Find here the China Paradigm 69 and learn more about the event management in China, and how to win clients’ trust through providing the most productive event planning services in China. By reading this episode, you will have a general idea about the hospitality industry in China.
Full transcript below:
Matthieu David: Hello everyone. This is China Paradigm, where we, daxue Consulting, interview seasoned entrepreneurs in China. Hello everyone. I am Matthieu David, the founder of daxue Consulting Group, a China market research company, and this podcast, China Paradigm. And today, I am with Benoit Thebaut. We’ve been looking to interview you for a while and now we have you on the show. Thanks for being with us.
Benoit Thebaut: Thank you for having me.
Matthieu David: Thanks. So, you started Riviera Events in 2005. It’s a company dealing with event management in China initially—I think in Beijing. You’ll tell us where you started. You grew up the business to various countries and 100 people now. You are very well-known in the event management in China, especially for hotels—in the hospitality industry in China. Now, I think when hotels have to organize events, they always think of asking you to pitch Riviera Events in China. And you can tell us more about other countries.
Nearly five years ago, you also started The Hotelier Awards platform in South Asia where you reward managers, as far as I understand, in the hospitality industry in China. And also, I will be very much interested in understanding why you started it. What does it mean to start and what is the business model behind it? I think it’s a bit blurry for the people of what the business model behind this is. So, thanks for being with us. And my first question, as always, is what’s the size of your business?
Benoit Thebaut: So, today we actually have two distinct businesses. So, you mentioned the awards platform we created. It is The Hotelier Awards platform in South Asia. We created it six years ago and we actually just went through a change of identity. So, it used to be called the Hotelier Awards. And now it’s called the Stelliers. S. T. E. L. L. I. E. R. S. The reason why we changed the name of the platform is just that we wanted to protect the IP as we grow outside of China. We are now covering 23 countries in Asia with the platform. And we have the aim to start in 2020 in the North American market. So just in order to be able to protect the IP, we’ve now changed the name. And now the name is, as mentioned, the Stelliers. So that’s one of our businesses which started six years ago.
And I have a certain business which is actually my first business and the most important one for me so far, which is called Riviera Rights and Events Agency. We started it in Shanghai back in 2005, as you mentioned. And we now have nine offices in Asia. So, five are in mainland China. We have Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. We have one office in Macau and another one in Hong Kong. And we started developing Southeast Asia back last year with an office in Bangkok that opened on June 4, 2018. We also have an office in Singapore that opened in January 2019.
Matthieu David: So, you started it in 2005. And you are a co-founder with Stephane de Montgros.
Benoit Thebaut: Yeah, 2005. Stephane de Montgros. Exactly. And he’s a French national. So, it’s been 14 years now that Riviera Events was created. So, arriving in China was a bit of a coincidence. Actually, I was working for Air France. And I had a girlfriend from Venezuela. So, I was asking them to relocate me to Venezuela but there was no position available. So, I extended it to Latin America. So, I kept pushing them to find me a position outside of France and they came up with Shanghai and I had no idea at all about China. So, I moved to China in February 2003. I started the talks with Air France in 2002. So back then, there was not much enthusiasm about China. My friends and family were asking what I was going to do over there. So, it was a bit of a coincidence. And looking back at it, I’m very happy I didn’t move to Venezuela and I came to China.
Matthieu David: So, could you tell us more about how you decided to start Riviera Events? When I look at what you did, it’s very different. There is no link between your job—cargo flight from Air France—and the sales rep you were, and then the event company you created. How came the feeling that it could be a good business? How came the feeling that it would be profitable? Did you see the margin of the industry? Did you know people working in the industry who were making a lot of money and growing fast? What was your feedback?
Benoit Thebaut: I wish I had a very interesting story to tell you and be able to say yes, it was all a very interesting thought process, but the reality is that we were at the right place at the right time. Stephane and I were bored in our current industry. So, Stefan used to be the GM for an American company doing automotive spare parts. And I used to be a sales manager for a company in China doing logistics.
Moving from air France, I was working for a Hong Kongese company doing freight forwarding. And the truth is that the job was boring. After two years, I felt that I didn’t have much to learn from that industry. And I’m someone very sociable. So naturally, I had a lot of friends. I’m not sure how long you’ve been in China, but people that have been here for a while can remember that back then, there was really a bigger sense of community. So, I’m quite outgoing and meeting a lot of people. There was not much to do during that time on a weekend, except DVDs and going for brunch.
