Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 19 – The Events Entrepreneur (Stephane DE MONTGROS, Riviera Events)
Stephane de Montgros first came to China as an engineering graduate, and today is the Director of an events and hospitality company. And his positivity and enthusiasm is truly infectious.
SDM: I do enjoy that storytelling around the world, that China is up and coming and that they will be number one by 2030. The truth is they are already number one, but they don't want people to know.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Well, I survived my cold. And as a bonus, I survived the expired drugs that I'd been taking. So we're back for another week. Thanks very much to everyone who commented on last week's show with the jewellery designer, Angie Wu. And I need to give a special shout out to my dad, who has an engineering background and is apparently just as in love with tools as Angie is. To the extent that the WeChat group woke up one morning to a stream of photos that he posted there from London, featuring his callipers, his micrometer, and a slide rule. You see, you're just missing out if you're not on the listeners group on WeChat, you can join by first connecting with me on my Wechat ID: mosaicofchina* and I'll add you to the group there. Otherwise, please search for @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram and @mosaicofchina on Facebook.
And speaking of people with engineering backgrounds, we have another one in this week's episode, Stephane de Montgros. You'll hear about how he shifted away from engineering to events, and later to hotels. And in so doing, we cover a lot of ground on what's happening in the hospitality industry in China and around the world. I think there's only one word we say in Chinese that isn't explained. That's when Stephane says 随便 [suíbiàn]. If you're 随便 [suíbiàn] about something, it just means that you're casual about it. And this is another recording that went a little bit wrong in the studio, there was a problem with the differential between our two mics. At some points it sounds like my voice has been looped in afterwards, but I promise everything was recorded at the same time.
OF: I'm here with Stephane de Montgros. Stephane is the co-founder of Riviera Events here in Shanghai.
SDM: Hi Oscar.
OF: Hi Stephane. And I want to ask about the events company, of course. But before we do, the first question I'll ask you, like I ask every guest on this podcast is, what is the object that you brought in today?
SDM: I brought you something, and it was actually a bit of a challenge for me to find something to bring you. The reason is that my passion is people. People, experiences, memories, all that kind of stuff. So I actually try to not attach myself to too many objects. So it really took me a long time before I could figure out what I would bring for this interview. And then what happened is, a few weeks ago, I went back to my hometown in the south of France. And I decided to go and clean my childhood room. And I came on to find this little object that my dad gave me when I was around 10. And my dad was working for HP, the computer company. And he was either travelling to the west side of the US, Palo Alto, or to Asia. And back in the late 80s, there were a lot of suppliers in the IT business that were based in Singapore, based in Taiwan. So he brought me that little thing that gives you the time all around the world. So it's something that your iPhone can do very easily. But back in the day, you had that little digital device that would do that for you. And I think it was a bit of a subtle introduction to the fact that the world was flat, and a great way to dream as a young boy about exploring all these different time zones.
OF: I would have loved that as a 10-year-old. So how did this then lead to you coming to China? What was your China story?
SDM: So I'll keep it very, very short. By training. I'm an engineer. And I did engineering because I was not too bad in math and physics. And it's a good foundation for whatever you want to do in the future. When I was in my early 20s, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But I also knew I was not strong enough to be starting something right away. And so I came to China because I got my first job opportunity in the automotive industry. And I thought that it was good to work in a very competitive, very tough industry. So my first job was actually to sell car parts to all the car makers all over the country. It was a fantastic introduction to the Chinese culture, the Chinese language. So I was travelling to 天津 [Tiānjīn] and Beijing to meet with the manufacturers there. BMW was in 沈阳 [Shěnyáng] for instance, you had the Japanese in 广东 [Guǎngdōng]. You had the French obviously in 武汉 with Citroën. And the Americans, Ford was in 重庆 [Chóngqìng], GM and obviously Volkswagen were here in Shanghai. So it was a beautiful learning experience. The reason I chose China for my first job is that I went to a pretty good school actually, and I could see ahead of myself very straight line working for a top-40 large French company. And at the end of that line, I could see the cemetery. I was like "Oh my god, that sounds too boring". So I simply wanted to shuffle the cards. I didn't want to make it too simple for myself. And I wanted to make sure I would experience something a little bit out of the ordinary. So I actually look for a job in Brazil, I looked into the east of Europe, and China. And I happen to be in China for the first time for a very short Chinese class at 交通大学 [Jiāotōng dàxué] in 2000. So, my résumé already had a little bit of China written on it. So that helped me to find this first job in China.
