Big Bus commandos take Shanghai: How Mike Norton and Jeffrey Guan set up a Shanghai bus tour in record time

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: September 26th, 2010 | Updated: April 7th, 2011 | Comments

I sat down with Mike Norton of the Big Bus Tour Company to talk about the differences between running a tour bus company in Dubai, Hong Kong and Shanghai, where Big Bus most recently opened shop. We also ended up discussing how, if the stars are aligned properly, things can get done in China with incredible speed—what might take years elsewhere can be done with commando-strike speed and effectiveness... with tourists getting the most out of the deal in the end!

I didn't realize that the Big Bus Tour Company employed Delta Force commandos until about midway through the interview when I had a chance to check back through my notes. Mike Norton had said something that struck me as being quite incredible, but he'd done it in such a casual manner that at first it slipped on by:

"Yeah, I've been here since January... and we ran our first bus on May 30th," Mike had said.

Catching up, I did the math and factored in what I thought I knew about doing business in China: That's about four months to arrive, take care of paper work in the world's oldest near-continuous bureaucracy, train staff and drivers, get the signature Big Bus double-deckers through customs and running smoothly in Shanghai traffic, plot routes, print up promo material, take care of insurance, give everybody involved in negotiations countless cigarettes, etc. etc. etc.... in just four months? In the US, it can take longer just to find a decent insurance policy. (And at least four years to fight off the lawsuit brought against you for trying to give a guy at City Hall who just quit smoking a cigarette!)

So I backed up and asked him when they had actually started on the project. "January," he affirmed.

And when they had ran their first bus? "May," he repeated.

And that is, without question, the major difference between doing things in Shanghai and doing things anywhere else in the world. Who would have thought double decker buses could be so fast?

A Golden Opportunity

For Big Bus Tours, an international brand known for "hop on, hop off" convenience that first rolled in London in 1991, the opportunity to do business in Shanghai was "too golden to pass up." So when the Huangpu Tourism Bureau (HTB) reached across the border into Hong Kong, where the first Big Buses had begun their routes in November of 2009, the company quickly dispatched Mike and Jeffrey Guan to go and handle business.

"It is certainly not possible to start that quick in Hong Kong," explained Mike. "It took over a year of negotiations to go through the whole process in Hong Kong, including permissions and approval from all of the departments. They actually have a limit on how many bus licenses they will give out, so essentially, if we are to get one someone else has to lose one. In Hong Kong, things are done according to rules and you can either do it this way or not, whereas on the Mainland there are rules and everyone spends all of their time getting around them."

Big Bus, it seemed, found a way to navigate quickly through the heavy traffic. "For example, in Shanghai we needed at least 5-6 different chops to get the permission to even run a bus line and use the stops and if we were to go to all of those places and get those chops ourselves, dealing with each department individually, it would have been impossible, but the (Huangpu) Tourism Bureau got all of those chops for us."

So does knowing that officialdom was actually behind the lightning quick set-up of a busline take away from the Norton-Guan Dream Team? No. Because as we kept talking, I learned that this was a game of pass-and-go between the Tourism Bureau, the Transportation Bureau and the Big Bus Team that involved each side "dishing the rock" in a delicate ballet that allowed for not a single dropped ball.

A Man on the Inside

It was the kind of revelation that made it clear just how a city like Shanghai could pull off something as enormously complex as the 2010 Shanghai Expo—the kind of Herculean effort and big-time event that, like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, often seems to leave major cities in the West looking like sleepy provincial burgs.

Mike explained that not only was the process fast, but it was relatively trouble-free. "Nothing was completely smooth, but there were no disasters—with a schedule as tight as ours, one little delay can set the whole project back for what, 3 months? Six months? So we could not afford any real issues. Fortunately, the will was there on the Chinese side to get it done.  They wanted the bus up and running for the Expo as badly as we did.”

[pullquote]In Hong Kong, things are done according to rules and you can either do it this way or not, whereas on the Mainland there are rules and everyone spends all of their time getting around them."[/pullquote]The whole thing started up when, a few years back, the HTB sent a delegation to London to check things out. They saw the 40+ buses running around the city—brimming with happy tourists—and said to each other: We want that. Fast forward to late 2009 when the first buses started rolling in Hong Kong and that's when the HTB made their move.

They already had some mysterious guy who was holding all of the permissions to operate a busline, but he had no buses. So they contacted the people they knew who had all of the buses but no permission. As easy as that, right?

"Well. There is so much you have to deal with in the beginning: bank stuff, getting your office in gear, staff, all of the documents going and the route ..."

Plotting the Route

Oh yeah, the route. Surely, plotting a smooth route through a city of 20 million was a bit tougher.

"Basically, what we did for the route was get together a list of all of the sights we wanted, right? and then we hired a car and drove around the city. Because one of the things you need to figure out is, which route works best for a car? For a bus? Which route provides the best views? We also had to take into account hotels, right? because most of our customers are going to be staying in hotels and we need to make things convenient for them. Other things to think about are, can a bus make a left turn here? Does anything block the view? How are the lights?" Simple enough.

Mike also had to put together an itinerary, record it and then send it to Oxford to get it translated into eight different languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French, German, Dutch, Russian, Spanish) while Jeffrey Guan shadowed the various agencies helping with or in charge of all of the various documents the company needed before they could go live.

For those of us here at China Travel, the idea of being parachuted into a foreign city, with no idea of the layout and no chance of learning the local language in less than a year and then putting together an audio guide that will appeal to 8 different nationalities is ... challenging to say the least. Mike got it done in about two months.

There might be an advantage to have never been here before because buildings you might have walked by every day could be interesting to me, I’ll might say, wow what’s that? Look at that! and then I can go and find out what it’s all about and it might be something very interesting. Its really nice to listen to the commentary now and ride the bus, you know?

Sitting up there, you get a good perspective on the city; you can look down on not only the sites and such but also on the general street life of the average guy doing his thing. It is actually quite fascinating and very different from any mode of transportation, be it taxi, walking or the subway."

"I would love to hear what the Chinese think about it and whether or not it is interesting for them or if it’s just a rehash of things they already know," he adds.

Relishing the Challenge

So how does Shanghai compare to some of these other cities, not just in terms of the lack of a speed limit in the gray area of "getting stuff done in China," but just in terms of life?

"Shanghai is much more challenging than Hong Kong or Dubai and so therefore much more rewarding. It isn’t easy here if you don’t speak Mandarin, and just trying to get into a taxi you might have problems. How many times have you see tourists in the hotel lobbies getting the concierge to write down the spot in Chinese? That’s not easy. And just general communication can be an adventure, whereas in Hong Kong it’s pretty easy; even with the dialect, almost everyone can speak a bit of English and it just seems familiar... maybe the cars being on the English side make it feel a little to much like home."

So is that it, you plan on sticking around for a while?

'You know, my destiny is not in my own hands. I'll stay here for as long as I can, but when the boss says "go here" then I pack up and go. But for now, Shanghai is a great place to be and I am really glad to be here right now."

One thing's for sure: If these guys were able to put all this together that fast, that effectively, you'd do very well indeed to trust your children and grandparents with them. So, if and when the kiddies and granny come to Shanghai and need a fun, efficient and professional tour with "hop-on, hop-off" convenience, you know what to do: Get the Big Bus crew on the job. You can book Big Bus Shanghai tours by clicking on that link you just whizzed past, Speedy.  And if you book now with Ctrip, you get a 10% discount off the usual price.

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