Covering China: Possible, But Far From Easy

In this post, EXHIBITOR magazine editor Travis Stanton tells us how convincing his publication to send him to cover the World’s Fair in Shanghai, China, set the stage for a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a healthy profit.

A new friend recently told me, “In Shanghai, nothing is impossible. But in Shanghai, nothing is easy.” She couldn’t have more accurately described my visit to the 2010 World’s Fair (aka Expo 2010).

Six months ago, I began making the case for my senior writer Charles Pappas and I to attend the event for roughly two weeks. The goal was to scour the theme, country, and corporate pavilions on display and bring home a treasure trove of trends and tips that exhibit and event professionals could adapt to their marketing programs.

But it wasn’t as easy as booking a pair of plane tickets and packing my bags. Sending two writers half way across the globe comes with a pretty hefty price tag. And my company had never before sent anyone to cover a World’s Fair. So before I could start worrying about hotel accommodations, I needed to convince my chief operating officer that the trip was worth the investment.

Business Plan. After several discussions with him and other internal stakeholders, I presented a rough business plan consisting of:

  • an Expo 2010 microsite that would house ongoing coverage;
  • an awards program that would recognize some of the most impressive pavilions, exhibits, and presentations at Expo 2010;
  • print magazine coverage in our December issue; and
  • a workshop based on our experience that Charles and I would be able to present at my magazine’s annual conference in March of 2011.

My hope was to recoup at least some of the hard costs associated with the trip.

Based at least partly on my own confidence in the plan, my COO approved the trip and we began exploring our travel options.

Booking airfare was easy enough, but finding a hotel proved a bit trickier. We found several hotels that claimed to be mere blocks from the Expo 2010 grounds. But when we used online maps to chart directions from the hotels to the fair grounds, we found that something must have been lost in the translation from meters to feet, as these hotels were more like 10 miles from Expo.

Walking Distance. Later in our search, we found a hotel that appeared to be within walking distance, but just before booking the rooms we read the fine print: The rooms had no windows! After weeks of hotel hunting, we finally settled on New Harbour Service Apartments Shanghai. We weren’t sure what to expect (and were later disappointed that the “free breakfast” we were promised actually cost 48 RMB — roughly $7 — per person), but it was affordable, within a reasonable distance, and offered free internet access.

With airfare and accommodations out of the way, we set our sights on passports and business visas. The passports were easy enough, as we simply needed to renew them for the trip. But obtaining our visas was an absolute nightmare. We decided to use a visa processing company to help us complete all the paperwork correctly and serve as our liaison with the Chinese consulate in Chicago.

Even with their help, we still needed to complete numerous forms and obtain an invitation letter from someone in Shanghai. Luckily for us, EWI Worldwide, an exhibit house in Livonia, MI, has an office in Shanghai, and agreed to help us out. But the processing firm initially directed us to apply for a basic business visa.

After a couple of weeks waiting for our visas to arrive, the processer contacted me and indicated we needed to sign an additional form. She faxed me the form we needed to sign, which basically said that our trip was in no way related to our jobs as journalists, and that our actions would in no way deviate from the actions of a tourist.

Red Tape. Obviously, we couldn’t sign those forms. Our invitation letter from EWI Worldwide’s Shanghai office, and all of the documentation we submitted to the consulate stated very clearly that we were going to Expo 2010 to report on the trends exhibited there. And we had a pending application for a press pass at Expo 2010, which required our visa number. And lying to a foreign government is not a good start to an international trip to a developing, Communist country!

So we began the process of obtaining a journalist visa (aka J2 visa), which requires additional paperwork. We naively assumed that our visa processors would be able to confidently guide us through this final step in our application, but they seemed as confounded by the consulate’s requests as we were. The Chinese consulate asked us to contact the foreign ministry and get a hard copy of an “official visa notice.” No instructions on how to apply for an official visa notice. No contact information for the foreign ministry. Nothing.

We tried contacting the U.S. embassy in Shanghai, but they simply sent us a URL with information on applying for passports and business visas. We tried contacting the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, but our voicemails went unanswered (and when we actually spoke to a receptionist, we were quickly transferred to dead-end extensions that nobody ever answered). We reached out to our state senators, hoping they could help. One of them took more than a week to respond (which was too late), and the other offered to call the embassy in Chicago and ask them to help us — but said that given our circumstances there was nothing more they could do.

We asked our Chinese contacts to contact the foreign ministry in Shanghai on our behalf, and when they did so they were told it would take more than 10 days to get an official visa notice. But we did not have 10 days. We were scheduled to leave in roughly a week. It was starting to look like the best-case scenario would be delaying our trip, and the worst-case scenario would be never seeing Expo 2010.