So, Stephane and I decided to throw a series of pool parties with alcohol brands. It was just to be doing something a little bit outside of our job and have fun. And, it turned out to be a hobby that we really liked and that hobby became a business. So initially, we did work with alcohol brands. Those series of pool parties took us to hotels and nightclubs because they were the accounts they were selling products to. And very quickly, Stephane and I decided that was an interesting business in the hospitality industry in China, but we were not sure if it will be a sustainable way for us to grow just because we knew back then, alcohol brands were using a lot of money for marketing. Things have changed a bit. Now, the budget they have is much more sales-driven. So that’s the first luck we had; we were, again, at the right moment able to capture this budget.
And because we knew that at some point, we’ll be becoming older, nightlife was for sure not something sustainable. And so, we were very happy to work with hotels. So, we try to focus a bit more on this. Instead of just doing F&B outlet activations, we decided to propose the service we have for bigger events. So, we started doing Christmas gala dinners. And from Christmas gala dinners, we moved on to grand opening ceremonies, conferences, and client appreciation. So, we utilized the ballroom rather than using the F&B outlets which allowed us to learn about production, staging, and lighting. And that’s usually what corporate clients need. So, we then were able to make the move from working 80% of our time with hotels to actually have corporate clients that will hire us for our creativity and our production capacities.
Matthieu David: I see. How did you make the move from your job to the company? Did you wait for your company to make enough money before quitting with the pool parties? How did you articulate it? Could you explain that?
Benoit Thebaut: Sure. So, obviously, at the beginning, the pool party was something very seasonal. So, in the first year, it was very interesting but we didn’t yet have the idea to make it a business. It was, again, just for fun. Then in September, I resumed having only my logistic life.
Matthieu David: September 14, 2004.
Benoit Thebaut: So that would probably be September 2004. Yeah, 2004, I think. 2004/5. Something like that. If you ask me what is actually the date Riviera was born, I will come up with a different date because there is the first event. There is the incorporation of the company in Hong Kong. There is the time we had the WOFE in China. So, 2005 is actually the incorporation in Hong Kong. And then it took us maybe another six to 12 months before having the WOFE in China. So, to come back on your point, which was…
Matthieu David: …which was how did you move from your corporate job to the company? I think that’s a question a lot of people have. They think about starting a business. They think about having something but they quit with having no backup or revenue—especially in your hospitality industry in China where actually it’s easy to enter. It’s easy to organize a few events, right? But it’s very difficult to be a major player in the field.
Benoit Thebaut: Sure. Alright. So, I didn’t do the move right away. And again, it wasn’t something that I was planning on. So, we provided several event planning services in China. And because we were more looking at having fun with them, we didn’t want Stephane and me to do the job. So, we invested the money we made at that time into hiring some people. And we were not going to quit our job right away because we were not sure that it will be sustainable. And it was just about, I would say, a year and a half before we saw that we will have reaching clients. And actually, a nightclub came up with retainers for us to work with them over a year.
So then, when we signed that first client, we went, “Okay, that might be the time to actually create our day job”. So, it was quite easy because we didn’t need the money from that business to survive. And then, it gave us that time to actually test what we were doing and see if there was a market for it, which there were. And then, it went up and down. So, I quit. I had a very good year and then we had a bit more difficult year, I think, in 2003. So, that’s when I was very happy I had a partner. If I was by myself, I’m not sure I would have pushed through. So, it’s easy to start. Then you have setbacks.
Matthieu David: You talked about your partner. So, I understand that initially, he was a friend. You organized pool parties to basically fill your weekends. And after you became a partner, how did you know it was the partner to work with? Or is it by creating things together that you knew each other and you knew it would be the partner to work with? Because, as far as I understand, that’s something I’m always amazed by; when people partner together to create a job. You have created two companies with him basically—Riviera Events and Stelliers. And you continue to work together after 14/15 years.
Benoit Thebaut: Yeah.
Matthieu David: So, could you explain what made it obvious in the beginning that you wanted to work together?
