China Hotel Biz Insider: The Sheraton Shanghai Hongqiao's convention(al) wisdom

Travel | by Stephan Larose
Posted: August 4th, 2010 | Updated: April 19th, 2011 | Comments
Sheraton Shanghai Hongqiao Director of Hotel Catering and Convention Sales Andy Gu I recently sat down with the Sheraton Hongqiao's Director of Catering & Conventions Sales, Andy Gu, and Jade Woon, Director of Sales and Marketing, to chat about the challenges hotels face when hosting major international events. Also after the jump: useful tips for first-time event organizers coming to China—including advice on how to keep important packages from getting held up in customs. China Travel: One of the greatest challenges a hotel can face is the perfect execution of a big-name international event. Even though there are plenty of disparate external organizations involved, ultimately, the hotel is held responsible for the success or failure of an event. Is there an instance like this you can point to where you managed to steal victory from the jaws of defeat? Andy Gu: This April, while the Iceland volcano was wreaking havoc on European travel, we had a client organizing a very important financial conference in the hotel, the ETF Investment China Forum (Société Générale, Deutsche Bank, Dow Jones Indexes...). Just six days before the conference was to begin the organizer received an email from the UK saying the volcanic ash over Europe was going to prevent the keynote speaker from attending. That was somewhat of a disaster because the organizer had already sent out invitations and the event schedule.... We thought the conference might be canceled, but at the last minute, the keynote speaker was able to find a flight leaving two days after the original one, but would arrive on the day of the event. So he could only deliver his speech in the afternoon, not the morning as scheduled.

[pullquote]The basic instinct is, secure the deal, nothing else matters, we have to deliver what we promised no matter what.

—Jade Woon, Director of Sales and Marketing.

[/pullquote]The organizer was overjoyed his keynote speaker would still make it, but we were now facing a scheduling conflict. Chinaplas Exhibition (Chevron Phillips, ExxonMobil, Dow...) participants were to have dinner in that same room. We were in deep in it then, because the challenge of fitting both these important clients in the same room with such a restricted time for turnover was going to be intense. We did the easy stuff first, changed the morning group’s seating plan to match the evening group’s so we didn’t have to flip tables. Originally, there was to be a two-hour lunch and social mixer, so we decided to start with the lunch and shorten the mixer a bit, then get the keynote speaker up for his hour long speech around 2:00 p.m. Then on to tougher stuff: logistics execution. There was the A/V support element, as well as catering, engineering, conventions and banquet staffing to think of, so we went to the two parties to see where plans could be changed so that one event wouldn’t adversely impact the other. We very carefully asked them to take into account the force majeure nature of this complication and asked very nicely if the changes we determined necessary could be made, but it was a difficult situation. The dinner party felt they were going to suffer from our efforts to accommodate the afternoon group, and they were not happy about it. They didn’t want to compromise on the quality or scheduling of their dinner in any way. We asked to slightly alter their plans by changing the earliest component of their evening to a cocktail reception on our fifth floor terrace, giving us some breathing room to execute a super fast turnover.

We also had to reconcile differences between A/V support providers, much more compatibility between A/V setups was necessary for a fast turnover to be possible. This was also a very touchy issue because they’d both hired different companies and had dissimilar setups. I had to ask the morning group to use the same company as the evening group for their backdrops to be identical. The effect would be like a man wearing tear-away pants for an instant costume change, just tear down the first backdrop and the second one would be there ready for the other group.

