Hurdles for businesses at the Olympics

People in a business street in Beijing, China.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: NBC is still hauling in the ratings for the Olympics, even though we all know what the scores and standings are well before we turn on the TV in prime time. That, of course, is making the network -- and its advertisers -- very, very happy people. For companies that were actually planning to do some business during the Olympics, though, it's a different story. Scott Tong is in Beijing this week covering the business behind the Olympics. Hi ya, Scott.

Scott Tong: Hi, how are you?

Ryssdal: I'm all right, thanks. But listen, give us the nickel tour. You're there at the center of the universe.

Tong: Well the circus has come to the universe here, and it is on TV. You cannot escape a television here where there are five or six channels broadcasting the live feeds or the analysis. I mean, there are TVs in the hotel room lobbies, on the hotel elevators and in restaurants, and just in case you missed it, every large public park has a humongous screen where you can follow everything here. But here's the question: Where are all the people to watch all this?

This hotel, which should be crawling with people, is fairly empty. And of course, the logical reason is that it's for all the security they've put up here. The locals have been told, don't drive your cars in town because of the pollution. Foreigners are having trouble getting their visas. So the upshot of all of this is like that they've cleared a little bit of this place out, like it's the adult swim.

Ryssdal: At the neighborhood pool, yeah. Let me ask you this, though: The corporate sponsors of these Games and lots of other sponsors as well paid millions of dollars to get people interacting with their products. What do they have to say about it?

Tong: In some cases, $200 million to be the top international sponsors. A PR person for one of these big sponsors said, "You know, we put up these huge exhibit halls in different parts of Beijing, and we have our big glitzy one on the Olympic grounds, and we never planned for not enough people coming."

Having said that, they do understand that they have to live in China, they understand the political situation. They have to kind of roll with it. What the corporate sponsors can do is just to stay on message. And the message here is root, root, root for the home team. McDonald's is a Games sponsor and their motto and their campaign here is, "I'm loving it when China wins."

The broader point being these companies want to localize, feel like they're fitting in with the locals in China. They do have to be careful that they don't look like they're pandering to the local crowd, but basically, people seem to be smiling.

Ryssdal: What about on the sidelines away from the Games, Scott? What's going on in the among the lifestyles of the rich and famous?

Tong: Well, you know the annual corporate schmoozing event Davos, where you've got Murdoch and Bill Gates etc.

Ryssdal: Yeah.

Tong: ...who are kind of roaming and talking to guys in suits. Well. there is a whole sideshow of that going on here as well. And I have to tell you what people are telling me, since I don't get invited to these things. I ran into a few Ethiopian journalists who told me that Beijing paid their entire airfare and their hotels to come to China. And their tickets to the soccer game. You wonder what the government of China may want to get out of this from some of the African countries where they're obviously investing a lot of money to get the natural resources.

Of course, multi-national companies also want to get things out of China, to get permission to enter the China market, to set up factories. So Western multi-national companies have a whole lot of corporate hospitality stuff going on as well. And some of that is about currying favor with the right people here. And once again, it's what we're hearing, because folks like me don't get to see that.

Ryssdal: Yeah, but you'll always have the memories. Scott Tong in Beijing for us. Thank you, Scott.

Tong: All right, Kai. Good to talk to you.

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