Experience DIY Travel // China Trip 12/19

Bund skyline from the Hyatt Most people go to the beach or skiing during the winter holidays. Not me. Always up for an adventure, my wife and I traveled to China where we visited friends and family, saw the sites, ate, shopped and got lost. As always, my eyes were open for insights on culture, consumers, branding and marketing - you'll find them in this set of posts - most starting with a bit of business, followed by some fun (and strange) trip stories. (2nd in a series)

Insights - This was an amazing day. We walked all over the city, sans travel guide. So yes, we got lost, but we saw a bunch of cool stuff and we made it happen for ourselves. Such is the allure of the experience economy. Seeing everything from the inside of a tour bus would not have been nearly as compelling. The getting lost and shuffling through maps and guide books made it all the better when we finally figured it out.

There’s definitely a balance between making things easy for your customers and giving them enough room to craft their own experiences with your brand. As your doctor, I advise you to err on the side of making things easy. At the same time, create additional rabbit holes for folks to slide down if they’re inclined to take matters into their own hands. Those are the experiences they remember and credit you with.

On another note, we did have some good books from Lonely Planet, Knopf, Time Out, and our hotel, but we had to work through all of them to find the right combination. Carrying a stack of maps and books through a strange city is not the way to go. One of you has to come up with an easier way to find all the relevant information about a city. Let me know if I can help.

Trip Notes - Shanghai isn’t exactly one of the world’s culinary capitals. I don’t think Michelin is paying it much attention yet and Gayot doesn’t even offer a full Review Guide. I’m sure that’s likely to change as the market continues to mature. To be clear, there are a lot of nice hotels and upscale restaurants, just not too much in the way of special food.

Christie and me at the Whampoa Club

Whampoa Club is one exception to that. Located in the tony Three On The Bund, Whampoa boasts Shanghainese cuisine at its finest. We at there last night and were neither particularly impressed nor disappointed. The food was very good, but I think the concept of Chinese fine dining still has to set-in.

The other big star of Shanghai is French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose eponymous restaurant is also at Three On The Bund. We didn’t eat there (though I think we should have), but the chef also designed the brunch menu at our hotel, which was memorable. In the room was a brief article in which he talked about his favorite street food, jian bing, from one of the stands along Xiangyang Road. Sort of a Chinese breakfast quesadilla, it was delicious and worth the half-hour of being lost while we tried to find the street. We also had a couple baozi and shared a bowl of freshly cooked soy sauce noodles. Full and very satisfied, we spent less than $3 on breakfast.

From there, we slowly worked our way toward the east end of the city, hoping to reach Pudong — the city’s picturesque business district — by sundown. We didn’t make it. We got lost several more times in French Concession (the up-and-coming cultural hub), Xintiandi (upscale shopping and residences, where we saw the only Aston Martin and Lamborghini we’d encounter on the trip), the White Cloud Taoist temple, and finally made it to Old Shanghai.

Old Shanghai is a maze of 19th century streets jam packed with tourists, peddlers, crazy foods, designer fakes, the list goes on. Lots of fun to walk through and take pictures, but after six hours of that we were beat. We found an oasis of quiet at one of the city’s oldest teahouses for a little gong fu tea ceremony before catching a cab back to the hotel.

Dinner tonight was Italian food courtesy of my new friend Salvador — who works for the Spanish embassy in Shanghai —and his girlfriend Bianli, followed by an amazing foot massage for $3 at their favorite little neighborhood spot. Thanks guys!

Click here for pics from the Shanghai photo album.

Vegas // On The Run

We were just in Vegas for the Major League Gaming championships (I first wrote about the professional gamers in Major League gaming a couple months ago.) We've followed 5-game season on behalf of client Dr Pepper -premier sponsor of the league and the top-ranked team, Str8 Rippin (featured here in a recent NY Times article) - so it's exciting to see it all come together. Somebody walked out of there with $100 large.

The finals were in The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, which is where we stayed. I remember the first time I stayed there, the overwhelming feeling that both Vegas and I had reached a new level of freshness. There was finally an oasis of cool in the neon sea, and Peter Morton's rock n roll chic was it.

Oh, how times have changed. HRH, like much of Vegas, has been Ed Hardyized. The too-tight jeans and Euro-psuedo-elegance have been replaced by mixed martial arts bravado and douchiness. Along with it came bonus lameness like Axe body spray in the room (do they think I'm 15?) and lack of sensible amenities like a coffee maker or pens. This place sucks.

Same goes for Body English, which has always been pretty good. The incredible DJ Melo D was spinning to a lame crowd. Down the hall was Carey Hart's new club Wasted Space, which felt, appropriately, like a waste of space. It was great to see the old school homie Jackson holding down the door though.

I have some actual business thoughts I'll share in another post, but for now, here are some of the eating (and drinking) highlights of the trip:

- SushiSamba (Palazzo). Not the best fish in the world, or even the city, but quite serviceable considering the great atmosphere that blends Japan and Brazil with graffiti. Always fun and lively.

- B & B Ristorante (Venetian). One of Mario Batali's three restaurants in the Venetian. This is amazing innovative Italian food at its near-best. Personally, I liked the food down the hall at the more casual Enoteca San Marco better, but just slightly. The lamb, duck, and octopus were standouts, and I heard great things about the steak.

- Fiamma Trattoria (MGM Grand). It's amazing how they cram so many good restaurants into an otherwise crap hotel. I've had seriously good food at Mesa Grill, Shibuya, and now Fiamma, and to get there I always have to pass college-kid drunkards carrying plastic beer yards. This place, like B & B, presents its food in the traditional three-panel menu (according to the waiters), which means they wanted us to order both a pasta and a main course in addition to appetizer. This time we fell for it. Would have been great if there were small portions of each, but not so. This meal was expensive and gluttonous, but also tasty. Not the most memorable meal I've had, but no complaints. Solid.

- Bouchon (Venetian). I wanted to save the best for last, and this one is a no-brainer. Maybe the best breakfast you'll ever have, Bouchon delivers Thomas Keller's reputation for attention to detail in abundance. My third time back for breakfast, and it's hard to imagine a trip to Vegas without stopping in. I went off the path and had chicken and waffles. Bouchon is not Roscoe's, and the waffles were light and elegant in a way that's hard to describe. The chicken was roasted, not fried, and just about perfect. My breakfast partner, Colin Sutton of M-80 (watch for a guest post from him soon) won't stop talking about the white sausage, which he will probably remember for a long time. My only regret is not pairing in a nice white wine, but I was afraid to get started so early.

- That's it for food. We went out Saturday night to Tao, owned by our friends at Strategic Group, to see the hermano DJ Vice get down. Tao never disappoints as a hot spot with Vegas-level indulgence. Girls in cages, girls in bathtubs, girls in lingerie, and tons and tons of guys. We were treated to a guest appearance by Jamie Foxx, who - to the dismay of at least my crew if nobody else - was more than happy to grace us with hours of singing and rambling on the mic, calling out whatever song he wanted Vice to play next. Really, if I ever win an Academy Award, I plan to consider that good enough and not also feel like I need to yell "My name is Jamie Motherfuckin Foxx: First name Jamie, last name Foxx, middle name Motherfuckin" no fewer than 20 times.