OF: OK, and then from the automotive industry, you're now in events.
SDM: So what happened is, back in 2005, there was not much to do on the weekends in Shanghai, especially during the summertime when the weather is nice. So I met a very nice guy, also French, Benoît, who became my business partner, Benoît Thebaut. And we had the same idea at the same time, which was to organise pool parties on the weekends. Very simple. We wanted to gather people, have great music, have quality drinks, and have a good time. The nice thing with Benoît, my business partner, is that he's very street-smart. I'm more of the book-smart type of guy. So we're extremely different, but we have the same taste, we like the same type of music, we like the same type of dancing, and the same way of having fun. So it was actually a great partnership. And what was really cool at that time is that the Chinese were just starting to drink champagne. So the main brands from France had budgets to spend on building the brands for these beverages. But they had nowhere to spend it, because there was no bars that were really serving champagne. So quite fast, we actually managed to secure very cool budgets. And we were just the right people with the right idea at the right time. And we made it work. From the pool parties in 2007, we decided to resign from our current day jobs and we went full time with the agency. And then nightclubs started to hire us as promoters. When I look back, what shocks me today is we used to do parties for nightclubs on Wednesday nights. And we used to pack these places with over a thousand people. And now when I come to the Wednesday of the week, the last thing I want to do is to party until four in the morning, because I know I have to deliver on Thursday and on Friday. And that's why quite fast, we were like "OK, this is a lot of fun, but we're never going to make it a sustainable business doing this". So the opportunity we've had, and we're very fortunate, is to start working for the hotel industry. We did our first event for Sofitel in 2008 in Beijing, and since then, Riviera Events is the leading agency supporting the hotel industry, putting together what we call 'offline activations', which is just a fancy name for 'events'. And it doesn't stop. So we have seven offices now all over the country. And we've just started to develop business as well in Southeast Asia.
OF: Yeah, I mean, that's one thing that, as somebody living in China who doesn't have any link to the hospitality industry, even I can tell that hotels have been growing exponentially.
SDM: Yes. And what is very interesting, I'm just back from a conference in New York, and we had the CEO of Marriott Hotels, Hyatt, Hilton, etc. And they were all together on stage for 60 minutes talking about various subjects. The first 30 minutes were spent discussing China. So it just shows how important this market is. And some other key facts from there that I thought were quite interesting is that the travel industry is the largest industry worldwide, it's 10% of the worldwide GDP. And it's also the largest employer. So over 300 million jobs are in travel. And the other fact that I like a lot is that the travel industry is one of the best roads to the middle class. So you can, in any country, start as an immigrant with a very simple job cleaning the dishes in the back. And if you have a bit of luck, if you're in the right place, if you work hard, you can be in management by the time you're in your mid 30s, and put your kids to school, and have a have a roof over your head. I think one of the subject at the moments which I find very interesting is that trend that's coming from Sweden, the 'flying shame', the shame of taking the plane. The travel industry, obviously is largely dependent on the airlines and on flying. And there's a new number that came out but 2% of the pollution worldwide is generated by the planes, and it's only 3% of the population that are generating 2% of the pollution. So the ratio is not good. And when you look at the numbers in China, it's insane. Each airport is building a second or third landing track, and the numbers are crazy. So for China to manage its growth, but to do it in a way which is somewhat environmentally friendly, it's a massive subject. But I also believe, surprisingly, that they are very aware of that matter. A few weeks ago we were in Singapore, and we had interviews with most of the leadership of the travel industry in Asia. And one particular gentleman is the GM of the JW Marriott Hotel in New Delhi. And if you've been to New Delhi, you do know that the environment is a challenge, the amount of dust is insane. Well, that hotel has committed - and they are not the only one - to be plastic-free by the end of the year, which I thought for India and for New Delhi was amazing. China is trying to do the same thing. And to put things in perspective, when I was at that conference in New York two weeks ago, over 48 hours of talks about everything in anything, no one did talk about the environment. So surprisingly, I do believe we are more advanced on this side of the world than quite a few countries in the West.