Green Light. Thankfully, after several emotional e-mails, our contacts at EWI Worldwide’s Shanghai office worked with representatives from Expo 2010 who submitted documentation to the Chinese consulate in Chicago. We waited about three days to find out if what they submitted was adequate or if we were back at square one. Thankfully, with only a few days to spare, we received word that our J2 visas were on their way to Rochester — and that meant we were on our way to Shanghai.

The twenty-four hours of travel, including a 15-hour flight from Detroit to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, was nothing compared to the stress and helplessness I felt during our visa-application process. There were, of course, plenty of unique cultural challenges while in China.

Most taxi drivers don’t speak or read English, so when heading to Expo each morning, we routinely asked our hotel’s front-desk staff to write directions in Chinese. But more often than not, the drivers weren’t able to understand those directions either. We even carried Expo 2010 maps with us and would point to where we needed to go. But that was no help — not even in the official designated Expo 2010 cabs. The language barrier was generally too great.

Thankfully, there is a phone number you can call in China, where an English speaker will answer and serve as a bi-lingual liaison between you and your cab driver. But that’s only if your cell phone works.

Before leaving, I contacted my cell provider (T Mobile) and requested the unlock code for my phone so that I could purchase a Chinese SIM card when I arrived in Shanghai. Fortunately, I didn’t wait until the last minute to request this unlock code, because I had no idea it took several days to process the request. Luckily, I received an e-mail with my unlock code the day before I left the United States. On site at Expo 2010, I purchased a SIM card for roughly $32. I popped it in my phone, and it functioned much like a pre-paid card: I don’t recall the exact rates, but I believe calls back to the United States cost about $0.50/minute.

Culture Shock. We also encountered obstacles ranging from the personally aggravating (in Shanghai, there is no concept of personal space and with twice the population of New York, there’s twice the shoving and pushing as well) to the downright frustrating (there’s a lot of bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, such as filling out a form to request the form you need to apply for whatever it is you really want) to the absolutely enraging (like how the Media Center computers auto-translated every word I typed on the English keyboard into Mandarin).

There’s a general lack of directional signage, so you never know which line to stand in, which door to go through, or anything like that. And the smallest of inquiries can cause mass confusion. For example, I asked the English-speaking representatives at the Expo 2010 Media Center what the password was for the computers. She had to call at least three people and get help from no fewer than four other Media Center reps before she was able to get me the password — and Expo 2010 had already been operating for nearly five months before our visit in September.

And then there’s the fact that China is not a country where “freedom of the press” really exists. In many ways, we were treated like celebrities while visiting Shanghai. But in just as many ways, we were treated a little like spies. The general vibe from Expo organizers was, “We’re glad you’re here, but we would feel more comfortable if you weren’t.”

I was surprised to get CNN on the television in my hotel room, but other things we take for granted were not accessible in China. For instance, many websites are blocked by the government. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all inaccessible. And if you go to Google.com, you are quickly redirected to the Hong Kong version of Google (which I think should be called Choogle — China Google).

Largest World’s Fair in History. Then again, I am still a little awestruck when I pinch myself and realize that I was in China, covering the largest (roughly 1,300 acres) and most well attended (more than 70 million visitors) World’s Fair in history. The fact that China even hosted the event is mind blowing when you consider that much of the Pudong area along the Huangpu River (where Expo 2010 now sits, surrounded by a forest of skyscrapers and high rises) was an expanse of undeveloped farmland just 20 years ago.

And while the media in China is still heavily regulated by the government, the Chinese press enjoys far more liberties than would have been imaginable only a generation or two ago. Unfortunately, it seems that the Chinese might be taking a step backward under Hu Jintao, as regulations regarding the internet and the media have increased since the late 90s. Still, to say Shanghai has come a long way would be an understatement of epic proportions. But to say Shanghai still has a long way to go would be an understatement as well.

We returned to the United States extremely thankful for the opportunity to visit China and to cover what I have no doubt will forever be one of the great World’s Fairs of all time. We took more than 7,000 photos and dozens of hours of video footage.

Mission Accomplished. And that goal of recouping a portion of our travel costs? Between the sponsorships our sales team sold for our Expo 2010 microsite and the revenue generated by entry fees to our awards program, we not only recouped the entire cost of the trip, but we achieved a return on that investment of nearly 4:1. It just goes to show: In Shanghai, nothing is impossible. But in Shanghai, nothing is easy.

To learn more about Expo 2010, and to see our online coverage of the event, visit www.ExhibitorOnline.com/Expo2010.

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