Surviving Shanghai - Tips for the Newbie China Business Traveller
I do a considerable amount of business travel in China. And, I've come to realize that many companies hire a Chinese-Canadian/Chinese-American specifically for this purpose. Business travel in China can be tough if you're new to the languages and culture.
The very first time I ever used chopsticks was at a big business banquet in China. It was not an ideal situation. I was mortified. Do not be me!
Over the past year, I've been contacted quite a few times by newbies doing business travel to China. I'm going to break it down to some brief tidbits of advice for you!
1. Start in Shanghai (or Hong Kong) - If you're visiting multiple cities and Shanghai is one of them, I suggest starting with Shanghai. It's the most western of all the cities. More people here speak English than anywhere else in China. Food here to suit western tastes (either Chinese or western) is more easy to find and there are some great options for good drivers and hotels. If you're new to China (or even if you're a frequent traveller), it'll give you the chance to ease into China, instead of diving into the deep end!
2. Don't skimp on that hotel - You want my best advice? Make the first hotel you stay at be a nice one, in a large city (preferably Shanghai). The staff here will be more fluent in English, and able to help you book train tickets, get a sim card, sort out shipping or customs issues and help you book anything else you need for the entire duration of your trip. If you have difficulty with finding someone in the hotel that speaks the level of English you need, try the concierge desk. Usually the person in charge of this desk speaks the best English at the hotel.
In my personal experience, Marriott chain hotels (including Courtyard and JW) are where you can expect the strongest English language skills with rooms and food to meet western tastes and expectations. Some brands that I have tried, that have not lived up to Marriott in China include multiple hotels from IGH, SPG, Shangri-La, Park Plaza (Carlson), Accor and boutique hotels.
If you can swing it, book an executive room at a Marriott. You'll likely get more dedicated service, better internet and free printing, which can be very useful on business trips!
My favourite hotel in Shanghai is the Courtyard Marriott Xujiahui. Executive rooms are only sometimes in my work's budget, but I price watch for a few months before my visit, and can usually catch a sale on hotels.com. This particular hotel often does sales of 25-50% off executive rooms. So keep watch! Plus, breakfast and snacks are served for "free" in the lounge daily, so you'll save loads on room service.
I cannot stress enough how much a decent hotel in China can increase your productivity.
3. Get a driver - I'd guess only about 1/4 - 1/3 of the business travellers I meet in China use a driver. If you can find a great English speaking driver, you can make your travels much more efficient and effective. When using cabs, with getting lost and the language barrier, I can do 2-3 meetings a day. With a good driver, I can do 4-5. For me, it's a no brainer. Plus, I'm late to things a lot less frequently. See below for a great tip on a Shanghai driver!
Talk to colleagues or scour trip advisor to find a good free-lance driver. If you use a hotel driver, you're going to pay a fortune, and that's when it becomes not worth it. In China, depending on the city, I usually pay $75 - $150 CAD for a day of driving with a bilingual driver. Some of them I have been using for years, and I am now comfortable with napping, or leaving valuables in the car. Again, all this makes my business travel more efficient.
Scroll to the bottom for a hot tip on my favourite Shanghai driver!
4. Avoid getting sick - China is a populated country, with germs and viruses to which you have not yet been exposed! Be prepared. Wash your hands frequently. I usually look like I'm scrubbing into surgery when I wash my hands! Get at least 6 hours of sleep each night! Bring hand sanitizer and wet wipes with you, especially considering bathroom situations in China can be much different than at home. And stock up on your choice meds from home to treat cold and tummy issues. Keep hydrated. Never drink the tap water, not even to brush your teeth. Also, vitamins wouldn't hurt!
You may also want to pick up a mask to protect you against pollution in cities where pollution can get really awful. On the worst days in China, I sometimes get a nosebleed from the pollution.
5. Try to make time to see something cultural - This concept is new for me. For years, I travelled with never seeing a single thing. Now, it is my goal to see at least one cultural thing in each country I visit. You need to find somewhat of a work-life balance. It will help keep you from getting emotionally and physically drained.
China is hard. I'm not going to lie, during a month of China travel through 13 cities, there are bound to be a few tears and a little vomit along the way. Be prepared. Know when spending money is worth it. Be prepared to justify it to your office. And take care of yourself.
Hot tip: Looking for a driver in Shanghai? Check out Tom! I've been using Tom's driving service for several years now. I can't say enough great things about Tom! Send him the addresses in advance, and he'll make sure you get everywhere on time. He's perfectly bilingual and always up for a friendly chat or to let you nap when you need it!
He'll also always be able to find you a Starbucks, a good lunch spot or something nice and cultural to do if you have time to kill between meetings. Or book him for a tour on your day off. He has a minivan, so he can accommodate a larger group.
You can find his website here.
You can check him out on Trip Advisor here.
I actually contemplated not sharing this info, because sometimes I am pretty secretive about my drivers, so no one else books them all up! But Tom has recently decided to close his other business and start a driving service fulltime. He deserves all of the success and business that I can bring him!