Benoit Thebaut: It was a bit the same process as starting the company. We went into doing things not having an agenda yet. And we started doing them together. We were friends, but not friends for a long time. So, we really got to know each other by working together. And I think that helped as well because we didn’t have much history, which sometimes might be a little troublesome when you start a business with friends—the history behind and so on.
The second important point is that we started that business as partners together in the beginning. It’s not an idea I had or an idea he had. It’s an idea that we created together and I think that allowed us to be really on the same level. And sometimes, I feel that this partnership is a bit difficult to maintain because there is always someone that, maybe, came first with an idea and someone joining. And so, you always have someone that feels more entitled, which wasn’t the case at all. And then we got to know each other. Stephane is a great person. So, in 14 years, we’ve never had an argument. Sometimes, we had different ideas, but we never came up to have an argument together. So, it’s quite an easy partnership. I’m very lucky to have Stephane as a partner.
Matthieu David: How did you split the work? How did you decide to split the responsibilities and work?
Benoit Thebaut: So, he does much more academic and administrative duties. And I do much more sales and marketing. And then, we separated the areas. So, when we started to expand from Shanghai to Beijing, Chengdu, and Shenzhen, we divided China into two parts. So, I was taking care of the offices in the North and he was taking care of the offices in the South. Now, he’s looking a little bit more after Stelliers than I am. Even though I’m involved with the hotelier awards platform in South Asia, he does much more work on the academic side—managing the judges, managing the application, going through the interview process, and so on. And I’m much more involved with the sales part—so finding the partnerships and that type of thing.
Matthieu David: I see. Let’s talk a bit about the business in itself of Riviera Events with a couple of case studies and how your business is working. You’re in the event management in China, mainly in the hospitality industry in China. I mean, you began with nightclubs. Then you moved to hotels. I believe you also have other clients and hotels, but it has been the main one. So, I understand when they have a client appreciation gathering or a gala dinner or a corporate event, they would request your help. Could you tell us more about some case studies and how it works? Do you internalize everything? Do you have partners? Do the people you work with on a regular basis? This is because you need a lot of different competencies. You need musicians. You need dancers sometimes. You also need to partner with alcohol brands and so on. Could you tell us more about how it works?
Benoit Thebaut: Sure. So, we are a full event agency. When you do an event, you might require support with guests’ databases, media coordination, and so on. We try not to take care of that. We want to focus on the event management in China and the production of the event.
Matthieu David: Okay.
Benoit Thebaut: Then you mentioned a few things. So, there are a few areas in the production of an event. The first is you need to come up with a concept proposal. So, we have a whole creative team dedicated to coming up with ideas for our plans. So typically, you have a client that comes. They have a brief, objective for the event, and they ask you how to best answer their objective. So, we internally meet with the team and come up with an idea or concept. We will create 3Ds and graphic design and present that concept to the client. Let’s say the client says they’re happy with it. Then we’ll move into venue sourcing for them. So according to the venue, then we’ll come up with different production items.
So, we have a department that handles all the staging, audio, and lighting that will be needed for the event. And then you have, as you mentioned as well, the need for what we call performance of talents. So that will be a separate department within the company. We are doing all these in-house. So, we actually don’t have freelancers or another company that helps us with that event planning service in China. Except for the audio and lighting which we rent, all the rest is done in-house. The idea is to make sure that we control the quality of the output. And also, we save on costs because when you work with freelancers, first, they are usually not that reliable. And secondly, they are quite pricey. So, we try to internalize everything. This is why we now have that many offices and a bit more than a hundred people with Riviera.
Matthieu David: I see.
Benoit Thebaut: Does this answer your question?
Matthieu David: Yeah, it does. It does. Could you share a couple of case studies? So, before we started, you said that you work with Facebook in some countries. You work mainly in the hospitality industry in China, but could you share like one hotel event you worked on and the experience of a type of contract you have? It could be on a regular basis. Could you also share one which is not a hotel to give an understanding to the audience? It should be a very specific case.
Benoit Thebaut: Sure, I will actually give you a little information before that. So, as you mentioned, we work a lot with hotels. They used to be 80% of our business. Now, it represents about 30% of the business.
Matthieu David: Really?
Benoit Thebaut: Yeah.
Matthieu David: Minority then.
