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Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 13 – The Brand Interpreter … – SHINE

If you want to know why the Chinese for Marvel is 漫威 [Mànwēi], and LinkedIn is 领英 [Lǐngyīng], tune in to hear from Vladimir Djurovic at LABBRAND, the man who helped to name them!
Original Date of Release: March 30, 2021.
[Trailer]
VD: We created the name 漫威 [Mànwēi] for 'Marvel'.
OF: That was you!
VD: Yeah, that was me.
[Intro]
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
When you live overseas, in some ways you take a leap into a new identity. You need to figure out how to fit into a new culture, while remaining true to your authentic self. Well, it's exactly the same story with brands. And the first thing to get right with brand identity is getting your name right in the first place.
My guest today, Vladimir Djurovic, is an expert in this field, since one of his specialisations is in creating Chinese names for Western brands. It goes without saying that this episode will be of particular interest to all the language nerds out there. If you are one of these people, the best accompaniment to today's show would my interview with the literary translator Gigi Chang from Season 1 Episode 24.
Quickly before we start, in our conversation about the Chinese version of the brand 'Marvel', we forgot to mention that the 漫 [Màn] in 漫威 [Mànwēi] means 'comics', which you might otherwise know from the Japanese reading, because it's the same 'Man' as in the Japanese word 'マンガ [Manga]'. And also it was Vladimir's birthday on the 25th, which was last Thursday, so happy birthday Vladimir.
[Part 1]
OF: I'm here with Vladimir Djurovic, you are the CEO and Founder of LABBRAND.
VD: That's correct.
OF: What is LABBRAND?
VD: LABBRAND, if you read it slowly, it's 'lab' 'brand'. So 'lab' is technology, an inventive word. But also in Latin, it means 'working' like 'labour', you know. It means working on brands. So we do branding, and we have a story of 15 years now in China. And one of our famous services here is naming brands looking for a Chinese name.
OF: Excellent. Well, we'll go into that in a minute. But before we do, what is the object that you've brought that in some way identifies what you do here in China?
VD: I brought something very slim here. And maybe you have never seen that before.
OF: I have not, what is that?
VD: Well, that's something that I kept for 20 years now, because that's something I got when I was a student in China in 2001. And this is called a 饭票 [fànpiào]. So this one is 0.1 Renminbi – at that time you can probably buy some rice or something – so that was basically the money and the currency we used at the canteen in the school. It was printed and made in 1987.
OF: Wow, yeah.
VD: Yeah, so a bit of Chinese history. So I thought this was interesting because it represents, a little bit, my shift. When I came to China from France, by the cheapest flight stopping for hours in Bucharest…
OF: Wait, wait, wait, what was that airline called?
VD: It was called TAROM, at that time.
OF: Whoa.
VD: Yeah, so actually they even asked me to pay extra fees for my luggage during the stopover. But then, yeah, arriving to China in 2001, I quit my job in France. I was just starting a career as a banker, all kinds of sophisticated tools for measuring risk in markets.
OF: The ones that eventually brought down the whole world, right?
VD: Exactly. So I was escaping that, actually, I was just doing an internship. And they really thought I was crazy to take this plane through Romania to land into a university, totally immersed in a Chinese Master degree programme.
OF: Oh wow.
VD: So I tried very hard, and yeah, eventually I managed to go through that process. So that's how I landed.
OF: Wow. Well, this is a good juncture for me to actually play you this clip.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Stephane de Montgros: 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 going to ask.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: That was of course, our mutual friend Stephane from Season 01.
VD: We met in Shanghai, actually, during a study trip for one summer. And we remain friends since then. Actually I arrived slightly before him, and he followed me a few years later, I think inspired by all the passion I had for China.
OF: This is what I was gonna say, like, which one of you came first?
VD: Yeah, he was the first on 'Mosaic' though, so I think…
OF: Ah..! Well, let's fast-forward, away from the story of your 饭票 [fànpiào], and talk about today. So tell us about what you're doing, particularly in the area of 'naming', as you said.
