Hosting Chinese Delegations Well
"The Chinese group was left to find its way to and from their accommodation – a shared student flat, vacated for the summer. And the hosts had explained in advance that they would not be able to spend more time with them, or take them to restaurants, because of budget constraints. One of the delegates mentioned discretely to me that in China they were used to being treated like VIPs, and confessed shock that their British hosts were willing to be seen in such a bad light."
That's one of two reports I heard recently about Chinese delegations invited to the UK – two very different kinds of group, two different locations, two different hosting organisations, but aspects of both stories caused me to stop and think. What does it mean to host a Chinese delegation really well? And what are the common mistakes that can be easily avoided?
I'm talking about invited delegations, "goodwill missions" and visits by long-term business partner organisations: anyone with whom you wish to maintain or develop a long-term work relationship (a business "friendship"). If your business (or university, or government department) has ever been invited to visit a partner overseas, and if you have been part of that delegation, then you have first-hand experience of what I'm talking about – from the guest's point of view. You may even have visited China officially – in which case your experience is especially valuable with respect to hosting Chinese guests in the UK.
The crucial questions is: what does an official/business delegation from China both need and expect in terms of hosting?
We can begin by asking "what would I need and expect if I were invited to visit a partner organisation in China?". Draw up a list, if you like. But that's only the start, because culturally there are huge differences between you and your Chinese guests. To illustrate, here are ten ways that Chinese hosts will probably provide for you on your visit. They will:
graciously assume that you understand no Chinese language at all.
have a peer meet you at the airport, and someone escort you every step of your visit.
include some sightseeing or other tourist experience in your programme.
arrange accommodation for you in a good hotel.
feed you extremely well, with the dual commitment to both showcase local cuisine and satisfy your personal requirements (now that could be tricky!)
repeatedly "pick up the bill" for you before you even realise it.
present you with a special decorative gift.
introduce you to people in their organisation at a higher level than you had expected.
ensure that a staff member (and probably local media too) is making a photo record of the occasion.
take you to the airport and walk you as far as possible through the departure process.
Sure, it may be that some aspects of the programme change at (or even after) the last minute, and their constant fussing around you may even make you feel a little uncomfortable and "managed". If you know some Chinese language, then their assumption that you don't know any (and their amazed reaction when you manage to stumble out a few words) may leave you feeling patronized and wanting to prove your prowess. Indeed, you may feel that some Chinese hosting is a bit "over the top", and you get a little embarrassed as your expectations are exceeded time and time again. But overall these are minor matters, and due more to cultural differences than to any lack of planning or care on their part. An overwhelming weight of evidence demonstrates that the Chinese excel at hosting, and take pleasure in exceeding your expectations.
Now, look at the ten bullet points again – if you were hosting a Chinese delegation in the UK, how would you compare in each of those areas? Would you meet them at the airport or just give them your address? How would you care for them outside of meeting hours? Would you expect to eat with them twice a day, and cover the bill for those meals? Who is the highest-placed person in your business that they would be introduced to and spend time with?
The list I've written above is a summary not only of what a Chinese host will expect to do for you, it also describes what their standard expectations will be when they are invited to visit you. Note that this has very little to do with fairness or sharing costs – there's no quid pro quo dimension here ("we spent so much hosting you last year, so it's only fair that you pay our costs now "). What it is all about is building friendship.
If you fall short of your Chinese guests' expectations in your role as host (or guest, for that matter) then you are sending a message that you have no intention of building friendship with them, because you are not doing the things that lead to long-term friendship. Even if you think you have provided sufficient explanation for this shortfall in advance, such as budget constraints, the message being heard does not change: "We do not intend to build long-term friendship with you".
By contrast, your aim should be to meet all expectations, and exceed some of them. So, if you are planning to host an official Chinese delegation here is my advice:
Seniority Find out who is likely to come – their names and seniority in the organisation. Make sure that they will be met and given "quality time" by peers and superiors in your organisation, and that this happens early in the visit programme.
Escorting Ensure that they are met on arrival, and escorted from location to location every day. Take them to the airport at the end, help them check in, and stay with them as long as you can. Allocate a suitable person to care for the delegation, and be their main support. This person should be with the delegation every day for most (if not all) of the time. Think of the commitment of a holiday travel guide – that's what you're aiming for. The person needs to have good cross-cultural experience, and be a real part of your organisation – not just a student you've brought in for the occasion.
Language Assume that the delegates need English language support all the time. Make sure your team have printed name cards (with contact numbers) and distribute them to all of the delegation on day one of the programme. Also prepare a map, or maps, to help your guests orient themselves. Any key documents relating to the visit which you can send in advance will be well appreciated too, even if they are in English – often Chinese people comprehend written English better than spoken, and making documents available early gives time for reading and preparation. Finally, praise their English efforts regularly and sincerely; don't criticize or correct publicly.
Programme Include some sightseeing in the trip – with a guide. Visit Britain surveys show that Chinese people expect to see (and appreciate) our historical heritage when they visit.
Food This is a challenge, but also crucial, and needs to be thought through well. Most Chinese will struggle on a UK diet, but saying "sort it out yourselves" is simply poor hosting, especially when UK restaurants are so expensive compared to those in China. How can we avoid subjecting/abandoning our guests to a lengthy bad-food experience?
This is such a big subject that it deserves a separate article – look out for one coming soon ?our website. You could even ask us to help you plan. Contact us at Grandage Consulting and we'll do our best to help you.
For now though:
Breakfast is the toughest meal to adapt to when you travel overseas. Choose a hotel with a good breakfast buffet if possible.
Try to find good Chinese, Korean, Thai and other East Asian restaurants you can use.
Get some plain rice, bowls and chopsticks on the table at every possible meal, no matter what else is to be eaten.
Talk with your restaurants and caterers well in advance, and work with them to find solutions.
Remember that about China is about 2% Muslim; check first and take account of your delegations needs.
Get fresh fruit into the mix, if not at restaurants then at break times. Provide knives for peeling hard fruit
Always provide hot water for drinking, not just Western tea and coffee
If you lack the resources to host a delegation well, then find a face-saving way to either postpone the visit or change it (e.g. less people, easier location, shorter stay), rather than hosting it badly and setting the relationships back. Offer a friendly gesture as you do so, such as sending a small gift, or planning a visit to them soon. One again, Grandage Consulting is more than happy to help you negotiate these matters.
© Grandage Consulting, 30 July 2015
 On what it means to be "friends" with Chinese businesses and organisations, see our essential paper Chinese Business Relationships – Are We Strangers or Friends?