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January 15, 2010

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Tourism mecca gears up for top-level meetings

FAMOUS as a tourist destination for its beautiful natural settings and rich cultural heritage, Hangzhou is forging ahead at full speed to build itself into an "Oriental Geneva" that serves as an international conference base and a major exhibition destination.

With the development of incentive travel in recent years, Hangzhou, regularly named as one of "China's Best Tourism Cities," has shifted from being a visitors' mecca to a place that offers not only sightseeing but also meetings, exhibitions and leisure services.

"With abundant tourism resources, long history and rich culture as well as quality services, infrastructure, industrial base and reception capacity, Hangzhou has great potential to be one of the best MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) cities in the world," said Li Hong, director of Hangzhou Tourism Commission.

Hangzhou's MICE industry has been integrated into the city's general development plan. Based on the "MICE plus leisure travel" approach, the city perfectly combines exhibition and meetings business with its unique location, according to Organizing Committee of the Hangzhou West Lake International Expo. Since 2000, 853 exhibitions, conferences and festivals have been held during the past 10 West Lake Expos in which trade turnover reached 96.42 billion yuan (US$14.12 billion).

The Hangzhou MICE Alliance was set up last year by the tourism bureau to combine the city's visitor-focussed resources, including travel agencies, hotels, exhibition centers, airlines and scenic spots.

It is moving forward aggressively and on schedule to cater to the lucrative segment.

"The ambition to develop the MICE industry has resulted in a major reshuffle and optimization of the city's overall tourism industry," Li said.

Since the blueprint to develop the local MICE industry was published two years ago, Hangzhou has achieved a lot and been moving steadily toward the "Oriental Geneva" concept.

International giants

An influx of large-scale business conferences (each over 1,000 people) chose Hangzhou as their destination last year, such as KFC's 2009 management meeting, the cosmetics giant Mary Kay's marketing conference, Microsoft's annual meeting and many others.

In addition, a number of global conferences were held in Hangzhou, including the China-Arab Cooperation Forum, the 56th Union Internationale Des Concierges D'Hotels Les Clefs D'Or, the annual conference of the Asia Pacific Association for Folk Artists and the PATA Travel Mart 2009, among others.

"These international meetings and activities held in Hangzhou greatly boosted the city's international image and strengthened its influence," Li said.

Located at the southern tip of the Yangtze River Delta, to the west of Hangzhou Bay, on the lower reaches of the Qiantang River and at the south end of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, Hangzhou is one of the most important cities in the Yangtze River Delta region and a vital traffic hub in southeastern China.

Though ranked as a second-tier city in the country, Hangzhou has its own competitiveness and absolute advantages in developing exhibition services with its own characteristics.

Hangzhou's industries mainly feature textiles, women's wear, furniture, automobiles, household appliances, telecommunications and software development.

In addition, the city is also a center for China's computerization, involving animated cartoons, computer games, e-commerce, digital television and integrated circuit design, laying a strong foundation for the development of its medium and small exhibitions.

Due to the acceleration and development of upgraded transport facilities, Hangzhou in recent years has emerged as not only an extension of Shanghai for exhibitions but also a better choice, in addition to its usual image of "Shanghai's backyard."

"I think the relationship between Hangzhou and Shanghai should be better defined as 'copetition,' that is, cooperation and competition," director Li said.

"Shanghai is undoubtedly a significant economic, financial and trade center, as well as a giant conference and exhibition city. This just provides good opportunities for Hangzhou, its neighbor within less than a two-hour express train ride."

More than half of the world's top 100 multi-national companies have settled in Shanghai and this offers great potential for Hangzhou's ambitions to become a "hotspot" for meetings.


As for the exhibition industry, the director said the key term is "dislocation competition." Hangzhou is probably unable to compete with Shanghai's capacity to hold large-scale exhibitions of heavy industry due to its smaller size, but it can bring into full play its advantages to attract light and IT industries.

"At the same time, Hangzhou-grown companies should strengthen cooperation with Shanghai and attract more client resources through exchange activities between the two cities," Li said.

