travel

Nike Space // China Trip 12/29

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. (8th in a series) Man, Beijing is huge. I mean, I live in a city that seems to sprawl forever, especially at certain times of day. But LA’s 498 square miles is like a puddle in the middle of Beijing’s 6,487. For my math majors out there, that means it’s over 13 times bigger.

Not only does it go on and on, everything in the city just seems bigger. For example, I wanted to see the Nike art space, so we visited the art gallery district 798 Dashanzi — approximately 20 square blocks of old Soviet weapons factory buildings that have been converted into hundreds of art galleries, shops, and restaurants. This place could be a city of its own.

The galleries covered many different genres of painting, photography, and sculpture, from traditional to contemporary. Nothing I would really call street art, but I may have missed that. We definitely didn’t get to everything, even with two separate visits.

The Nike space is hidden among the galleries and outdoor sculptures, and we would have missed it if there weren’t billboards and banners hanging across every street in the area to make sure we didn’t.

What we found inside was a beautiful full basketball court with bleachers, scoreboard and video screens, all themed around LeBron. On either end was a display of LeBron’s Nikes and some pictures of him.

This wasn’t a gallery exactly, which was a bit disappointing at first. I thought it would have been a great opportunity for Nike to show its support of the art community by highlighting some great emerging artists. On the other hand, the whole place was filled with emerging artists, so Nike’s gallery would surely have been just one among the crowd.

While I was struggling with the relevance of building a basketball court inside an art colony, it hit me that the place was full. Well, not full exactly, but considering we were there at 2:00 on a Monday afternoon, there was a really good crowd of players and spectators. About 20 guys were participating in drills and a mini game, with about another 20 watching. Nothing for sale, nobody collecting sign-ups, this was pure experience.

So Nike brought something it does really well — sport — to a place where it may not be immediately relevant, but is ultimately welcome. I think the idea is that when you’re really good at what you do, you can take a few liberties you wouldn’t get away with otherwise.

Visit the 798 and Nike Space photo album for more pictures.

Guided Day Tours // China Trip

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. (7th in a series)

Insights - We took four day-tours in China and I think I learned a little about the travel agency/tour business. In short, it’s not totally useless, but it is outdated.

1. The whole thing is a bit old school. They arrange every detail so you don’t have to think about anything, except how much to spend in the overpriced gift shops. You eat in special tourist restaurants and have no control over the menu

That kind of experience is too passive for me. I’m up for adventure, and willing to take a little risk that we end up somewhere not so great.

2. But, you have a guide, and someone who speaks the language and knows the city on my side is definitely valuable and worth spending for.

3. The travel agencies presented package prices that were not transparent as to cost breakdowns. On the road, I learned that there were some elements of the tours I would have paid extra to upgrade, and probably some others that didn’t matter. They should have shown me exactly what I was paying for, and I would have spent more money with them.

A service that provides a guide who is more of a facilitator — who will help you do what you want to do, or help you figure out what you want to do — would be very attractive to people like me.

I checked out Travel and Leisure’s A List, but decided to go web and use tripology where you give them your details and they shop them around to several agencies. After some back and forth on pricing - resulting in me organizing the flights and hotel on my own - I used their connection, Pacific Holidays for drivers and tour guides. They did OK. But just OK - a little drama with a communication and timing issue on their part. Of course I sent an email to our rep, but am not holding my breath on hearing back.

Trip Notes - We went to Vue Bar at Hyatt on the Bund for drinks. It was kinda dead for a Thursday night, but the view of the Bund and the city from the 32nd floor was first rate. We met a couple Americans from Apple who were out here visiting suppliers. Make no mistake, your favorite products from Cupertino are definitely made in China.

It was too cold to make use of the 33rd floor outdoor hot tub, but you can bet we’ll be in that bad boy next time we go back.

Shaolin Temple // China Trip 12/21

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. (4th in a series) Insights - After our too-short stay in Shanghai, we’re off to Henan Province to visit the Shaolin Temple, which was the birthplace of Chinese martial arts. I’m excited to see what this is all about. Maybe I’ll jump into a class, do a little sparring. So I thought.

Having seen an impressive but unengaging demonstration by the students at Shaolin, I found out that the real thrill was walking the historic grounds where kung fu was invented and the place where Bodhidharma sat for nine years while he conceived of Zen Buddhism. By the end of it all, Christie and I felt as though we’d shared a powerful experience, but not for the reasons we expected.

This is kind of how it goes with experience marketing. That is, it works because it mimics real life. In this case, my affinity for the brand was strong enough to endure a little let-down, which is something most of us can never count on. But in the end, the Shaolin brand delivered, because it enabled me to discover new things about it, and about myself.

The best brands find ways to deliver both — reliability and discovery. It means you have to deliver on the basics and then overdeliver on the extras.

