Meeting arrangements in China begin with an invitation(s) issued by one and/or all of the companies you expect to visit while in the country. If you are going to China, it is highly advised that you visit as many potential companies/suppliers/partners as possible, to get an idea of what is available.
But be careful you do not let the companies know that you will be visiting other companies, as it will complicate things. A Chinese government official told me that when he found out that a visiting foreign delegation was going to look at a different economic development zone, he called the airport and had their flight cancelled.
The process starts with a letter/e-mail indicating that you the CEO/owner are interested in visiting their Chinese company. Give yourself a minimum of six to eight weeks of lead time. You should include materials introducing your company and yourself and include ways they can independently verify the information, such as online news stories, a Dun and Bradstreet report and industry articles.
You should request that they send you additional information about their company so you can check it against your existing information, including copies of their corporate registration, licenses, product brochures, distribution areas, company history etc. They will not give you information about their finances, and even if they do, you might take it with a grain of salt until you understand more about their business.
You should be very specific about what you are looking for and how you heard about them, the dates you will be available to see their company and outline how you expect things to progress. You should receive a reply fairly quickly, and you should examine it very carefully to see if it mirrors your request or whether they have added anything, as this will give you your first sense of how they view your request for an invitation.
The next step is scheduling. Schedules in China are very detailed and cover every minute of the day, from the moment you show up to the moment they wave good-bye to you at the airport. There is this sense that when you are visiting them you are their responsibility and that they have to take care of you. They are also interested in knowing if they have any competition and what other things you will be doing in China. Do not be surprised if you are ushered to your room at night by one of your host’s employees and then greeted in the morning at breakfast by the same person. I suggest that you get a large suite for yourself, as hotels tend to be much less expensive and you can then use it as your private meeting room, because you will need space to relax and talk about the unfolding events with your staff.
Once created, schedules are made part of the invitation. They can be changed, but you should make sure that it is stated in the invitations that both parties will collaborate before any changes are made. Controlling the schedule is vital, as you need to know and understand everything that is going to be happening. It should be like a movie script with you and your counterpart playing the leading roles.
Too often, hapless delegations have found themselves hot-boxed by a tag team of local business and government types who are demanding that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is signed. Of course, it’s all in Chinese, but they are happy to have their own translator take a stab at the English meaning. Of course, the Chinese wording will be controlling if it ever goes to court. The point is by simply inserting that one sentence, you can have one of your staff indicate that you were not consulted about any change to the schedule and are therefore unprepared. In terms of how to negotiate the specifics of the schedule, if you do not like something, instead of saying no, indicate that it is an appropriate topic for the next trip or set of meetings.
You will find that most schedules will have titles for meetings with very few details, as most companies want to be face-to-face before they begin any substantive discussions. In part, it is because people in China are very wary of situations involving strangers. It is one of the reasons that no one answers their phone by name. Remember, 30 years ago, China’s population was 90 percent rural, and many still retain that wariness of strangers, no matter how hospitable they are striving to be.
Once you have the invitation, and an attached schedule you agree with, you can use it to obtain an F (business) Visa. Give yourself two weeks to get the Visa, as it saves a “rush” fee and gives you time to resubmit if something goes wrong. In terms of scheduling flights, if you are pressed for time, look at booking through China. Many of the flights are code shares with Western airlines and they are cheaper if you have to book a last-minute flight. All major Chinese airlines are members of groups such as Star Alliance, so you can still claim frequent flyer miles. Hotels are currently very cheap, and you can book rooms at five-star hotels in Beijing and Shanghai for less than $100 a night, if you use a travel agent or have your staff call the hotel directly.
When in China, it is best to get a local cell phone to keep in touch with whoever is helping you locally and getting directions. Line up your translator in advance and have them meet you at the airport. It will make things much easier, and if one of your hosts decides to greet you at the airport, you have your own interpreter there to help you. It’s a long flight from the United States to China, so wear loose-fitting clothes; bring noise canceling headphones and a music player. Business class will provide eye shades, slippers and moisturizer.
Bring your suit with you on the plane and change into it before you land. The Chinese are very impressed by appearances and strength. Looking fresh and well-dressed after a long journey will impress them.
In the next Dispatch:
Controlling the meeting.