Benoit Thebaut: Yes. It’s not that we have less revenue with that. It’s just that the corporate side grew bigger, which we are quite happy with. And I think it’s healthy for us. And so, in terms of hotel type of events, we quite often do a grand opening. So, with a grand opening, usually, you might have a press conference with VIPs coming, ribbon-cutting, and media that will capture the whole event. That might happen inside or in front of the porte cochère or inside or outside the lobby. So, imagine the backdrop, hostesses, and ribbons.
So obviously, you’d try to come up with conceptual and creative ideas to make it look different from one hotel to another. And then, you have either a luncheon or a gala dinner which happens in the hotel ballroom with a nice stage or setup and the MC calling different people on stage for speeches, different video presentation on-screen of the hotel or whatever the management of the property want to show, and a series of performances. So, this is really a kind of cookie-cutter type of event management in China obviously depending on the budget, the brand, and what type of market they are after. Things may vary. Some hotels may want to do something different.
Matthieu David: It would be one afternoon or one night, right?
Benoit Thebaut: It would be one night. Sometimes, they can extend this over a weekend to invite different KOLs or for them to expand the hotel. It depends on whether it’s a business hotel or not. So obviously, that’s what I mentioned. That format is like your typical 70% of hotels in China. And then, you have different brands that are looking at spicing things up a little. I would say probably 50% of our revenue with hotels is that type of event—grand opening. Then you have client appreciation. So, every year, the hotels are looking at appreciating their best clients. So, they invite them for dinner. And this is also happening in the ballroom. You also have a series of performances and the occasion, which is really for them to showcase what the hotel is able to do for their own clients.
Matthieu David: I see.
Benoit Thebaut: So, imagine you have 30 of the Fortune 500 companies in the room. For the hotel, it’s a way to showcase to them, “Hey, if you come to our hotel, this is what you could expect for your client”. So, obviously, it’s a way to try to get a bit more business. Then every year, we’ll have conferences for hotel groups. So, this is when the corporate office of a hotel chain will actually invite all the GMs for a discussion on revenue and targets. And, obviously, that type of event lasts over two or three days. And there will also be gala dinners and probably afterparties.
And one of the objectives is also for all the GMs that come to this conference to go back to their hotel with ideas. So, they are talking about business during the day. Every coffee break, every luncheon, every dinner, or every party is a chance for them to see something different that they can take back to their hotel and possibly offer to their clients. So, we do use a couple of times a year for different hotel groupings in China. Now, moving on to the corporate world, we have various clients. We have a lot of tech clients. So, we work with Facebook, Google, and many other tech clients. This is one of the fastest-growing segments for us in China. One of the reasons we opened an office in Shenzhen and Guangzhou is to be able to support a bit more down there. This is also the reason why we opened in Bangkok.
Working with Facebook in China, they were not able to find a similar type of service in Thailand. So, they actually asked us to open in Thailand last year. After we had done a series of event planning services in China for them, they said, “Okay. Now that you’ve shown us you’re able to work with us down there, then maybe it’s time for you to open an office”. When you live in China, it’s a little bit weird to say we are doing event management in China for Facebook because everybody knows that it’s been banned here but they still do a lot of B2B events. So, let’s say they will invite Lenovo or Huawei to conferences where they will explain to them how to use the platform to better advertise their projects overseas. So, this is the type of event we’ll be doing.
Matthieu David: Yes. Facebook is doing a lot of export advertising basically if Huawei is paying Facebook to do advertisements for Huawei in the US and Europe.
Benoit Thebaut: Interesting. And they also go to a lot of fairs. So, let’s say CIE or GMIC in Beijing and all those industry-related events. So, Facebook—the tech part—is another segment. We also work with airlines. So, for instance, we did the launch of Emirates in Jinzhou and Sichuan. So, we did the welcoming event management in China of the first flight from Dubai to the city and privatizing one of the terminals for the press conference welcoming the Sheikh of Dubai who is also the CEO of Emirates Airlines. So, you have a lot of protocols around that. Then, we have product launches for different travel agencies and then a VIP gala dinner with some Chinese celebrities and so on. So that’s also another event we handle for them.
Matthieu David: How do you price? In our industry for instance, in research, we price by demand unit. We give a budget to the client. We say it would be this amount of demand unit and then we agree on a budget. But how do you price in your industry? Because I feel that the value is often in creativity. You are often coming up with new ideas for event management in China, which is someway priceless.
