Holding large events in China: Lessons from the Victoria’s Secret Shanghai Fashion Show

The biggest mistake brands can make is to assume that event planning in China is the same as everywhere else in the world.

While the issues faced during the execution of Victoria’s Secret fashion show in Shanghai this year may seem outlandish to outsiders, these obstacles are everyday occurrences for PR companies and event planners in China, where red tape, mistrustful bureaucrats and inexplicable holdups are just part of doing business.

There is no doubt that the China market is an incredible opportunity and brands should not be scared off by its complexity. However, brands looking to hold large-scale events in China need to be prepared with the right mindset needed to navigate the complicated bureaucratic landscape of modern-day China. The biggest mistake they can make is to assume that they know best and that event planning in China is the same as everywhere else in the world. China is a unique place where even the best-laid plans will go awry.

Here are several things brands need to know before planning events in China:

1. Large-scale events will always be subject to government scrutiny

No matter whether you are China’s beloved Alibaba or an industry-leading international brand, the government will always be heavily involved in the event planning process.

For highly publicized—and risqué—events such as Victoria’s Secret fashion show, the government’s involvement will be more intense than usual. It was reported that the government was involved in every part of the event’s planning process from censoring clothing designs to requiring press releases to obtain government approval.

2. Follow the rules

In China, companies should be aware that there’s a lack of flexibility; the key to success is being able to follow the rules, as stringent or unreasonable as they may be. Keep in mind that the government does not need to explain or justify anything and rules and regulations can be changed unexpectedly without any warning. Furthermore, different cities and different districts within those cities will often have their own set of rules.

If rules have been set in place around timing, don’t expect local officials to be lenient, even if the event starts late. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show after party was abruptly shut down early at midnight even though staff had tried to persuade police officers to let it continue longer.

In China, there is often an inconsistency with whether or not the rules will be enforced which can lead to confusion, for example, some companies will find that while local officials turned a blind eye in previous years, the next year the same event is not allowed.

3. Be on the lookout for red flags

Obtaining visas for foreign talent can be a difficult hurdle for many brands. Originally scheduled to headline the show, singer Katy Perry was denied a visa for having once shown support for the Taiwanese freedom movement. Top model Gigi Hadid was also refused a visa after a video appeared online of culturally insensitive behaviour. Victoria’s Secret veteran Adriana Lima almost missed the show after her visa was held up by an unknown “diplomatic issue.” Four other models, Julia Belyakova, Kate Grigorieva, and Irina Sharipova of Russia; and Dasha Khlystun of Ukraine were denied visas to travel to China.

Brands can do their best to avoid visa complications by reviewing celebrities’ past actions and searching for red flags that might draw government attention such as incidences with drugs, their political stances, involvement with fraudulent businesses, etc.

4. Media issues

Brands hoping to invite foreign press to cover an event in China need to be aware that journalist visas are closely monitored and may be difficult to obtain. Not only did Victoria’s Secret have models denied visas but many members of the press and industry influencers that they had invited to the event were denied visas as well.

Even if foreign journalists are able to obtain a visa, they are subject to strict content rules. Last year, the government released a seven chapter-long “Online Publishing Services Rules” document restricting foreign companies from publishing a wide range of content. At the fashion show, these rules were enforced and TV crews approved to film the event for broadcast were barred from shooting anywhere outside of the Mercedes-Benz Arena where the event was held.

Working with local media can cause headaches, too. In China, it is common practice to pay media for attending events. The minimum amount is typically between 300-500 RMB ($45-75 USD) per person and some companies will offer media even more.

Admission to the event needs to be tightly regulated especially if celebrities will be in attendance. In China, fans will often pose as a member of the press, even offering fake business cards and claiming that their colleague who was supposed to attend couldn’t come and they were taking their place.

Because seats at the fashion show were in such high demand, the invited press were asked to not post their credentials online to avoid someone forging fake ones. Press were told that if they were caught posting them, the Chinese government had threatened to shut the entire show down.

5. Choose the date carefully

Be aware of other events, especially government-related meetings and summits, occurring during the weeks surrounding your event. During this time local officials will be on edge and events will be more tightly controlled. There is even the chance that no events will be allowed during that time.

Keep an eye on local news for any sudden changes. A couple years ago when a massive explosion occurred in Tianjin, all events in the entertainment industry were postponed a couple of weeks. This was done not only to avoid appearing insensitive during a time of national mourning, but because media from state-run news agencies were forbidden from covering any entertainment related news in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

6. Relationships are important

Brands should take time to develop relationships with local officials prior to planning an event and ideally should avoid holding large-scale, high-profile events right off the bat. Start off small and slowly build trust.

For example, music festivals in China will often avoid bringing in international acts during the first few years, inviting only Chinese talent until the event is established enough to consider larger acts.

In many cases, if your brand has developed strong enough relationships, any bureaucratic issues that may arise during the planning process can be easily resolved.

7. Work with a local team

Victoria’s Secret is known for working with the same international team to run all of their events. While the members of their team are certainly experts at running fashion shows, holding an event in China is not the same as in the rest of the world.

As mentioned above, China is full of shifting regulations and idiosyncrasies. No matter how experienced their international team is, brands need the right local people involved from the beginning so as to avoid complications occurring in the first place.

Pulling off a successful event in China is not easy, but brands can avoid huge headaches if they know what to expect.

Source: Jing Daily/campaignasia.com; 4 Dec 2017