VD: Well naming, I didn't know it existed. Many people I talk to, they still are surprised that this exists, but there is a job for naming brands, or things, or devices, or categories of products, tag-lines. So there is a lot of verbal creativity involved. And there is no way to translate, in a unique way, an invented name like a brand name. So you could have multiple ways to adapt it, and there is not a total correspondence with the sounds of French, English – or any other language – with the sounds you find in the Chinese language. So there are sounds that are pretty close, some that do not exist. And that actually creates the opportunity to choose, to pick up a way to be closer, either in sounds, or even to depart from phonetics and try to give it just a semantic meaning that will represent it. So because there is a choice to be made, some companies really find it a headache. My first employer in China was Galeries Lafayette, so it's a famous French department store, and they had the question of "What is our Chinese name?" They had one, they were called 老佛爷 [Lǎofóyé], which is the nickname of 慈禧 [Cíxǐ], it's…
OF: Oh, was it?
VD: Yeah, and it means, actually, if you read it literally, it's like 'old', 'Buddha', and something like '爷爷 [yéyé]', like 'grandpa'. So it's a bit odd for a brand that is thinking about attributes of the 'Capital of Fashion' – 'Capitale de la Mode' – you know, like something very fashionable and trendy. But this name was very catchy for the Chinese. Everyone that hears it, they can remember it. The issue was it was not trademarkable. This legal issue is pretty common for many, many other brands. Today, when we create a name, you may imagine that it comes like a stroke of genius, that you're thinking, and you will find one name. Actually it doesn't come at all like that. When you try to use a name that you create, it has to be registered as a trademark. And the trademark system in China is very, very tricky or demanding, because you need to be not only different from the other trademarks or the other names, but not easily confused with another one. So the usual rule is that, out of usually three characters that represent a Chinese name, that actually two of them are different from any other trademarks.
OF: Any other?
VD: In your class. There are 45 classes of products. So in your category, with comparable goods, you need to find actually quite an important space between your name and the other ones. That's the reason why when we create names, we have to expect that a lot of good ideas won't be possible. And that's why we need to really look for a lot of names, and explore 'edges', in a way.
OF: Right, because when you're starting the process, you don't know which of those characters you're starting with are going to be clashes. Or do you start with those lists of characters that you can't use?
VD: You can't, because there are literally 20 million trademarks already registered. So you can't really think about which one is available or not. But with experience, you will know which characters are rare enough to give you good chances that you won't step on another brand too close, to keep your distances. And, you know I mentioned the 45 classes, each product that you have in Class 3 – its the class of cosmetics – for example, or Class 25 for fashion, those are very, very full of brands. So those are like… Finding the name is like finding those little needles in a haystack, you know, we create thousands of names just to be extracting a few. And that's part of the process.
OF: Wow, well I want to go into more details. But before that, let's jump back into the past, then. You were working at Galeries Lafayette, you were on this project, you realised "Whoa, this is a thing". So how did you go from there to having your own company?
VD: Yeah, I think when I was working there it was like 2002-2004.
OF: Oh right, so this was their branding for when they were just in France.
VD: Exactly, as a destination. So when we did that project, we landed on a name that was very phonetic. So we ended up with 莱法耶特 [Láifǎyétè]. The CEO at the time said "Well, if someone says the name in Chinese in the taxi, the taxi driver has to bring the customer to our door. So 莱法耶特 [Láifǎyétè] it is." And 莱法耶特 [Láifǎyétè] means like, 莱 [lái] is 蓬莱的莱 ['Pénglái' de 'lái'], it's a dream island kind of thing.
OF: Oh that one.
VD: That one, the 来 [lái] with some herb on the top, you know?
OF: Yes.
VD: And then you have 法 [fǎ], 'France'. Of course, 'French', very good.
OF: Oh that's too good.
VD: Yeah. 耶 [yé] and 特 [tè], 特别的特 ['tèbié' de 'tè']. So phonetic, yeah.
OF: I like that. OK, so this is where it's like a big puzzle.
VD: Yeah. So I really loved this experience. Actually, to create this name. I went to look for an agency. And I was the client at that time. And I didn't manage to spot a naming agency in China. And I found it crazy because you had a lot of 风水 [Fēngshuǐ] masters that were doing naming sometimes, but not in a way that was commercial enough for the needs of companies to really trust. Not very easy communication, let's say.