CT: Was it a difficult process trying to bring these two groups together to use the same resources? Andy Gu: It was very difficult. The morning conference organizer had already signed a contract and paid their A/V support company. They were going to incur a cancellation penalty. Under normal circumstances, using two different vendors is no problem, but with the time suddenly so truncated, we had to make sure things were fair for the dinner party; none of this was their fault or their problem. We really had to finesse the morning group so they would modify their plans and make them as conducive to a rapid turnover as possible. We had to cut a new lobby signboard matching the shape of the evening group’s exactly because we knew it would be difficult to haul one in and replace it with another (these are large and unwieldy objects) in just a few minutes. So we stuck them together and when the afternoon conference was done, we just took it down, revealing the evening party’s signboard. [pullquote]The thinking often goes “If I give this package a very high insurable value, they’ll take better care of it to make sure they don’t lose or break it and incur a large insurance charge.” But this often ends up backfiring. —Andy Gu, Director of Catering & Convention Sales[/pullquote] CT: Was it more stressful contemplating the possibility of losing the conference due to the volcano, or more stressful to realize the event could be salvaged, but that the entire schedule and logistics would change? Andy Gu: It was all tremendously difficult, but we told them both that we’d do anything to execute both events perfectly. If we lost the event, that would mean a huge loss of revenue, we don't want that. If we screwed up the execution of the new schedule there would be a huge loss of opportunity and trust for the future, we certainly could not let that happen either. Jade Woon: The basic instinct is, secure the deal, nothing else matters, we have to deliver what we promised no matter what. Once we knew we still had the client, we did not want to compromise their experience even 1%, so we had to find solutions for everything. The key was facilitating very transparent communication between all parties. Andy ran around like crazy, he practically turned into the hotel’s chief operating officer, he marshaled every source of talent and labor in our hotel and got them to drop everything to help, he got the sales team involved, operations, the marketing team’s artists, F&B, housekeeping, banquet operations—everyone. But in the end the most important thing he was doing was keeping communication lines open and transparent all the time. All told, it was really good that all this happened. We took a situation full of havoc and delivered the experience we promised to both parties, plus were 15 minutes ahead of schedule by the time the evening party’s dinner was starting. The clients were extremely happy about that, and so at the end of the day our efforts were really good for us. It’s a very healthy exercise for any business to try to outperform under duress (laughs). CT: How did you deal with the havoc? How did you keep track of all the different communications and changes and developments that were going on? Andy Gu: I bring my red book everywhere I go. A client might say something to you that seems small at the time, but it could be a big deal. And when everyone is talking to you at the same time, different representatives from the same group, people from all over the hotel, you can’t just hope you’ll remember what everyone is saying, so I write it down and keep track of everything, that way nothing gets overlooked. Sheraton Shanghai Hongqiao CT: When you saw the dinner party sitting down to their meal on schedule and everyone looked happy, how did you feel? Andy Gu: Very relaxed. The week leading up to that moment was painfully exhausting. We were dealing with parties from different cultures with different styles of communications and neither group wanted to give ground on their event. We had to convince them that the results they were looking for were not going to change, we would give them everything they asked for, we just needed to find ways to compromise and modify so we could execute all that in a fast forward fashion. CT: Kind of like a hotel diplomatic and logistical rapid-reaction force going into action (Andy and Jade laugh). So in the end what was the most satisfying part of this experience? Jade Woon: I think the best part for Andy, as far as I could tell, was the following day when we had our big wrap-up meeting and Andy was able to thank all the staff for their contributions because, really, they are the boots on the ground and they made it happen. As he thanked them I could see this great relaxation come over him, as if showing the staff his gratitude was the best part of the job. Giving credit where credit was due and saying “thanks everyone, you saved this event,” you could how gratifying that was for him. CT: Any other tips you can share with MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions) organizers planning events in China? Andy Gu: Yes, often organizers will use DHL or other international courier services to ship rather basic materials like fliers, leaflets and other materials  easy to produce here in China. And the thinking often goes “If I give this package a very high insurable value, they’ll take better care of it to make sure they don’t lose or break it and incur a large insurance charge.” But this often ends up backfiring. That high insurable value will serve as a red flag for customs, and they’ll want to see what’s in there and that often leads to delays, higher taxes or duties and forces the organizers to hire an agent to help deal with customs. It can get very drawn out, messy and expensive so it's better to write up a lower value. CT: Do you mean the real value of the contents, or lower than the real value? Andy Gu: I would say a little lower than the real value might be best to avoid any undue attention from customs, yes. CT: Thanks for your time guys! Planning a corporate event in China? Use Ctrip Corporate Travel services for the best prices and services.
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