Planner's Workshop: Nine Strategies for Planning a Meeting in China

Just when it seemed that interest in China as a meeting location couldn't get any higher, along come the 2008 Olympics. If you're among the thousands of meeting planners whose CEO or client has tasked you with putting together an event in the world's most dynamic emerging market, you're probably wondering just how different, and how difficult, it's going to be. What will you need to know to pull off a successful event in a country so different from ours?

Having produced more than a dozen corporate and organizational meetings in China since 2001, I can offer several strategies that have made my recent experiences much smoother than the earlier ones. You could call it my learning curve for getting the best results from vendors and venues.

1. Relationships Matter—can you say Guanxi? Your money is important, of course, but investing in face time is essential to success when doing business in China. Their word for the concept is guanxi, meaning personal relationships. It's best if the relationships are established before business needs are even discussed, which means the organizations and individuals need to make themselves known to the Chinese they wish to work with well in advance. A social event, such as dinner, which would typically follow business negotiations here in America, might come before any business discussions in China. Developing good guanxi involves personal touches, such as a modestly priced gift, and the qualities you would expect in any effective relationship: courtesy, fairness, and dependability. Chinese people feel obliged to do business with friends first.

2. Communicate clearly, and accurately It's very important to express yourself as clearly as possible, whether speaking or writing. Use metric measurements—meters and kilos, not feet and pounds—in all plans and specifications. Learning and using a few Chinese phrases and written characters can help build those important relationships (see #1 above), but take great care to be accurate. In the United States if you give a vendor an incorrect measurement, they will most likely raise a question and save your bacon. But the Chinese businessperson will not want to insult you by mentioning a problem with size or scale; they will do what you ask.

3. Understand and work within the pecking order. Chinese society and business are organized hierarchically, and Chinese people seem more oriented to the group than the individual. They may not wish to take responsibility or even express opinions before their peers if they feel it may cause loss of face. You need to work with your supplier to identify a point person with decision-making power who can effectively relay your requests down the line.

4. The details can bedevil you. Be as specific as possible in all your requests. If anything is open to interpretation—colors or fabric weights, for example—send samples of what you want. Then ask the vendor to send you a complete description and photo of what they intend to supply. Last-minute surprises are unlikely to be pleasant ones.

5. Negotiate, with respect. Chinese people expect prices and terms to be negotiated firmly, but always with respect, and the ultimate form of respect is for both parties to feel they have gotten a fair deal. You can take advantage of the Asian belief that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow—your promise of timely payment will often be rewarded with a concession on something you want.

6. Hospitality, for all the players. Negotiations and other arrangements will go more smoothly when accompanied by social meals, offers of courtesies such as a ride to the airport, and small gifts. But don't forget the front-line folks. Your local crews are typically paid rather low wages (even though the vendor/manager is charging close to industry-standard rates), so an offer to buy some meals for them will get you a lot of goodwill. But even if you're dying for a hamburger, offer them the local cuisine. Like you, they prefer what they're used to.

7. Recognize that last minute is standard. While Chinese vendors will plan well in advance, don't be surprised or concerned if it seems they're executing only when the deadline is fast approaching. This is the way they work. Where a U.S. vendor will be checking out pre-assembly and setup way ahead of time, the Chinese counterpart will build it on site at the last possible minute. The first few times it happened to me I thought it was disaster for sure, but I'm a lot calmer now.

7. Avoid the "Ugly American" syndrome. Vestiges of the decades-old American reputation for treating vendors and suppliers without respect still remain in Chinese memory. And sometimes what Americans consider businesslike or professional behavior is seen as curt or discourteous in other societies. If you take the time to learn a little about the Chinese culture and show respect for the needs and feelings of the people you're working with, you can expect a very positive experience. One small example that goes a long way: Be on time. Asians are timely and expect the same; they will hold it against you if you are late for appointments.

9. Ask for the impossible; you'll probably get it. As you think about working on the other side of the world, you probably expect that last-minute changes (a fact of the meeting planner's life) will be even more difficult to deal with. But you may be pleasantly surprised, as I was.

A few years ago, we were producing an event for a large financial services company that was going to do important training for their clients. The topic became so popular that projected attendance skyrocketed. It looked as if the hotel ballroom was not going to be large enough to accommodate the whole group, but the client didn't want to turn anyone away. We decided to change the seating configuration, and planned to use schoolroom-type chairs with desks attached. This would enable us to increase the size of the group by 30 percent.

When we asked the venue to find the furniture, they said it was unavailable as a rental item but told us that they would find someone to manufacture these chairs/desks! Knowing that special orders for furniture usually take months and cost big bucks here at home, we were very skeptical, to say the least. The venue came back with a price for custom-built chairs for less than we knew the cost would be to rent in the U.S., and they were delivered on time.

The moral of the story: Don't be afraid to ask for what, in North America, might be considered outrageous. You will rarely get no for an answer.

Peter Hauser is executive producer of VisionPilots, a global event and corporate meeting production firm. His 25-year career has included the creation of successful events in China and around the world for Deloitte, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, the 2002 Winter Olympics, and other leading organizations.