Benoit Thebaut: It’s case by case. So, we don’t have a set price. Every quotation has a menu. So, as you mentioned, you have a lot of creativity which we actually don’t charge. This creativity is included in our management fee.
Matthieu David: In the pitch, right?
Benoit Thebaut: Yes. Sorry, what do you mean by ‘in the pitch’?
Matthieu David: When you pitch a client, you actually show a lot of your creativity. You already tell them what you want to do. You really get involved in the pitch. That’s like creative agencies or advertising agencies and talking to publicists and so on. We feel they spend a lot of time to pitch and give their ideas to the clients.
Benoit Thebaut: I feel it’s a little bit different in the event management in China. Actually, when we give a proposal to a client, we do not charge for it. We are in competition with a few other agencies in the hospitality industry in China. And if you were to charge, I will think that we will be set on the side and they will be moving on with another agency. So, it’s quite common to pitch but not to charge for the concept proposal. Then, obviously, it’s a bit dangerous because you have tricky companies that are just looking at ideas to try to recreate them themselves.
I usually tell them good luck because, for any company that tries to get our creativity and produce it locally, it doesn’t end up looking exactly the way we see things. So, you have those guys but that’s the game. So, we give a proposal and if the client decides to move on, what we do is actually we have a management fee which is 20% on top of the costs for the event. That covers our creativity, the team working on the production, scouting for talent for the performance, and so on.
Matthieu David: I see. 20% of the cost of an event.
Benoit Thebaut: Exactly. So, we give you a budget which you can meet, like a menu with different lines. And the client is able to choose different items or different options and say, “Okay, I’m interested in a backdrop. I want six, eight, or ten hostesses for the ribbon-cutting. I want a lion dance. I want a different type of item again”. And then, at the end of the discussion, we put 20% on top of the total cost for what we do: the event planning services in China.
Matthieu David: I see. So, you’d be transparent on the external costs and also costs like renting the room, the location, the venue, the food and so on. You’ll be transparent and then you say we’ve added 20%.
Benoit Thebaut: Sure.
Matthieu David: That’s a very, very, straightforward and transparent pricing and model.
Benoit Thebaut: Sure. I think it’s a necessity because the budget is always a big part of the discussion, right? And so, the client really has to know what they’re paying for and that also allows them to take a good decision. So, let’s say they have the dream project or event and this event has a cost. They realize that they don’t have the budget. They need to be able to take the decision on what part of the event is important for them. And for that, they need to be able to have the costs to know which item they may be able to remove so that they get closer to the budget.
Matthieu David: I see. Could you give a range of the min-max of budget you have been through in event management in China so far?
Benoit Thebaut: There is no minimum. The reason is that we really want to be a partner to our client. So, let’s say if an ad company such as Google comes to us and they ask us to do a backdrop for three hours from Shanghai, we’ll support them in doing so because we also value the bigger events they give us. And quite often that’s the difference between us and another company. You have bigger companies that will not take events under ¥300,000, ¥400,000, or ¥500,000. And this gives us room to put a foot in the door and get it. So, there is no minimum for our event management in China. We will be here to support you. And if your first event is ¥10,000, then we’ll help you and we hope that the next one would be a bigger budget. Then a maximum of ¥5M or ¥10M is usually for car launches or big events in different cities that involve booking of celebrities and so on. But the range of the events we usually work on is between ¥600,000 and ¥1M. That’s our usual type of proposal.
Matthieu David: I see. So now that I have a better understanding of the pricing and better understanding of the budget you are managing and the model of how you charge. Could you tell us how you grow the business of event management in China? I guess the kind of pressure you had at the beginning to find clients moved into the kind of pressure to make sure you have enough clients to pay all the salaries because you have 100 people now in an industry where you have very often one event and then nothing for a while from some clients. Very few of them are retainers. We had the same issue with market research in China. We very often have big research to do and then the client uses the research to do what he has to do. And he’s coming back in maybe one or two weeks—we don’t know—for another product. So how do you manage this uncertainty from the hospitality industry in China and at the same time, the fact that you have fixed costs every month or every year? Maybe you can tell us, actually, you have not that much uncertainty because people are very often doing events. How do you handle that?