The World Expo 2010 to be held in Shanghai from May seems to be another opportunity for Hangzhou. It is estimated that Shanghai will attract about 70 million overseas and domestic tourists during the event and a large number of them are expected to tour to the nearby scenic city.

To maximise its Expo visitor potential, Hangzhou has been designated as a "branch venue" of Expo.

Hangzhou is also one of the 10 cities that have been listed as World Expo Shanghai's Urban Best Practices areas and a miniature version of the city will be on display during the event.

The main theme of the 399-square-meter Hangzhou Hall is "five waters," including the world-renowned West Lake, the Xixi Wetland, the ancient Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the Qiantang River and the East China Sea that all converge at Hangzhou.

"Water is the root and soul of Hangzhou City, linking the heritage of 5,000 years ago to the quality life of today's urban dwellers," director Li said.

In addition, a forum themed as "harmonious city life," an important part of the World Expo Shanghai, will be launched in Hangzhou in October, co-hosted by United Nations Human Settlements Program, the National Ministry of Housing and Construction, Bureau of Shanghai World Expo Coordination and Hangzhou People's Government.

A highlight of the Expo Shanghai (Hangzhou venue) is that the local government has relaunched 10 classic Hangzhou tourism routes to the public.

These include some of the time-honored, world-famous natural attractions of the city, such as the West Lake, the Xixi Wetland and the Grant Canal, idyllic village life - such as Longmen Old Town and Fuyang Village famous for making rice paper (Chinese art paper) - ancient cultural sights such as the China Tea Museum, Royal Street of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and many others.

Hangzhou and Shanghai are working together to launch shuttle bus services between the two cities during World Expo to facilitate access for independent travelers.

Meanwhile, the local tourism bureau will set up more than 100 information desks around the city's scenic spots for tourists, offering information and onsite help about hotel and restaurant booking.

In addition, a travel card is scheduled to be made available to independent travelers during Expo which, by topping up with funds, visitors to Hangzhou can rent bikes, buy small items and take taxis and buses.


The city's hotel industry is faced with both challenges and opportunities during this busy period.

Wei Li, general manager of Sofitel Hangzhou Xanadu Resort, said the city had plenty of appeal through its unique culture, beautiful scenery and long history but at the same time it is modern and energetic.

"Big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are too business-oriented and Hainan Island is too laid-back," Wei said.

"Hangzhou is so special because it combines the advantages of these cities and balances them in a perfect way," Wei added. "The mode of 'MICE plus leisure travel' is just tailor-made for Hangzhou."

Opened about four years ago, the Xiaoshan area hotel has a total of 18 meeting areas.

The biggest, completed last month, can hold almost 800 people. Wei said more than 60 percent of the hotel's revenue was from MICE.

In order to prepare for Expo and better accommodate visitors, it will launch a series of projects to give it a face-lift before June, such as decorating hotel rooms and giving special training to workers.

In addition, special guests will be invited to the lake by the hotel, enabling them to get up close to nature with boat trips in the morning to feed the swans.

In the eyes of James Yang, marketing director of Hyatt Regency Hangzhou, the city offers more than just sightseeing with its superior infrastructure.

"The subway network, new high-speed train between Shanghai and Hangzhou, a new airport terminal and bigger convention centers are under construction to cater to the needs of today's MICE markets," Yang said.

"The city retains the old charm in its key sights and this conscientious heritage retention focus by government certainly will be able to attract business or leisure guests both locally and from overseas."

These views are echoed by Wang Jing, director of sales and marketing at the five-star CBD Landison Plaza Hotel.

"The city's accommodation and related products and services offer a price point advantage over larger metropolises without any compromise on the quality of product or service," she said.

The hotel currently has seven meeting venues and the biggest can hold 380 people. This March, a 670-square-meter conference hall will be opened with seating capacity for almost 500 people.

Yang Ji, sales director of Wyndham Grand Plaza Royale, West Lake Hangzhou, urged visitors and businesses to "go have a meeting in Hangzhou."

"The city has been transformed from a beautiful scenery place into a leisure capital that combines sightseeing, exhibitions and meetings," he said.


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