OF: Right, because the 风水 [Fēngshuǐ] masters would do things like count the strokes, right?
VD: Yeah, I don't really understand what they do. But they probably have some good principles. Yeah, so a 风水 [Fēngshuǐ] master was not an option Galeries Lafayette will consider. And we found a design agency that tried to do it. But then they were presenting the work more like a creative purely, without necessarily the interpretation that links with the strategy of the brand, in a very thorough way. And we discovered that actually, if you present names in Chinese to an owner of a brand, when they see a Chinese name, if you don't really immerse them in the space, it will be almost impossible for them to jump into one option. So I discovered that, actually, there was a bridge to make, and this leap into a new identity – that never overlaps exactly with the alphabetic name – is something that needs a lot of facilitation.
OF: And it's such a unique skill, because you are taking into account the brand values, you're taking into account the graphic, and of course the meaning, the sound, everything. There's such a lot of things that go into that. How long was it between you doing this project at Galeries Lafayette until, then, you did your own company? Was it like "Oh, wow, this is it". And then you just quit and started, or..?
VD: This product brought light to something. "Wow. I mean, this is exactly what I want to do". Because it's cultural. It's with business, you need to interpret businesses. And then I started really to read about branding, and to try to understand what's a brand exactly, what's the dimension? Still seeing it a bit from a scientific mind. So it took me a year to really switch from that project to selling my first name for a client. I borrowed a bit of money from a friend – actually €4,000, not a lot, just a small help – and basically I started, in 2005, LABBRAND.
OF: Tell me then, if you can think of an example of one of the famous brands that you would have worked with that we all would know. Walk us through the process.
VD: Yeah, the story behind Marvel, because we created the name 漫威 [Mànwēi] for 'Marvel'.
OF: That was you!
VD: Yeah, that was me. And I still remember a few other alternatives. I remember something like 漫侠 [Mànxiá], where 侠 [xiá] is more like a 'fighter', like the 'hero', in that sense. Whereas, like, 漫威 [Mànwēi] is even closer, phonetically, to Marvel.
OF: Yes.
VD: And 威 [wēi] is actually a little bit more abstract, because 威 [wēi] is like 'power'. Of course, you have the power of the hero, but it could be also the power of the manga, of the comics. So 'comics' and 'power'. And it's one brand that has had tremendous success.
OF: Yeah.
VD: So we're lucky to have created that one. And then another one that I really love is 'LinkedIn', 领英 [Lǐngyīng] in Chinese, which is the 'Leading Hero'.
OF: Oh.
VD: Yeah, and we had a pretty strong candidate that was closer to 'LinkedIn', I will tell you in Chinese, it's '联应 [Liányīng]', 联 [lián] means…
OF: Connection?
VD: Connection. And 应 [yīng] is 应该的应 ['yīnggāi' de 'yīng'], it means like 'must'
OF: Or 'should'.
VD: 'Must connect', 'should connect', so it's really like 'LinkedIn' in 'linked' and 'you have to be linked'.
OF: Interesting. So it was that or 'Leading Hero'?
VD: Or 'Leading Hero'. And you can easily get that 'Leading Hero' is much more aspirational. And there is a dimension of an élite.
OF: Right.
VD: And it's not egalitarian like 'LinkedIn'. if you hear the English name, or alphabetic name, it looks much more like a community, and it's just about being connected. But in China, we did the research in Greater China, and we found out that this one was the one that really had a lot of resonance with the target. So we went for this recommendation. I think it's also interesting because I learn, still, interpretations of the name, a lot of positive echo, and it's still like… there's a lot of fans about it.
OF: And so, is there a word for this science?
VD: It could be called 'semiotics', the science of the production of meaning. And recently, I was reading a book from Barthes, the famous French semiotician, he's interpreting the different styles of writing of French famous writers, one of them being Proust, for example. Actually Proust wanted to become a writer, but he was really stuck for many years before he was able to write his book. And what unlocked his ability to write, was to choose invented names for the places in the book. Until he set up the names, he was stuck in his creative process. It resonated with me when I read that, because I felt like when we choose names for companies in China, it's actually also unlocking this capability to perform. So… yeah.