Benoit Thebaut: Yes, I don’t think we have certainty, but we’ve seen the steady growth of the company. We’ve grown about 30% revenue every year for the past six or seven years. That’s helping to build confidence in the future. So, we know we do things right. We know we’ve been here for event planning services in China for 14 years. We have a recipe that works very well with our clients. And it’s a business we are able to scale. We are opening new offices and developing new geographies or areas in the South. We see as well that the China can-do attitude is something that countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam are lacking a bit. Things are a little bit slower over there.
So, our clients that we use to service here in China are hungry for the service we are able to provide in Southeast Asia. There is a lot of business. We also look at the revenue for our competitors. The big companies doing event management in China have revenue of a few hundreds of millions of RMB and we’re not there yet. And we know we do a good job. We’re quite often pitching against them. So, we see that there is room between what we are now and what we could be in China and all over Asia. So, definitely, we have no certainty but we have hope and I see we are on a good track. So, we have no fear of hiring. We’re constantly hiring. We need more people. We need creative people. So, if anyone creative is actually watching, I’m sending a message here. Come and join us. We need more people.
Matthieu David: How do you feel the growth? You’ve opened nine offices so far. I have two questions on this. First, how do you open so many offices? You have nine offices now. It’s difficult to find a manager to manage and lower the risk because you have an entity in another country or city and maybe you don’t know what’s happening exactly and so on. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is how you fuel the growth and make sure that you get more clients because I understand that growth is also a lot of new clients? It’s not only your existing clients who give you more. It’s also new clients. So, there are two different questions. The first one; how do you manage the creation of new offices and how do you feel the growth which I believe is a bit connected actually?
Benoit Thebaut: Okay. The management of new offices has a lot to do with working with your network, asking around, meeting people and trying to find the right person. We all know that HR in Asia is not easy. Thailand, Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong are not different from China. Actually. It is different but it is also problematic. It’s not the same issues but there are issues. For instance, in Macau and Singapore, you have quotas. So, you’re not able to hire the people you want until you get the right local quota of hires. So, it’s painful. We have an HR team dedicated to this. And again, that’s why I was saying we need more people because it’s hard to find the right talent. And I think I’m not the only one in this situation, but so far, we manage through our network.
So, for instance, the person we hired to be in charge of our Bangkok office is a French national that has been living there for 10 years. And he’s been Stephane’s friend for 15 years. He wanted a career change. He was in IT managing an IT firm. He came to many of our events in the past and we saw that he was hungry for a change. So that’s the type of person we’re looking for. That should also be someone we have trust in. We cannot have nine office fees today and growing in other countries and not be quite sure about the people managing in these countries. So, we are looking at hiring people that we know through friends or we have some kind of connection with. For instance, the person who opened our Singapore office used to be with us in Beijing, then opened our Macanese office, and now he’s in Singapore.
So, we also grow our talent internally. We have stories of people that came as a trainee and moved on to the production side to know how things are done internally. They then moved on to the team of event planning services in China. After they know how things are done internally, that is the team that faces and talks to the client. And then, from there they move to the management of an office. Maxine that you very briefly met before we started the interview was actually dating my sister for nine years. They are not together anymore, but now he is our Greater China area director. So, everybody has a different story but it’s all about connection and networking. That’s how we recruit the best. Obviously, we sometimes receive résumés and so on but the proportion of people that apply for a job with the people that are actually being hired is much bigger when it’s part of the network.
Matthieu David: How do you feel the growth?
Benoit Thebaut: So, what fuels growth is obviously a lot of networking. But for the past, I would say what really made a difference is the marketing team we have. We have about five people that are taking care of our website, SEO, and so on. And that was really a game-changer for us. So, we do tremendous work online. If you google or use any search engine in the world looking for an event agency in China, Beijing, or Thailand, we usually come on top. So that helps us to get a lot of business about event management in China.
Matthieu David: I’m just checking both paid and organic advertisements.
Benoit Thebaut: I’m pretty sensitive to that because we get a lot of traffic online.
Matthieu David: I understand.
Benoit Thebaut: So, this is very, very important for us. Secondly, you have to do a good job at what you do, right? So, we have to deliver to the client so that they can talk about us to their network. And when people are asking, “Hey, who was the person that handled that event”, they want to recommend us. And also, an event is a great showcase. Like we literally have our clients inviting 300 of their best clients. So, when you do an event for a hotel—let’s say client appreciation—and they invite a Fortune 500 company. These people are also potential clients for us.