Trip Notes - It’s a 90-minute flight from Shanghai to Zhengzhou. Like I learned in Europe in the summer, we see again how much better the airlines are in other countries. We’re on China Eastern Airlines — a clean, new-looking plane with a friendly staff and free meal, even on this short flight. The announcements are in both Chinese and English, and I can’t help thinking about how difficult it must be to get around in America if you don’t speak English.

Zhengzhou is just a pit-stop. It’s a little town nobody’s ever heard of, except for the seven million people who live there, and perhaps the residents of Richmond, VA, Zhengzhou’s American sister city. We’re picked up by the guide and carted off to Dengfeng in the Songshan mountains — an actual small town (about 60,000) and home to the Shaolin Temple and the 30,000 kung fu students living at the city’s 100+ kung fu schools.

After shivering through the quick kung fu demonstration (20-odd young boys flying through the air), we move up the hill and visit the remainder of the temple grounds. One beautiful building after another as we walk through China’s most famous Mahayana Buddhist temple.

Pagoda Forest, where the monks from the Shaolin Temple are buried

We then make our way to the Pagoda Forest, where the Shaolin monks are buried. I’m not sure why this is interesting, but it is. After taking pictures in front of the forest’s oldest pagoda (791 AD), we snap shots of the newest, which has carvings of the monk’s favorite modern comforts: an airplane, video camera, laptop, train, and cruise ship. Really strange.

Shaolin photo album

Amsterdam // Don’t Believe The Hype

The mayor of Amsterdam says he’s going to clean up his city. Translation: he’s shutting down the brothels. If you don’t know the story, Amsterdam has legalized prostitution. Unlike Nevada, it’s not way out in the cut. Amsterdam’s Red Light District is right in the center of the city and the main tourist area. Like Nevada, it’s not exactly a free-for-all.

The girls are supposed to be Dutch (I’m not sure if this is law or just custom), they can’t have pimps, and they get tested regularly. They don’t make house calls. Their work is contained to about 12 square blocks of Victorian houses. They stand in front of the windows, dressed in lingerie, on view for the window shoppers. See one you like — just walk up and begin the transaction. The price is 50 Euro, no haggling. I’m not aware of the particulars of what that buys, if there are “extras,” etc., but that’s the story.

Problem is, people don’t always play by the rules, especially when there’s money involved. (What?!) Recently, the place is filled with Russian girls, most of whom have Russian “managers.” The quaint, if randy, historical landmark is a perfect target for money laundering. By one account, brothel houses have sold in the last year for as much as 10X market value.

The mayor’s reaction is, well, reactionary. Little by little, he’s shutting the windows down. When I was there last summer, just about every 10th window had been replaced by a display by a local fashion designer.

The campaign is called “I amsterdam,” intended to showcase the many talents of Dutch citizens other than, say, quickies.

Not a bad name, but a bad idea. Let’s say you’re there to get your freak on. How excited  are you going to be that someone has replaced the object of your prurient desires with a mannequin sporting the latest styles? Does that make you want to go out and buy some clothes?

But the problem is much bigger than that. To be clear, I’m not writing as an advocate for prostitution. Let’s remember — I’m the brand activist. What I care about is Brand Amsterdam.

Whether the mayor likes it or not, his city’s brand has a lot to do with hookers and pot. Now, I happen to love the city, and I don’t partake in either one. I may be in the minority. And part of what attracts me to the city is the vibe of openness and freedom-of-spirit that permeates. Start taking that away and what’s left.

For the most part, the food sucks, there’s no good shopping to speak of, no world-class hotels, limited natural wonders. Amsterdam does have great museums and beautiful canals, but so do a lot of cities. All of this speaks to what has likely prevented Amsterdam from being one of the world’s great capitals (To all my geography fans out there, I know it’s not the nation’s capital. Please try to stick with me.)

What it does have is that young, free energy like nowhere else I’ve been. Millions of young adults trekking their way through life exploration, and Amsterdam is a beacon for that liberation.

In September, I walked the Red Light District among let’s say five thousand other people on a Sunday evening. Some were young guys there for the sex, but a lot more were tour groups, older couples, and groups of college-aged girls gawking and giggling.

Take away the brothels, and how many of those people still come to check out the latest Dutch designers? My guess is many of them skip it as a destination.

Does this mean you can never reinvent your brand? Of course not, but you never want to change ahead of your audience. Baby steps if you’re going to lead them in a new direction, and plenty of checkpoints along the way to make sure they’re still with you.

If I were consulting the mayor, I’d first want to make sure we have something really compelling to add to the brand. Let’s deliver on that before we start taking things away.

By the way, I did find one great hotel: The Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy. It’s a very creative art hotel in the trendy Eastern Docklands district. Right near the water, and with really good food. I also had a drink at the Dylan, which was beautiful, but a little stuffy.

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.