It’s no secret that in Shanghai – the “other China” – things dance to a different tune than in the rest of the People's Republic. Mandarin Oriental General Manager Clemens Hoerth soon discovered this in the days following his arrival last summer. Six years earlier, when he was just starting out in China in the trade fair city of Guangzhou, people still wanted to take his photo every few metres – the tall man with the “Mao” haircut, laughs Hoerth. But in Shanghai? “Tens of thousands of foreigners live here.” Nothing special, then.
Well, quite the opposite, in fact. “Shanghai had been globalised back in the 19th century,” explains Hoerth’s colleague, Dorian Rommel, in the recently opened Capella Hotel. 200 years ago, the former fishing village opened for trade, laying the foundations for its ascent to become the most important centre for trade in the country, and subsequently its industrial centre, too. “Back then, whole city districts were sold off to Europe, to the French, the British”, Rommel says somewhat flippantly. “So Shanghai was always a multinational city.” Even the sycamore trees in his district, the “French Concession”, were imported to Shanghai many years ago by the French.
Today, international money flows, high-tech, expertise and culture are flooding into Shanghai. Once the country began to reopen at the start of the 1990s, following decades of isolation, communism, war and Maoism, it was once again the city on the Huangpu River that was at the forefront of the globalisation movement. Since then, the city of 26 million inhabitants has experienced double-digit growth and Shanghai is the undisputed financial centre of China.
And everything points towards the fact that this won’t be changing any time soon. While the capital city of Beijing still stands for the traditional China, Shanghai has put its foot right down to the floor. Since 2012 the container port has been the world’s largest, with the world’s highest rate of goods handling. And the goal of overtaking its competitor Hong Kong, Asia’s leading financial metropolis, seems to be within reach. Increasing numbers of international institutes and companies have gradually relocated their headquarters to the Chinese mainland and set up in Pudong, the special economic zone established back in 1990, east of the Huangpu River. The Shanghai Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center and the landmark Pearl Tower – three of the world’s tallest buildings – are all located here, a clear sign of the general direction in which things are moving. Capella GM Rommel laconically explains that Shanghai is a 24-hour city, just like “New York on ecstasy”.
While geographical restrictions limit growth in the Big Apple, the “Gateway to the World” continues to expand in all directions. Until 1990, Shanghai had mainly developed along the western side of the Huangpu – around the historic centre and the riverside promenade, the Bund. On the eastern side of the river, however, there was barely anything other than shipyards and rice farmers cultivating their fields. “The land was considered worthless because you had to cross the river to get to it,” says Rüdiger Hollweg. Just 25 years later, he is now in charge of the Grand Kempinski Hotel, currently celebrating its fourth birthday. The hotel is located right in the midst of competitors such as the Mandarin Oriental, Shangri La, Four Seasons and Park Hyatt.
Among other things, this development has not only made targeted investments in Pudong’s infrastructure possible, but it has also enabled the construction of exemplary connections to old Shanghai via ferry, metro, pedestrian tunnel and two of the longest suspension bridges in the world. Otherwise, the previously worthless area would never have transformed into the centre of Asian and international finance, insurance, pharmaceuticals and the high-tech elite in such a short time, with a skyline that has now become one of the most photographed in the world; offering international schools, communities, start-ups and hotels, a harbour-city project and a 21-kilometre long jogging track along the Huangpu River. Even Disneyland made the move to Pudong in 2016, with ten other theme parks set to follow suit.
No end to growth in sight
Meanwhile, the city officials seem to show no fear of taking things too far. Until recently, the Shanghai New International Expo Center in Pudong was proudly presented as the world’s second largest trade fair site after Hanover in Germany; but Shanghai’s new number one now lies at the opposite end of the city, in Hongqiao. “Ten years ago, there was nothing here,” explains Peter Pollmeier, who opened the Intercontinental Shanghai here a year ago, “now an entirely new part of the city is springing up”.
The core of this emerging exhibition and industrial district in the far west of Shanghai is the National Exhibition and Conference Center (NECC), which is above all aiming to attract large automotive fairs. And although the NECC only opened around two years ago for the first time, Intercontinental boss Pollmeier, whose hotel is right across from the venue, is very happy. “We currently have events 75 to 80 days a year,” he estimates. But a quick glance at the trade fair calendar for 2018 makes it clear that this figure will grow very quickly. And the same applies to the number of visitors. Pollmeier estimates it will be 250,000 a day.
In the meantime, the infrastructure in Hongqiao is “expandable”, summarises Pollmeier. Of the 16 planned metro connections, there are still only 14; of the twenty hotels initially planned, only a handful are complete. And although the nearby Hongqiao Airport had already been extended to two runways for Expo 2010, it still predominantly serves the domestic market.
Marko Janssen, whose Meliá Shanghai is just a stone’s throw from the NECC, is convinced that this will also change very quickly. “In the future, Hongqiao will have international connections, too,” says Janssen. And it’s not for nothing that this new part of the city is already home to countless expats and international schools. And it’s not all because of the proximity to the NECC, it’s also being positioned as a place of enjoyment – there’s “healthy food” and a spa that recently won an award.
The right hotel? Business travellers are spoilt for choice
In fact, things are tough for Shanghai’s hotel industry, in the face of what seems to be unprecedented competition – business travellers, on the other hand, are literally spoilt for choice. “In 1990, there were only three international hotels in Shanghai,” says Hilton GM Gerd Knaust, remembering the beginnings of the boom. “Today, all of them have a presence, from luxury to budget.” So how do you get started in a city where each new arrival boasts even more striking architecture, even grander design and ever more refined cuisine? It’s not for nothing that culinary standards are now attracting the attention of the Michelin guide.
Given the size of Shanghai, a location appropriate to the reason for your trip is, and will undoubtedly remain, the crucial factor. Close to the exhibition centre in Hongqiao? In the heart of the financial centre in Pudong? Or, to impress business partners, in the centre of the French Concession? In brand-new Capella, for example, in an urban resort consisting of 55 historic villas and forty residences, which, like its equally new competitors on the tourist-friendly Bund – Bulgari, Rocco Forte, Aman – is offering luxury with fewer than 100 rooms for the first time?
One way or another, HRS booking figures confirm that Shanghai – along with New York – was one of the most-visited business travel destinations even in 2016. It’s anticipated that this share of the market will continue to grow. Even if it's only in connection with ITB China, which, after its successful première in 2017, will be showcasing the Chinese market once again in the coming year (www.itb-china.com; 16 – 18 May 2018).