OF: I knew that if I invited a French person into this podcast studio, at one point we'd have to talk about philosophy.
VD: Yeah, it looks like you need a lot of knowledge and science. Actually, the codes… We as humans, we are processing a lot of codes to make sense of the world all the time.
OF: Right.
VD: So it's really our embedded software for making sense of the world. What is interesting, when you use semiotics you become more conscious about it, and you can help a company to use them for the purpose of bringing a specific meaning. It's very hard to carve out a meaning in the world right now. And that's what brands are about. So that's a challenge, for example, for companies to think about that. So it's broader than the name, of course, but it can go into design into messaging, into many ways.
OF: This was the thing that, you know, first drew you to this whole business. How much of your current business is still related to this naming side.
VD: Roughly, if we talk about numbers, it's a smaller part now. I mean, it's still something we are known for, but I would say it's likely, like, 20%. A lot of the work is about brand positioning, consumer insights, digital experience, cultural transformation, a variety of things. And yeah, we're still very proud of doing naming. It's actually still for me, it's still an area that I feel so passionate about. So it's my favourite part. But our team is doing a variety of things now.
OF: I of course love the naming part, too.
VD: OK great.
OF: But is there something that you're particularly proud of that you're doing in the new realm?
VD: Facilitating the communication within teams. Because what I've observed is a lot of drop of value between what we get in the insight report, and when the creatives start to work. It's almost like everyone has a different interpretation. Getting them to understand the chain, having a common language, and getting the people in a room to exchange this information, and work on it together.
OF: Yes. Well, I think anyone from any business can listen to that and know that they have similar silos in their organisations. Just the different cultures between, let's say, a research department versus marketing, versus sales, versus operations, versus HR. Like, they all would come to the same thing with a different angle. And I think you as a CEO, it is your responsibility to think about that, and to work out how you get these people coalesced together.
VD: Absolutely. And, you know, after 15 years of working on brands and working like an agent, that's how we redefined, a little bit, what branding is. Because I think if we consider branding just being creating a name, a logo, fine, we are experts in doing this. But actually, if you don't help also the company to also manage the culture, a lot of what we provide is lost.
OF: Yeah.
VD: Yeah.
OF: That's an interesting segue. You come in with the name. Then you can do work on the branding. And then you can do work on a culture transformation.
VD: Exactly.
OF: I see. So we're coming to the end of Part 1, I'm just.. You know, normally at this point, I've talked to somebody for this length of time, and I can kind of get a good sense of who you are. For you, the way that I describe you is that you're this scientist with a little wink, you're a scientist with a smile. Have I got that right? How would you describe your personality?
VD: I think, very optimistic. And I found joy in the curiosity of things. So I feel like China was a very nice playground for that. I started without too much experience. So in a way, I was lucky not to know what's to be perfect. And to be constantly in a field where I was progressing, but I didn't know how far was the goal that I should reach. So not knowing that was actually quite helpful. I actually have one favourite T-shirt that I could have brought, it's called "imperfect". And it can be read like "I'm perfect".
OF: Ah.
VD: So I think that's a very interesting combination. Because I think as long as you don't necessarily picture and get obsessed by not failing, or not looking down when you have vertigo, you're still in a good place. So that's why I actually am so, maybe, with a smile, because I feel very happy and privileged being there.
OF: Nice. Well, we'll move on to Part 2.
VD: Let's go.
[Part 2]
OF: OK, on to Part 2. I ask the same 10 questions to everyone on the show. And so we will start with Question 1. What is your favourite China-related fact.
VD: I was reopening 孫子 [Sūnzǐ]'s Art of War. It's a teaching material for kings and lords. And it's 2,500 years ago. And when I was reading it, I was still getting a lot of ideas that are so contemporary. And one of the principles was the 道 [dào] for example: the ethics, the road, the purpose. I was quite happy to see the 孫子 [Sūnzǐ] precepts of the best way to win a war and to build your team is to work on your 道 [dào], which is I think, part of what a brand does. So I was like "Hmm, not too bad". So this fact of how long ago that was, and how much it applies to today's world. And it relates, in a way, to what I do. So I felt like this fact is something that's very memorable for me.