OF: Interesting. And if the idea is to reduce the number of flights, then is the building of the high speed rail network another idea that China is putting into play?
SDM: Yes. So they've done a fantastic job with the infrastructure, and the train is definitely a great option. So I think I would invite everyone, when it makes sense for you, to consider travelling with the train, rather than the planes within the country.
OF: And then you touched upon how passionate you are about the hotel industry here in China. What is it that keeps you motivated in this area?
SDM: I've always said that in Asia, Shanghai is the best place for nightlife. So we have many nationalities here. So the Americans brought with they are the best at, the Europeans did as well, the Japanese obviously, and the Southeast of Asia. So we're very lucky that Shanghai - the 'Paris of the East', as they used to say - has such a vibrant food and beverage scene. A lot of younger people come to me and I say "Oh, you're so lucky, you were here at the right time". And I want to share with them that I used to think the exact same thing. In 2005. I was thinking "Gosh, these guys that came in 1995, they bought an apartment already, and now they have a very senior career. And I'm just too late". And I think, and I strongly believe, that there's another solid 20 years - and it could be more - of growth in this country. So my biggest advice is OK, find your passion, find what it is you like, and work hard. It won't be easy, but you'll be able to make your own space. The big subject at the moment is tech, tech, tech. Technology. Right now, we're really at the centre of this thought process of how much human interactions do we need to keep in the hotel industry to make the experience for the hotel guests an enjoyable one. What I love is that, especially in Asia - because we are the centre of tech developments - we're able to experiment with a lot of different things. And I think generally speaking China and Asia is very playful with new things. They're not worried about trial and error. It's an approach they've mastered. And I think it makes us in the right place to actually think and understand where the industry is going to go in the next 20 years.
OF: Just taking a step back and just thinking about you in terms of your personal life… You're someone who has seen it all, you know, you've led amazing events. So for you, that's an everyday thing. So what is it that actually makes you wake up in the morning and go "Yes, this is what I want to achieve today."
SDM: So the first thing that I would do in the morning - and it's really happening every morning - is to go out for a run. And that running time is key for me to sweat out the frustrations I've been having the day before, and maybe that kept my brain working during the night. I'm one of these guys that love to start my day early - the earlier is better - and it's always a nice feeling to feel that you have an edge on the world, especially when you wake up on the east, on this side. And you are 12 hours ahead of New York already, by just the fact that you are waking up at seven in the morning. So running has been really a key for me to keep sane and to keep focus on what needs to be done, and what are the interesting challenges that we should tackle.
OF: Yes, you see, you're making me feel bad, because I used to run a lot. And now in Shanghai I've put on weight because I don't run. I find the streets are not easy for runners. They're always either too small, or they're too packed and then you're forced to run on the road, or the pollution could be bad one day, or it's too hot, or it's too rainy, or whatever excuse I'm putting out. So what would you tell people like me who are using Shanghai as an excuse not to do enough exercise?
SDM: When you go to the south part of 浦西 [Pǔxī] and you go by the river, on the 黄埔 [Huángpù], they have beautiful running tracks. So not only are there no cars, there's a lot of trees; you're running by the water, which is a very agreeable thing to do; and the compound is very very soft on your knees. So take the subway and get to the river.
OF: That sounds perfect. Well, thank you so much. And we're going to go on to the second part of the interview.
OF: So Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?
