The way of the Dragon

International associations keen to organise events in China must not only do their homework, they must play by its rules and find a suitable local PCO partner. Caroline Boey finds out more

Holding a meeting in China is the target of US association meeting buyer Kimberly LaBounty, president and founder of Apex Management and Special Events.

Apex is an AMC based in the US and its clients include legal, medical and publishing professionals, and LaBounty, who was attending IT&CM China for the first time in April, is eyeing a spring 2017 date.

“I am very likely to recommend taking our publishing association conference to China in spring 2017 as publishing is a growing and changing market in China and there is tremendous potential.

“We realise not many educational conferences have been held in Asia, so it would be an opportunity for us to be among the first. We would like to hold a conference in Shanghai or Beijing to share best practices.

“We already hold conferences in the US and Europe, and expanding to Asia will allow the association to be perceived as a truly global organisation,” she said.

Several associations managed by Apex have members all over the world, and they are looking to expand into China and other Asian countries and are eager to learn from Asia on how best to provide the services needed.

However LaBounty says China’s proposed law – The Non-Mainland Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law of the People’s Republic of China – not allowing foreign associations to hold meetings in China could pose a problem.

American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) believes the draft legislation will make it extremely difficult for US trade associations and professional societies to be active in China, adding that major restrictions would be placed on the ability of its association professionals to meet, share knowledge, conduct business, and share best practices with Chinese associations, severly curtailing association programmes in China.

ASAE president and CEO John Graham, expressing his concern in a letter to the Law Committee of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, said the legislation would significantly impact US and China economic and commercial relations.

Jeffery Huang, deputy secretary-general and associate researcher of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies based in Beijing says being able to contribute to local cultural, economic and social development is important for anyone organising an event in China.

“Managing cost, securing a high-level keynote speaker and attracting enough participants can be some of the challenges,” he added.

Liu Ping, CEO of China Star, a leading PCO in China, observed that association meetings seem to be slowing down (based on ICCA’s 2013-2015 figures). “I’m concerned that China does not have a ‘unified competent authority (to champion the industry)’,” she added.

“I’m not sure how long it will take China to have a national CVB but cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou and Chengdu have gone ahead to set up departments under their tourism administrations to promote events,” she noted.

Pulling off a successful event in China requires a deep mindset change and international buyers must be aware of the challenges they may face working with local partners and government entities.

In a presentation to local and international association meetings buyers and sellers, Liu Yi, deputy director, China Star, gave a no-holds barred overview of some of the obstacles that stand in the way of China’s international association meetings landscape.

Liu Yi said it is important for international PCOs to co-operate with a local partner who understands and knows the ins-and-outs of China’s requirements and conditions, can cut through government red tape, be able to appoint reliable suppliers, etc.

In China it can take at least 18 months, some times years, for an association meeting to materialise and the reporting system and approval if foreign delegates are attending is complicated, he noted, adding that government influence can positively impact an event.

On the other hand, if the government requests a site inspection, the venue operator may be required to stop an event in-between so that an empty venue can be showcased and it resumes when the site inspection is completed, he noted.

Applying for visas is another area associations need to be mindful of and Liu Yi recommends using a local professional PCO. There is a strict limit on the issuing of business visa invitations, but it is improving, he added.

“Associations think they can be their own PCOs, but in China, a professional and reliable PCO can also help cut waste and take care of areas such as catering and distributing hundreds of box lunches on-site.”

Jennifer Salsbury, the former senior director, international, at Beijing’s China National Convention Center, said China’s processes are unique and truly different.

In communicating with the government, “formulaic” and “government speak” is necessary. “It’s a different ‘language’ and this is the challenge,” Salsbury noted.

Now running IMC-Convention Solutions covering Beijing, Hong Kong and Australia, Salsbury said China’s understanding of international competition is not on the same level compared to other countries in the region.

“China has no CVB or subvention programme to attract meetings, and raising professional standards and getting government recognition is what China must strive for,” she said.

Liu Ping added: “Many cities in China have built impressive venues but have no professional staff to run or market them. There is a big gap.”

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