OF: Nice. And I like it how you can distil 3,000 years of Daoism into branding.
VD: Of course.
OF: There's actually an interesting connection with Season 01, because Maple Zuo who was Episode Two of last season, she also was talking about 道 [dào] in this question.
VD: Oh interesting.
OF: So that's a nice connection. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
VD: The one I like is a story I heard from my teacher, when I was in my second year of Chinese learning. It's a story about a character 是 [shì], to be.
OF: OK.
VD: Yeah. So 'to be'. Very simple, but how do you create an ideogram about that. And the interesting story is that if you look at it, you have 人 [rén] on the bottom, that is a person. And somehow he seems to be walking into something that is an obstacle. And then there is a horizontal bar, and above that you have the sun. So the story could be like "You are, when you meet a problem, and when you faced a difficulty, and when you start to see the light. And I like the story, this 是 [shì] character.
OF: Right, it's almost like Descartes, right? I think therefore I am I.
VD: Exactly.
OF: I run into obstacles under the sun, therefore I am
VD: I think resonance with Descartes was probably part of why I was so impressed by that story, yeah.
OF: There you go. I actually met you on your level, I can't believe it. I don't care about people who actually know the real answer, I'm sticking with yours.
VD: Thank you.
OF: What is your favourite destination within China?
VD: It's actually Inner Mongolia. I have the occasion to go there for run about every year in a marathon in the grassland.
OF: Oh I know it.
VD: Yeah. In a small place called 西乌旗 [Xīwūqí]. You can easily get out of it, run out of it, and get into running in those green hills. It's beautiful. There's occasion to see double, triple rainbows and to reconnect with the elements. So definitely one of the places I like in China.
OF: Yeah, I really want to go there. But things are such long distances that you have to really plan a whole week to really see most of what you want to see, right?
VD: Yeah, I go there obviously with a goal to run a race and come back, spend some time there, so not dwelling a week and travelling around. But I like the focus, I like the simplicity of it. I like to walk on the street, there are still some old cars because it's closer to Russia, some Волга [Volga] brand cars. So there's a bit of exoticism, but I'd like to run out of the city in the hills.
OF: Nice, yeah. I love the way French people say 'focus'. I love that. If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
VD: The spices of China, literally and in a metaphorical way, I think there is so much flavour, so many things to experiment. Of course the scale, also, of things, which means you can see things that you can't imagine in other places. And I will say the same thing that I won't miss is the scale. If one day I leave China it will be because I want to go into a smaller place, to live in a more simple way.
OF: Right, yeah. OK, next question. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
VD: This week, I was driving back from a meeting in 浦东 [Pǔdōng] and it got me to one of the avenues in the north of Shanghai like towards door 常熟路 [Chángshúlù], 天目路 [Tiānmùlù]. And I saw that the whole avenue for kilometres was under reconstruction. I saw China like that 20 years ago, I saw also this 10 years ago, but in Shanghai. I mean this year, I still see a lot of construction. It keeps surprising me to see that that level of undertaking.
OF: Yeah. Where is your favourite place to go out to eat or drink or hang out?
VD: Well I'd love to travel in time when Face Bar was there. That was a place in 瑞亭路 [Ruìtínglù] / 茂名路 [Màomíng lù]. It used to be a red brick house with wonderful cocktails. Currently, I mean, I think I really enjoy something that is really close to my place, I go to a small Japanese restaurant called Xime, an interesting Mexican dish interpretation by a Japanese chef and stuff, and it's quite a small place. So see you there.
OF: OK.
VD: Probably see you there.
OF: Yeah. What is the best or worst purchase you have made in China?
VD: One surprisingly good purchase was chairs I bought at IKEA. I bought them 15 years ago for my office, and I keep getting customers that ask me where I bought it. They think it's super designed and stuff, and it's just very modern.
OF: Mmm. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
VD: I never use stickers. So I didn't want to be inauthentic and try to find one. But I use, a lot, the emoticons. So I don't use stickers, but I use emoticons. And my favourite one is the determined one with the bandana. It looks very much like me running, it represents me. So I didn't check that box, but I hope you will give me a pass.
OF: Well, I would ordinarily just chuck you out. But we're almost at the end of the interview.