SDM: So I think the one thing we need to be aware of is that China is the number one economy in the world today. I do enjoy that storytelling around the world that China is up and coming and that they will be number one by 2030. The truth is, they are already number one, but they don't want people to know. I think they understand that being number one is also a burden. Because once you're number one, you have a lot of responsibility. So I think the Chinese are extremely smart in trying to keep that brand of like "We are a developing country, we are getting there, give us a bit of time", where actually they are already extremely strong.
OF: Well, you heard it here first. Number 2, do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SDM: So had you asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you easily 没有问题 [méiyǒu wèntí]. And I think that's changing. I think ten years ago, there's never something that cannot be done. If you need to build a building overnight, it's just a matter of adding more people to get things done. And being from the south of Europe, it's something we share with the Chinese. I think the Italians, the Spanish and the French are also very good at figuring things out, sometime at the very last minute. That's said - again, it goes back to my first answer - I think things are changing. And I think China is becoming a very developed economy, in that now you have to do things the proper way. So it's a very interesting thing and a very dynamic environment. I think in the history books, you'll have the China from 1978 and the opening to 2012, which was a bit 随便 [suíbiàn], like "OK, let's let's move forward and get things done". And since 2012, I really feel that things are getting very much structured. And we are evolving into a different environment. So I'm quite happy that I was able to experience, in my professional life, that shift that happened in 2012.
OF: So then, if it would have been '没有问题 [méiyǒu wèntí]' which is 'no problem', is your favourite phrase now '有很多问题 [yǒu hěnduō wèntí]'?
SDM: '有很多问题 [Yǒu hěnduō wèntí]'… I wouldn't say that. Obviously, there's always ways to get things done. But you have to play by the books.
OF: Very good. So if you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
SDM: So I think every time I go away from China for more than three weeks, what I miss is the fast pace. And I do miss it when I get away. The one thing that I do not miss when I leave is the fact that the pollution and the environment is still a bit of a struggle. But again, on the bright side, I think that the government is deeply aware. So something that I do not miss, but also something that I hope we would not talk about if you were to interview me in five or ten years.
OF: Well said. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SDM: The fast pace. I've been here close to twenty years, and it has not slowed down a second. Just take the Shanghai subway. Every summer there's a new line, and in the democracies in the West it takes twenty years to agree on a new track, where things get done here. These guys are insane. So I love it, and at the same time it blows me away, every time I come back.
OF: Where's your favourite place to go, to eat, to drink, or hang out in general?
SDM: I like to give a shout to Shake. Shake is by far my favourite live music venue in Asia. They're on 茂名 [Màomíng] Road. Beautiful place for dinner, drinks, and some dancing. And trust me, I've been to quite a lot. So go to shake. Fantastic. And again, my favourite all over Asia.
OF: What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
SDM: I couldn't really think about anything when you asked me that question, simply because I think I'm a people person. So you could have asked me "OK, what are the best and the worst relationships that you formed here?" But I can't really comment on objects because he's not really who I am.
OF: OK, I guess we'll take that as an answer this time. As long as the worst person you've met is not me.
SDM: Very funny.
OF: OK, what is your favourite WeChat sticker? And you can send it to me right now.
SDM: Let me send it to you. So a friend of mine actually recorded a short video of a buddy of mine and myself outside of a restaurant in Taipei. And I'm just doing some silly dancing in front of the restaurant. So I just think it's funny because there's myself in there and I have no idea how you get that kind of stuff done. That why its amazing to work with all these millennials, they teach you all that kind of stuff.
OF: Right. And in what situation would you send this sticker?
SDM: When I'm happy, which happens every half an hour.
OF: Ah beautiful. And sickening at the same time. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
SDM: I think the one song that I vaguely remember, is 对面的女孩看过来 ([Duìmiàn de nǚhái kàn guòláii]. It brings me back to my first time in Asia, which was in 2000. So I was doing Chinese over the summer, and then I did an internship in Singapore. And that song had just been released that summer. So it just brings me back to that kind of like, being a baby, not understanding anything, trying to make sense of what was around me. And obviously, I think the more you move forward, the more you know that you don't know anything.
OF: Interesting. And does it still link you to people who remember it being released back in the day?