Matthieu David: Got it. I actually changed my understanding of your event management in China from what you just said. I saw that the people you hired in different offices are mainly for sales, but I believe now that you get a lot of clients online and through referrals. So actually, they have to manage business more than developing sales. Am I correct?
Benoit Thebaut: Yeah. Actually, we have a hard time to go look for clients. We already have too many coming out. So, to grow more sales, my main issue is to find the right people to manage, make some inquiries, being at work to offer a creative event planning service in China, and then produce the event. Producing the event is not the biggest issue. It’s really having the person to be able to manage the account manager type of position. Looking for new businesses is not such an issue.
Matthieu David: You talked about tech companies you’re working for. You’ve been in the industry for 14 years. I believe you have seen the industry change a lot and I believe you have also seen the event management in China change through technology and innovation. Could you share a bit of innovation or technology you see which are used now within events that you didn’t see in the past?
Benoit Thebaut: Could you repeat the question?
Matthieu David: About innovation, you have been in the industry for 14 years. You are working with tech clients—Facebook, Google, and so on. And you are in contact with them. I believe they are looking for innovative event management in China. They are looking certainly for events where you may have to connect with your phone, Bluetooth, interact with a screen, and so on. Could you share a bit of a technology you are using now? Are you using drones or any new technologies in your events? I’m pretty sure you have thought about it and you are doing things on it. Could you share it?
Benoit Thebaut: Sure. As you mentioned, obviously, we use drones. Most of the time, companies are looking at technology when it comes to registration and the welcoming of the guests. They want to speed up the process for the guests and make it almost seamless. So, there is a lot to do in China with WeChat. WeChat is a fantastic platform for that. However, it does not work in other countries. So, the same event in Thailand will have a different platform.
But all these are tools and you have different companies that focus on that. So, we actually have partners that develop according to the type of event you have, your objective, and what you want to communicate with your client. Then this partner will come up with a different tool or idea. But something that is very important is that it has to be really seamless with the guests. You don’t want them to have to download another app on their phone. So, it really needs to be creative in a way where, yes, it’s tech, but it’s not too invading on them, it’s easy to use, and the tech is almost not visible at the event. So, it’s more of a type of back-office than being at the forefront of the event.
Matthieu David: And being able to reconnect with them and keep in touch with them, which WeChat or getting the email can do. I believe in Thailand and other countries, they use email.
Benoit Thebaut: I think a mistake that companies are sometimes doing is that they want a tech-savvy event but they really want it so bad that they make it really gimmicky. And at the end, it doesn’t really work. So, yes, it’s nice to have a tech, but have the tech for people. Don’t have tech just because you want the event to be tech-savvy. It needs to create something interesting like a new way of engaging. You want your guest to go back with a nice experience rather than ‘Oh, I had to download this app and I could not do anything without it’. You feel a bit invasive.
Matthieu David: You started the company pre-iPhone—three years before the iPhone. The iPhone was launched in 2008. You started this company in 2005. So, people were not taking selfies when you started the business. And now I believe that when you look at a room when you do event management in China, most people are taking selfies. Could you share a bit of the change you’ve seen in the events you organize, the kind of people going, and what they do in terms of technology or interaction? in terms of, of interacting. I also believe that what you do now has much more impact and reach than before because of social media. Because of selfies, each time you’re organizing events, everyone is posting pictures about this event. And my guess is that it’s part of your thinking now.
Benoit Thebaut: So, it’s funny you mentioned. So, Stephane is actually giving a course in a different school explaining that people doing event management are really like movie directors now. So, your event setup needs to be sold so that you have maximum exposure. So, let’s say back 15 years ago, you arrive, you have a photo opportunity, and maybe your backdrop with a photographer. Now you want your whole room to be Instagramable. You want everyone to be able to share every moment on WeChat. And you need to make it in a way that it doesn’t feel like the brand or the venue is pushing it. You need to be able to create those different moments. So, you have a maximum of people that will have these pictures that are unique to them. So, the whole layout and format of events have changed in that sense where it’s not only about a backdrop at the entrance and the stage, but it’s everything that will be on the table. It’s everything that is in the room and all the performances. Also, you need to think ahead about how this will look online. For sure, yeah.