VD: So.
OF: So what can I do? I actually like this one, too. This is a particular WeChat emoticon. There isn't something which is in the usual emoji which comes close to this one, right?
VD: It's true. I never realised that.
OF: Yeah. That's why it passes the test. You can still use that.
VD: Thank you.
OF: That's just an exception. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV.
VD: So people that know me will know that the thing I fear most is to go to KTV. It has to be a client asking me, or I need to be super drunk to be able to accept the invitation. I was actually, I think, terrorised because one of my first trip at my first internship in China, we happened to sing in the lobby of a hotel.
OF: Oh!
VD: And I realised that my singing was going around the whole building.
OF: What? What kind of terrible hotel was this?
VD: It was a building, it was a hotel in 沈阳 [Shěnyáng], 1999 or 2000. So it was a long time.
OF: Yeah.
VD: But today, if I had to do it, I will probably go for 任賢齊 [Rèn Xiánqí], who is a Chinese pop singer from 20 years ago. He sings very simple songs like 对面的女孩看过来 [Duìmiàn de nǚhái kànguòlái], this type of thing, very light-hearted. And I think that, I can do.
OF: Vladimir, it's the same song that Stephane chose.
VD: No way. But there's one reason for that, it's that we had the same teacher in Chinese, and probably we learnt it at that time. I must say there is a reason.
OF: Yes. Well, since knowing it from Stephane, I've learned that song. It's super easy.
VD: That's why, I mean, that's the only one I could pretend to sing. So I keep it.
OF: And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
VD: I get curated content twice a week, at the occasion of my Chinese class. Because my Chinese teacher will pick up the curated content from the news. And we will have a review of very good content. So I'm learning language, but actually, I'm learning a whole story of topics. And I learned things that I've never read in the media usually.
OF: That's excellent. Well, thank you so much for that, Vladimir. And finally, the last thing before you leave, who would you recommend that I interview in the next season of Mosaic of China?
VD: Bertrand Cristeau. He has arrived in China around 20 years before me. Most interestingly, he has recently opened a vineyard…
OF: Oh, a vineyard.
VD: A vineyard. A vineyard in 云南 [Yúnnán]. And that's, for sure, one that I will listen to next season. So I'm really looking forward to hear Bertrand next year.
OF: Thanks so much Vladimir.
VD: Thanks. Thanks Oscar.
[Outro]
OF: I don't have favourites in this podcast, but I'll always be a fan of anyone who inhabits that space between languages, where you have sounds and meanings on one side that simply do not correspond with the other. It reminds me of the episode with Srinivas Yanamandra from Season 01 Episode 15, who philosophised that saying his name in Chinese was about as futile as trying to say his name in Mathematics. Srini and Vladimir, if you're both listening, you need to get together.
If you're a fan of playing around with Mandarin, I want to recommend you listen to the Mandarin Slang Guide podcast with Josh Ogden-Davis. He has nothing to do with this show, I just like him as a person and like what he does. So go check it out. And please also check out the images from today's episode on the new Instagram account for the show on the handle @mosaicofchina_, I rebuilt it from scratch after the old ones got taken down. It's got a whole new look, and it has zero followers, so it's tremendously exclusive right now. And speaking of exclusive, if you want to hear some more from Vladimir, including the story behind how he came up with the Chinese name for TripAdvisor, please subscribe to the PREMIUM version of the show on https://patreon.com/mosaicofchina. Here are a few clips from today's episode…
[Clip 1]
VD: There is another big issue when you choose a name. It's the different dialects in China.
OF: Oh.
[Clip 2]
VD: So basically people could imagine that the roof was falling on their head.
[Clip 3]
VD: We have more than a dozen namers. We're probably the biggest naming team in the world, actually.
[Clip 4]
VD: 'The eagle with the cat's head', 猫 [māo] 头 [tóu] 鹰 [yīng].
OF: Ah.
VD: Yeah, 猫头鹰 [Māotóuyīng].
[Clip 5]
VD: Twenty people that speak Chinese with a different background, they will perceive the name with twenty different perceptions.
[Clip 6]
VD: There might be some job openings. So…
OF: No, I'm unemployable at this point.
