliers”, as each convention centre, hotel or restaurant is unique, but as a rule of thumb, we stick to these two categories. And, of course, there are also some examples that fit into neither category.
The unique suppliers are very reluctant to negotiate fees. They usually have the upper hand when it comes to fees and charges. For the common suppliers, since the competition within their own segments is immense, they tend to be very co-operative and they are also quite flexible with their fees and charges, since they look out for a long-term relationship and cooperation with the event planners.
As the centre of politics, Chinese culture and economy, Beijing benefits significantly from its capital status over other Chinese cities. There are countless events, varying from small-scale business events by corporations headquartered in Beijing to international congresses with tens of thousands of delegates to music festivals lasting for weeks. Beijing’s social calendar is filled with events internationally, locally, politically and commercially. Event planners need to confirm the venue and service in black and white, and as early as possible.
Secondly, international event planners should work with a quality local partner to reach their goals. Beijing has a lot of event planners, but few really understand what events mean. They normally don’t sign contracts with their suppliers and always over-promise but under-deliver. Choosing a good partner is the key. Work with the right people. That will make things much easier.
Star Professional Programmes
Move over Shanghai, Beijing’s bars and function spaces provide organisers with cutting-edge style, writes Gary Bowerman
4 Gongti Bei Lu, Sanlitun, Chaoyang
Tel: 8610 6593 7710
Opened in fall 2009, this beautifully designed warehouse-chic space with high ceilings, soaring redbrick arches and comfy sofas is currently Beijing’s hippest lounge, attracting a classy but casual clientele. The space is very adaptable and has been used for a range of private events.
“Since we opened in September, we have done fashion shows, corporate events, wine tastings and art gallery collaborations. Our clients have included David Lachapelle, 42 Below and Miss Sixty,” says Warren Pang, general manager. ” To match our branding, we mainly aim for events related to fashion, art, music and media, but we are open for others as well and will soon be opening a second section of the lounge.”
Duck de Chine
1949 – The Hidden City, Courtyard 4, Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang
Tel: 8610 6501 1949
Opened ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the bars and restaurants of 1949: The Hidden City contemporary courtyard development were a hotspot for press events, brand promotions and official dinners during the Games. The sleekest, chicest venue is Duck de Chine, a refined dining room dressed with hard wood floors, angular beams, exposed brick walls and red lanterns. The finest feature, however, is the wood-fired oven for preparing the acclaimed signature dish: Beijing Roast Duck. The restaurant is split into two halves, and event organisers can reserve half or whole of the venue for a modern take on a traditional Beijing dinner banquet. Recent private clients include Ferrari, Lenovo, Deutsche Bank and the New Zealand embassy.
3/F, 2 Qianmen Dajie.
Tel: 8610 6702 2727
The third member of the “M Trilogy” – following Hong Kong’s M at the Fringe and Shanghai’s M on the Bund – Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut’s latest venture opened in late 2009. The location is magnificent, sitting on the corner of the redeveloped Qianmen Street shopping and entertainment district. Pre-dinner cocktails on the spacious terrace are de rigueur – offering stunning views across Tiananmen Square. The spacious interior features the Silver Room, a sophisticated semi-private room set against the backdrop of a stunning ‘“Journey of the Seasons” mural by Michael Cartwright that runs the entire length of the venue. “We can host up to 90 guests here, and have created specially tailored four-course menus for clients,” says Cordelia Witton, functions coordinator.
6 Dongcaoyuan, Gongti Nan Lu, Chaoyang
Tel: 8610 6551 6788
Having conquered Jakarta, Bangkok and Shanghai, Face brought its kaleidoscopic, multi-themed Thai, Chinese, Indian and Moroccan restaurant/bar concept to a former school building near Workers Stadium. Private spaces include a converted Chinese courtyard with a traditional hutong colonnade and long-table settings (for up to 60 guests), plus three interconnected dining rooms for groups of up to 220. There is also an adjoining VIP room for 15 guests. A quirkier option is a Mongolian yurt in the courtyard. Accessed via a walkway from the bar, the tent “brings the ancient Ghengis Khan culture into the vicinity” says Paul Kan, sales and marketing manager. “It has an under floor-heating system, plus a traditional wood fired-oven inside, and is a great venue for intimate parties of around 15 people.”
Green T. House Living
318 Cuigezhuang Xiang Hegezhuang Cun, Chaoyang.
Tel: 8610 8456 4922
Situated in the countryside just outside Beijing, Green T. House Living was founded by musician and artist JinR, to follow-up her art-chic Green T. House restaurant, which opened in 1997. Combining fine dining, a cultural events space and a Bath House Residence, the minimalist Zen-infused Green T. House Living offers contemporary Chinese art exhibits, tea ceremonies and musical performances in a 15,000 square metre modern recreation of a Beijing courtyard. The venue features T. Reflection Room, a contemporary interpretation of a traditional teahouse in a transparent glass cube with a heated floor, and the stunning Bath House Residence – inspired by a Tang dynasty emperor’s bath house, and featuring a teaspoon-shaped granite green tea-infused hot steam bath and massage therapies.