Matthieu David: We talked about technology for registration. We talked about the fact that people are using their phones for videos and pictures on social media. Are we missing the other parts of technology? You said you’re using drones. I would like to know about innovation in your industry. Would you have other aspects you think are currently happening in your industry in terms of innovation?
Benoit Thebaut: Let me think. Livestreaming is a very important part. The idea of livestreaming is obviously you have a room with 300 people, but you are able to share that life with much more than just 300 people who are able to experience the whole event not just through pictures. And this is really where, as I mentioned before, we’ve almost become movie directors where we need to think of the different camera angles. And you can have Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) that come and do their own livestreaming. But obviously, as an event agency doing event management in China, you need to also do it yourself and provide this platform. So, there’s a lot to do in that area.
Matthieu David: I see. I see you. You may move to be a TV presenter in some way if you continue doing livestreaming.
Benoit Thebaut: Actually, we’ve recently done a couple of events for CNBC which were broadcasted live. So, they’re the one handling that part but it’s very interesting because we see there is a lot of overlap between what we do for livestream and the professionalism they have in doing their live broadcast. So, it’s great to be doing events for companies such as this one where while you’re doing it, you also experience and learn a lot. So yeah, it’s quite interesting.
Matthieu David: This is the last question. We will not have time to go through the eight questions I now usually ask at the end of an interview, but the last question is more personal and I talked about it before we started. You have started a lot of offices. I mean nine offices now. You are used to traveling. And actually, you are now living in Phuket. Could you share a bit with people listening to us how you can work remotely and how you can work with so many offices? We have been in contact for a while on LinkedIn and WeChat and I feel you’re traveling a lot. Could you share how you manage remote working?
Benoit Thebaut: Sure. So, yes, as you mentioned, I moved with my family to Phuket three years ago, but I still keep an apartment in Shanghai. When you have nine offices, you always work remotely from at least eight of them. And when I’m in Phuket, from nine of them. Then, you have a lot of tools. I mean now with WeChat and email, it’s quite easy to do so. But I think I would not have been able to do so if I wasn’t able to delegate. And that’s what we’ve learned to do with Stephane in the past five years.
Actually, I am not involved as much in the business—I mean in the daily operation of the business than I was in the past. We do about 180 events a year and I think I will probably go to 10 or 15 or maybe 20 of them. And my job is really to support my team. So, I am what we call the quarterback. So, they are at the forefront of the business. They are managing the clients. They are managing production. My job is to make sure that they have the tools to do their job correctly and that they enjoy doing it. So, I’m more of a Chief Entertainment Officer, someone that is there to give a strategy or vision to the company. So, it’s a little bit easier to do this remotely than if I had to be involved with the daily operation if that answers your question. Delegating is important. Being able to delegate is very, very crucial.
Matthieu David: Exactly. That would be my ultimate question. You talked about delegating. I feel it’s a topic a lot of people are talking about. They are saying that you need to delegate when the business is growing, but I feel the biggest challenge is not to delegate. It’s to accept the mistakes of others. Because when you delegate, people are going to do different things. Maybe, let’s say that’s not a mistake; people are going to work differently. They are going to do things differently and you have to accept that your business is going to go in a different direction because you delegate but they have their own ideas. Do you share the same challenge or you see other challenges with delegation?
Benoit Thebaut: Sure. We have. Obviously, you have people that make mistakes. Now, we do a lot of training. At some point, I think I mentioned the recipes that work well. So, we created a workflow where everybody has duties and it’s very clear on what they have to do, when, and how they communicate internally. And to make sure this happens, we have quarterly regional meetings where we get all the office heads to come. Sometimes they come with their operation people. Sometimes they come with their salespeople. And they make sure that the workflow is understood and that the newcomers are sharing questions with people that have been here for a bit longer. But yeah, you’ll have mistakes. Now, it’s okay to make mistakes. You have to learn from them. And we have different leaders in the company. So, you always have people that are a bit more senior to make sure that the people they choose do not make these mistakes. So, at the end, it works well.
Matthieu David: Thanks. Thank you very much for taking the time. It was very interesting and I learned a lot more about your business. I saw a lot of pictures before on social media, but now I understand much better and I hope everyone understands as well what you do for your clients much better. Thanks again.
Benoit Thebaut: Great. Thanks.
Matthieu David: Bye-bye everyone.
China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.
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