[End of Audio Clips]
And that's all for today. Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. After the credits, today's catch-up chat is with the person who referred Vladimir, Stephane de Montgros from Season 01 Episode 19. So stick around for that, and we'll be back next week.
[Catch-Up Interview]
OF: Thank you for coming, Stephane.
SDM: Good afternoon. Great to see you again Oscar.
OF: Yes, we recorded our interview in late 2019. And then we released it just before the Chinese New Year. We were talking about "You know what, 2020 will be a better year for hotels, because it had been a little bit flat in 2019". And that was literally the week before COVID struck.
SDM: Correct. It's been a very, very intense year. So we are in the event industry, right. So our job is to get people together. The most ironic thing is that the Q1 we prepared for 2020 was the best Q1 ever in the history of the company. I've been here for 20 years, the company is 13 years old. And then obviously, January 23, they had to shut down 武汉 [Wǔhàn] and 湖北 [Húběi]. So I left on that same day for a Chinese New Year break, and I went to my Bangkok office, because I wanted to keep working while China was getting some rest. It was supposed to be a 10 days break from China, it ended up being two months. And from very, very, very early, I understood, we were in big trouble. At some point I just asked myself "OK, like, should I just give up?"
OF: Right.
SDM: "Like, should we should we just call it a day?" The beautiful thing is, after I was asking myself this this question, the answer is "Damn, I love my job. So I will do everything I can to make it work". So it's all about the domestic demand. And it's very interesting, because a lot of the wealthier Chinese people that were used to spending some of their money outside of China travelling, buying luxury goods, now have no options but to spend that same money within the country. And that's been supporting a lot of the luxury brands, luxury hotels, that we are working with. So it's not all rosy. Not everyone was able to keep the same income. Some people are still working on a four days a week basis with some salary cuts. But overall, the economy is healthy. And most of the brands we are working with are doing very, very well, and spending more in developing the demand and the growth for for 2021.
OF: Well what it does is, I think it does give hope to people who are listening – perhaps not in China – the rebound, when it happens, it happens big. And people who've been stuck indoors, people who haven't travelled, they all suddenly will travel. And it'll be a huge bounce, right?
SDM: Yes, I completely agree with you. The hope is there. And the Chinese market is living proof that when you give them the opportunity to spend money and travel, they will do so. So very hopeful for the future of tourism and travel in general.
OF: Well, the one thing that I took into account from our last chat was your recommendation that I run by the river, because I was making excuses that I am not doing enough running. Well, I didn't do it. I'm still not running, because I just can't be bothered to jump on the subway and go two stops. I mean, that's just how my mind works. If there's any obstacle, I'm not going to do it. But what I did do, so when I have a meeting, I try and make sure that I build enough time into my schedule that I can walk there. So now I walk to meetings, I walk back.
SDM: Good.
OF: So I'm doing something for my health, but I am still not running.
SDM: But I think it's exactly the same spirit. Running, walking, is about giving your brain the space to process. I can tell you, running saved my year again, it was so hard, there was so much to process, making the right decisions at the right time, not wasting time in taking the hard decisions that you have to take sometimes. And running was, more than ever, my way to process this amount of information we were getting, and trying to make sense of "OK, what is the best way to move forward?" So I invite you again – Oscar you can do this – by the third time we sit down together, you'll be running a marathon.
OF: I mean, I've done them in the past, that's the problem. I just, for some reason, can't bring myself to go back. I still get what you're doing. I still have ideas, they're just at a slower pace. I'm not running anywhere fast.
SDM: As long as it works for you, that's all that matters.
OF: Thank you. We are going to release this episode alongside the person who you referred for Season 02. So that was Vladimir, have you been in touch with Vladimir?
SDM: More than ever. One of the benefits of being somehow stuck in one city is that you have a lot more time to actually develop relationships and friendships with the people around you. This year, we've been actually able to spend weekly dinners together, usually on Wednesday nights. It's been absolutely beautiful to be able to exchange with people that were going through the same kind of challenges. So we are closer than we've ever been. And Vladimir is a friend of 20 years, and 2020 brought us back together more than we've ever been.
OF: Stephane, thank you so much.
SDM: Fantastic. Thank you for having me again.
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