Having lived and worked in China for the last 8 years I want to offer my 8 top tips for ensuring your first trip to China on business is a more pleasant experience than it is for many first-timers.
- Book your own accommodation with a well-known international hotel chain.
Many first time visitors rely on local suppliers or business partners to book their accommodation. This is a sure-fire way to ensure a very uncomfortable stay. Chinese suppliers will book you in a local Chinese ‘luxury’ hotel. Unfortunately, many of these hotels have perfected the art of looking luxurious on the outside, while offering very little substance expected by a western business traveller. To begin with the reception staff may not speak English which will make it a frustrating experience when you find out there is no Wi-Fi service in your room. Through a series of increasingly frantic hand gestures you will finally realize the unthinkable, that this service is only on offer in the lobby. You might as well set-up camp in the lobby as the sofas there may be softer than the rock-hard bed in your room, the air is certainly fresher than the stale smoke smell lingering upstairs and coating your clothes. And, besides, with the level of noise coming from the karaoke bar in the basement, you are not going to sleep tonight anyway. Come morning, pray that by some miracle there is a real coffee shop somewhere in walking distance of the hotel, as you will not be getting anything resembling coffee in the breakfast service at the hotel. These hotels are built to cater to Chinese businessmen and you will not find fresh brewed coffee, toast or cooked eggs on the breakfast menu, rather cold sweet tea, Congee (stewed rice) and dumplings. Better to start your trip right and book yourself into one of the many well-known international hotels that bring a higher standard of hospitality, fresh coffee and soft beds.
- Pack lots of business cards (and some fake ones).
Since moving to Europe, I hardly see anyone use a business card at an introduction. So, perhaps it is worth mentioning how many business cards you will need on a trip to China. Everyone shares a card on meeting. It is a legitimizer, showing you really do represent the company. It also establishes the ranking order of the participants of the meeting based on their job title. Without a business card you are no one. When you are meeting a supplier at their office expect to exchanges business cards with every employee in the meeting. If you are visiting a trade-fair every vendor will want a card in exchange for his or her information brochures. Extra savvy business travellers will also carry cards with a fake email address for this purpose, which saves them from years of spam-like email advertising from each vendor.
- Download and familiarize yourself with the WeChat app.
WeChat is the Whatsapp equivalent in China. It is easy to use and will be the preferred communication line of your supplier. The bonus part of this app is that it provides an in-app translation. Your supplier can send a message to you in Chinese, you simply long press the message and it is instantly translated into the language of your phone. Easy, simple and the best download you can make before your trip. You can find out more information at WeChat.com
- Get on board with Uber
In most cities in China, the easiest way to get around quickly and cheaply is by taxi or Uber. It is simple to hail a taxi from the road with a wave of the hand and even easier to order an Uber car from your room. You will receive an alert when your car is close by which means no standing in the heat or rain trying to hail a taxi. Uber cars are comfortable, the drivers are friendly and many speak a lot more English than local taxi drivers. Payment is simple, as you do not need to worry about carrying small change to pay the driver directly. Upon payment through the app via your credit card an invoice is sent directly to your email for expense reconciliation when you return from your trip. Perfect!
- Pack lots of tissues
A simple tip that can save embarrassment. A packet of tissues in your bag is essential when visiting toilet facilities in factories and or at local markets. There is no toilet paper provided in the stalls, everyone brings their own. On a side note, be prepared for a shock in the toilets. You have probably read that most toilets require squatting over a hole. But what you may not be prepared for is the smell from all the accidents of people missing the hole. Enough said, bring toilet paper and hold your nose or develop a camel-like bladder when out and about!
- Skip the Baijou
Chinese suppliers love to take an unsuspecting foreign visitor out for a night of food and drinks. They enjoy plying you with the evil tasting rice wine called Baijou. No matter how well you hold your drink, this one will not stay down. Be warned, in this case it is better to be a boring teetotaller and still be functioning for meetings the next morning.
- Don’t expect vegan or vegetarian requests to be taken seriously
There really is no such thing as a vegetarian dish in a local Chinese restaurant. Usually an order of such a dish results in the bemused owner picking out the obvious meat pieces in a ‘vegetarian dish’. Better to stick to rice only and eat up when you get back to your self-booked international hotel where you can guarantee they know what vegetarian means.
- Finally, make sure you have the right visa in your passport.
All entry to China on business requires a business visa applied for in advance at your local Chinese embassy. Most visas are single entry only. The key warning for beginners is that Hong Kong and Macau, although officially part of China, actually require officially leaving China to visit them. Meaning your visa will be cancelled when crossing from Mainland China into Hong Kong or Macau and you will not be able to get back to the Mainland without a new visa. Keep this is in mind if planning a quick shopping visit to Hong Kong mid-business trip.
Enjoy your trip!