B/F, The Opposite House Hotel, The Village, 11 Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang District.
Tel: 8610 6417 6688
Punk by name, though slightly less rebellious by nature, this is perhaps Beijing’s most unique concept bar/club. Created as a stand-alone venue in the achingly hip Opposite House boutique hotel, Punk is promoted as a space “where luxury goes underground”. Recent events include a Black Carpet party for the P1 private social network, the 42 Below vodka short film festival, a party for Belvedere IX, and fashion shows by some of China’s leading independent designers. Fashion events are complemented in warmer weather by the Opposite House’s Penthouse, a 200sqm roof terrace that is a popular summer space for cocktail parties and product displays, and has hosted fashion launches by both Hermes and Benetton.
1/F, Hotel G, A7, Gongtixi Lu, near Workers Stadium
Tel: 8610 6552 3600
Hollywood 1960s retro chic is the theme of the design-conscious 110-room boutique Hotel G. Taking its name from the heroine from Gone with the Wind, the uber-chic Scarlett wine and tapas bar is clad in sensual scarlet wallpaper, with dark wood high tables, high-backed leather sofas, copper lampshades and a TV screen showing black-and-white movies. The venue has proved popular for local Chamber of Commerce post-work mixer events and company cocktail evenings for up to 220 people. With its own wine cellar and a stellar menu of cheeses and cold cuts, Scarlett has also hosted several themed wine events, including a Beaujolais Nouveau tasting.
Red Capital Club
66 Dongsi Jiutiao, Dongcheng district.
Tel: 8610 8401 6152
This long-standing Cultural Revolution themed hotel, restaurant and bar is located in a lovingly restored hutong courtyard. A Chinese banquet can be enjoyed amid 1950s Chinese government furnishings, ornaments, paintings and myriad Mao memorabilia, or under the stars in the leafy courtyard. Red Capital also offers evening tours of Beijing in Madame Mao’s Red Flag limo. Recent corporate dinner clients include Nokia and GTZ. Volkswagen also used the space as a break venue, while testing its new automobile at the Club’s sister venue, Red Capital Ranch, near the Great Wall. Red Capital club’s underground Bomb Shelter also hosts a unique dinner parties for up to six people. Historian Ed Jocelyn, author of Long March, recently gave a series of lectures on the “truths, fictions and modern significance of Mao’s Long March”.
Chi’enmen 23, 23 Qianmen Dongdajie, Dongcheng district.
Tel: 8610 6559 9200
Housed in the stately former American Embassy in Beijing’s old Legation quarter, Maison Boulud is acclaimed New York-based French chef Daniel Boulud’s first restaurant in Asia. The lavish interiors of the two-floored building include five private banqueting rooms, ranging from the 20sqm Botanic Room to the 130sqm Terrace Room that can host up to 88 guests dining at round tables. The most ostentatious is the 70 sqm Pink Room: “We have almost 1,000 labels on our wine list and when winemakers come to Beijing, we host wine pairing dinners here for up to 45 people,” says Carine Chu, private events manager. The restaurant also boasts a spacious stone terrace on the second floor, and has hosted a variety of events from a banquet for a Saudi Arabian oil company to fashion shows and press conferences.
The Meat & Wine Co
Chi’enmen 23, 23 Qianmen Dong Dajie, Dongcheng District.
Tel: 8610 6512 1761
The Asian flagship of this global steakhouse is primed for private dining. Guests get to walk along a dedicated “wine tunnel” leading to the wine cellar and private dining rooms accommodating between six and 50 people. The Treetop private dining room can accommodate up to 10 guests and includes a television and projector plus KTV facilities. These facilities are also available in the 10-seat White Noise and a six-seat Canopy rooms. The larger Oxygen and Monsoon rooms cater for groups of up to 12. There is also an outdoor terrace for cocktail receptions. Recent clients include the South African, Australian and American Embassies and the Australian and the US Chambers of Commerce.
ORGANISERS TOP TEN PICKS
The Forbidden City
The Summer Palace
The Legation Quarter
The Temple Parks
The hutong alleys
Ancestral Temple (Tai Miao)
Banquet Hall of Great Hall of People
Prince Gong’s Mansion
China National Convention Centre
Ling Long Tower (Olympic Park)
798 arts district
1949-The Hidden City (Sanlitun)
Commune by the Great Wall
Chi’en Men 23
Beijing Capital Airport is China’s premier air hub with direct connections across Asia.
Extremely hot and dry in summer and cold and windy in winter. The best times to host events are April to June and September to early November.
A pre-paid visa is required.
Beijing Tourism Administration