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by Pádraic Gilligan, Chief Marketing Officer, SITE & Managing Partner, SoolNua

How cities grow

The great cities of the world – take London, for example – owe much of their global renown to a slow organic growth over decades and centuries. Time makes memories and these become absorbed into the fabric of the evolving city giving it resonance, depth and soul. In 1795 Samuel Johnson declared “if you’re tired of London, then you’re tired of life” so London’s reputation as a truly great city is hundreds of years old, cast way back in the annals of time. Today Greater London is a megalopolis of 14 million souls but its growth has been slow and steady, almost glacial, so it’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment that it became the great global city that it now is.


These days great cities grow much faster. In decades rather than centuries Dubai has become a major world city and can now be considered a first tier destination, competing with the likes of New York, Paris and Hong Kong as a desirable place to live, work and visit. But if you’re impressed by the rapid growth of Dubai from tiny fishing village to contemporary megalopolis, then you’ll be truly astounded by the story of Shenzhen in South East China.

In 30 years Shenzhen has grown from a backwater village of 3,000 into a dynamic, pulsating mega-city of 20 million inhabitants, reaching Top 3 status in China with Shanghai and Beijing across a variety of metrics.

Shenzhen – exceptional growth

Comparisons with Singapore, another Asian miracle, are obvious but somehow Shenzhen seems destined for further growth due to its happy geographical location at the heart of the Greater Bay Area (GBA). The fact that Shenzhen’s exceptional growth has been matched by the emergence of a truly habitable city makes the story even more difficult to believe. There’s no obvious urban sprawl in Shenzhen and the city has benefitted at each stage of its development from the latest thinking in urban planning. It also has a sustainability blueprint factored into its DNA.

Global MICE Collaborative

I was in Shenzhen with SITE Foundation President-Elect and CEO of IMEX Group, Carina Bauer, representing SITE as part of the Global MICE Collaborative. With our partner associations, the International Association of Exhibitions & Events (IAEE), Meeting Professionals International (MPI), we participated at the Global MICE Innovation Summit, bringing our international perspective to an assembly of over 200 local Business Events professionals.

Our contribution included a formal meeting with Mr Wang Lixin, Vice Mayor of Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government and a Round Table discussion with the local MICE leadership during which we addressed two themes: the global positioning of the Shenzhen MICE industry and paths and countermeasures for the innovative development of the Shenzhen MICE industry.

Rapid growth in 30 years

The Vice Mayor told the 30 year story of Shenzhen, highlighting how the city is the poster boy for China’s new policy of openness towards the world, a policy initiated only 40 years ago. Shenzhen flourished as migrant workers from other parts of mainland China flocked there following the inward investment from the US and Japan and the establishment of private enterprises like Huawei from the 1980s onwards.

The city quickly built a reputation for Hi Tech, Logistics and Transport – it’s now the fourth largest container port in the world – but managed its growth in a sustainable fashion becoming the world’s number one city for e-transport.

Shenzhen World

The MICE industry in Shenzhen flourished in parallel with the city’s growth. The first Hi Tech Exhibition was held there in 1999 and now the city hosts, on average, 2 large exhibitions every week with 10 of these events numbering amongst the biggest in all of China.

Later this year Phase 1 of Shenzhen World will  open. When complete and fully operational, it’ll be the world’s biggest conference and exhibition facility, offering 500,000 sqm of exhibition space, divided into 18 halls of 20,000 sqm connected by a central corridor with two levels, and one hall with a staggering footprint of 50,000 sqm. At present 30,000 people are involved in final stages of its construction – the population of a mid sized European town!

Nurturing Talent Development

Building the world’s biggest convention centre is one thing. Ensuring you have the necessary know-how and talent to run it is another. The participation of the Global MICE Collaborative at the Global MICE Innovation Summit was one step towards ensuring that both product and service are MICE-ready. Cathy Breden,  EVP & Chief Operating Officer at IAEE, Julie Holmen, Director of Business Development – Canada and Global Markets at MPI and yours truly explained how IAEE, MPI & SITE can provide the necessary learning and development programmes for exhibition, meeting and incentive travel management, bringing the necessary global know-how to this burgeoning new destination.


Our presentations were well received by an eager audience that readily absorbed our content making copious notes as they listened on headphones to the simultaneous translation of our speeches. But advanced technology was also on display during this forward looking, technology-enabled conference with voice recognition utilised to provide instant text translation of all speeches in both Chinese and English.

To my shame, prior to visiting Shenzhen, I was unable to pinpoint on the map of China precisely where it was. Having been there and having met  face to face  with some of the political and MICE industry leaders in this extraordinary city  it’s safe to say that Shenzhen, increasingly, will take its place amongst the top MICE destinations of the world.

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney & Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency offering strategy, marketing and training to destinations, hotels and venues in the Business Events arena. He serves as Chief Marketing Officer of SITE and is a former global president of the association. 















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