SDM: I think so. I think so, I think that people in their mid 20s around 2000 remember that song in China.
OF: And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
SDM: So I've heard of that guy, Oscar, who was putting together a series of podcasts, and go and check him out. I think the other one will be the South China Morning Post. So a great newspaper coming out of Hong Kong, and I think they have a very interesting take on things. And they're obviously very close to the action. So that's something that I checked on a daily basis.
OF: Great. And for somebody who used to live in Hong Kong, I appreciate that choice. I do not appreciate you saying that I am a source of information. Now I've got expectations to fill, you see? Well, thank you so much, Stephane, I really enjoyed that. I think when I have people who are visiting, and they have this one impression of what China is, and then they come and what they find out is so much different… I think a lot of it comes down to the people they interact with in the service industry. So I think they are the window into what a lot of people actually experience in China.
SDM: Yeah, very well said. And that's one of the main interests of that line, is that we are ambassadors to the destination. So very well put.
OF: Well, that leaves me with just one question, which is the same question I ask everyone. If I was to interview anyone who you know in China, who should I interview next?
SDM: I think you should interview Vladimir Djurovic. He is the founder of a great brand consulting company called LABBRAND. And you're gonna have a blast meeting him. He is extremely insightful, and I can't wait to hear the answers to the questions you're gonna ask.
OF: Well, thank you so much Stephane.
SDM: Thank you. Thank you, Oscar.
OF: Well, that was Stephane, one of those people who exudes positivity whenever I've met him. So believe me, he wasn't faking it in our recording, which only intensifies my own personal self-loathing and cynicism. So thanks Stephane for making me - and others like me - look bad. That's great.
In the spirit of cynicism, I've actually been hearing reports that the hotel industry in some areas of China hasn't been doing as well in 2019 as in previous years, especially in places like Shanghai where there's almost an over-saturation of great venues. But it appears to be rebounding in 2020, so I'm sure that will make the likes of Stephane happy. His answer to the question 'what would you miss if you left Shanghai' was 'the fast pace'. So I just wanted to give a call back to Eric Olander, the journalist from Episode 03 of the series, who gave the exact same answer to this question. I was doing a quick look at the download stats for the podcast in 2019, and Eric's episode remains one of the most popular of the season. So if you haven't yet listened to it, it's definitely one to check out.
A quick word about the images that I posted this week on social media. There's Stephgane and his object, that little electronic time converter from the 80s. I lied when I said that Oscar the child would have loved that object, Oscar the adult in his 40s loves this object too. It has a map, it has flags, and yeah, I want it. There's also Stephane's favourite WeChat sticker, the DIY one which is colleague made, featuring him and a friend. And there are lots of other bits and bobs there too. Some photos from Stephane's pool party and club promotion days, some graphs with statistics about the travel industry, and so on.
We're having another week off next week, for Chinese New Year. Anyone who's lived in this part of the world will know the weird period between New Year and Chinese New Year. It's always a very stop/start/stop/start to the year. For anyone out there who doesn't know, the Mandarin for Chinese New Year is 春节 [Chūnjié], which simply translates as 'Spring Festival'. And having lived in Asia for 16 of the last 20 years. I must say that this is one of those things where I think the East makes more sense than what we do in the West. Most companies and schools start their year in the spring. And why not? You know, spring is all about renewal and rebirth. There's something a little bizarre about celebrating the new year on January 1st in the depths of the winter in the Northern Hemisphere. But then I suppose with climate change, maybe spring will end up coming on January 1st, so it'll all wash out in the end. There you go, maybe that's something we can debate about in the WeChat group this week. Anything to prevent my father sending more photos of his toolbox.
Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, extra editing support from Milo de Prieto, artwork by Denny Newell, and China support from Alston Gong. In lieu of an episode next week, I'll be posting a surprise extra video, so please don't miss that on social media. In the meantime, 新年快乐 [xīnnián kuàilè] and 恭喜发财 [gōngxǐ fācái], and we'll be back again after the short break.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.