Monday, January 20, 2014, 10:08
SOE banquet loss no gift for industry
By Xinhua

The "best employee" received a Porsche. Those few judged "excellent" scooped up 500,000 yuan ($82,661) of stocks and trips to Hong Kong. "Good" employees won cool gadgets like the NOTE2 and iPhone 5s.

The year-end dinner for Qihoo 360, an NYSE-listed Chinese Internet company, wowed netizens and left many public sector employees somewhat envious.

Traditionally, Chinese companies host "annual conferences" in the last lunar month of the year to celebrate their success by thanking staff and clients.

In previous years, the most lavish of such extravaganzas were often the headline grabbing spectacles staged by China's mammoth State-owned enterprises, featuring sumptuous banquets in five-star hotels, swanky gifts and wall-to-wall celebrities. This year, it was private firms that stole the show, while the high-profile SOEs had little to celebrate.

Employees at a number of big SOEs in Beijing told Xinhua that "annual conferences" would either not be held at all, or receptions would be made "as simple as possible".

Gifts for staff members and clients have morphed from MacBooks, iPads and iPhones to chocolates, towels and even toothpaste, they said.

Tian, who works for a State-owned Beijing bank, told Xinhua that his bank won't host an annual conference this year for the first time in many years.

He recounted the good old days when the winner of the prize draw at the annual conference received a 60-gram gold bar and he, together with hundreds of colleagues, won a MacBook.

This new austerity SOEs have adopted is a direct result of a campaign to cut extravagance and reduce red tape, which has been in full swing since the Communist Party of China leadership election in 2012.

The CPC has sworn to reduce waste, promote frugality and banned CPC officials from pomp, ceremony, bureaucratic visits and unnecessary meetings.

These annual dinners, often attended by government officials, evolved into nothing more than wining and dining away public funds, and an opportunity to buy gifts and trips, said Yu Nanping, a professor at East China Normal University.

Many companies turned the year-end dinners into public relations events and a tool for cozying up to government officials, he added.

An annual conference could cost hundreds of thousands of yuan, including planning, lighting, venue hire, catering, services and gifts.

A State-owned building material company in Beijing used to host annual conferences for officials, employees and clients not just in Beijing, but often flew guests to Yunnan or Fujian provinces, costing about 2 million yuan each time, according to the firm's public relations manager.

This year they canceled such trips and held a conference call with staff and clients in other cities, the manager said.

The cooling of SOE enthusiasm for gala receptions could spell trouble for event planners and posh hotels.

Ke, an event planner in Beijing, told Xinhua that orders for annual conferences had plummeted this year, especially from SOEs, who used to be their major source of business around New Year.

"It is an open secret in our business that SOE annual conferences were the most profitable as they are not price-sensitive, but now the party is over," Ke said.

A similar story was told in Shanghai. Banquets have fallen off by more than 50 percent, mainly because of falling orders from SOEs, according to Jin Peihua of the Shanghai Restaurant and Cooking Association.

The manager of a high-end hotel in Shanghai lamented that the time of reaping handsome profits from year-end dinners has come to an end.

"Even for those SOEs who held year-end dinners, they have turned price-sensitive. One or two years ago, a table of food and beverages would normally cost 7,000 to 8,000 yuan. This year, it costs less than 1,000 yuan as they started to use group buying," he said.

The remarkable fall in SOE receptions caught event planners and hotels by surprise, and might bring bankruptcy to some. Yu of East China Normal University suggests that companies and hotels do more to cater to the demands for investment activities, road shows and wedding banquets.