Things You Should Know to Make Your Business Grow

gigCMO Discussion - International Expansion with Haitian Lantern Transcript

November 9, 2021

Mark: Welcome to this month’s edition of Things You Should Know to Make Your Business Grow. Hi, I'm Mark Magnacca, the founder and CEO of gigCMO. I’m also joined by our COO, Siyuan Ren, today. Siyuan, would you like to say hello?

Siyuan: Hello, everyone, to all our listeners and our viewers.

Mark: Today we'd like to continue talking about international expansion. For those who've been following us, we're always talking about how businesses succeed in new markets. That's critical for any business in the world today. We're very fortunate we have a very special guest who has a lot of experience with us on this topic. This is a very special edition as not only is it a podcast, but it's also a video interview, as you will see, with absolutely stunning imagery. Siyuan, why don't you introduce our guests today, please?

Siyuan: Thank you. This month we have our very special guest, a board member and a deputy manager, Lory Luo, from Zigong Haitian Culture Co., Ltd., also known as Haitian Lantern. They're based in China, and Lory is in charge of the global business of the company. So welcome, Lory.

Lory: Hi, everyone. Thank you, Mark and Siyuan, for having me today.

Mark: Thank you. Great for you to be here. It's interesting when people move from cultures and around the world, sometimes the deeper meaning of what is talked about in the local language is lost in the international translation. As many firms have found when they've gone to China, they think they have a good name, and it doesn't necessarily work in China, or it doesn't explain all that they do. Haitian Lantern Company, this is a really exciting business that you’re in. For most of our listeners, what you have to think of is sound and light shows. China has this wonderful history, 5000 years of civilisation, and these are some of the great things that come out of it. So when you talk about lanterns with a Chinese company, okay, you are talking to the gurus and the originators of what we now refer a lot to as sound and light shows. We'd really like to learn from you, Lory, a little bit more about Haitian and lantern festivals and just some background on how you got to where you are today.

Lory: Thank you, Mark. Haitian was established in 1998, and our headquarters is based in Zigong City, the birthplace of the Chinese lantern. The Chinese lantern festival has a history of thousands of years and is an intangible cultural heritage. There are tens of thousands of lantern craftsmen in Zigong. China's largest lantern show is also held every year here, attracting millions of people. Haitian is the leading enterprise in the Chinese lantern industry and the unique listed corporation in the lantern field. Haitian has been leading the development of Chinese lanterns for more than 20 years and has continuously promoted Chinese lantern shows to the world. We have held over 100 lantern exhibitions in more than 60 countries and regions.

Mark: Wow, first of all, so you are the authentic lantern company coming from the home of lanterns within China, right? Of course, we all have competitors in different fields, but we've got the real lantern company from the authentic home in China. That's absolutely wonderful. Then you said you’d held the shows in over 60 countries. It's almost easier to list the countries that haven't seen the light and recognise the opportunity that it is. Why don't you name some of the countries that you think most of our listeners would be familiar with? Because you seem to have been in all the places you need to be, all the different countries. Do you have a favourite country you've been to?

Lory: [Laughs] I love them all. Yeah. Haitian has developed rapidly in the Chinese domestic market for the first several years. In 2005, we held the first overseas exhibition in Singapore and then spread to almost all continents. Our main markets are in North America, USA, Canada, and by the way, we organised the lantern festival in New York City for the first time, European countries including UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Denmark, Slovenia, Poland, Russia etc, and Japan and South Korea, the Middle East such as UAE and Saudi Arabia, and New Zealand and other countries. We have also done culture exchange projects in different countries.

Mark: Wow. I mean, when you list all those countries, that’s one of the most diverse ranges of countries and cultures, showing the real fundamental appeal of the lanterns or the sound and light shows that you create, because those countries are as diverse as you could ask. You've got a truly international product. We talk to many companies about international expansion, but you're a global benchmark in terms of a company doing international expansions. You've obviously had some challenges along the way because none of us come from our home markets and into a new market, and everything goes smoothly. Can you talk about some of the challenges in the international expansion that you've been leading for the company over the past few years?


Lory: Oh, sure. Yes, as you said, it's not easy to carry out large scale exhibitions overseas. In every country, we have to follow the local exhibition standards, electrical requirements, operation specifications, and so on. We have to do a lot of adaptive work. Most importantly, we should make the exhibition meet the authentic preferences of local target audiences. Their happiness is the most important thing.

Mark: See, that's what makes great customer-centric companies because you're focused on the experience of the visitors, which is wonderful. Something I think we should mention is these are not small shows. Can you give an idea of the scale in terms of the landmass or the space required to host one of your shows? I mean, we've all seen Chinese lanterns at different times in our lives, but what you bring together is really spectacular. It’s almost Disney World size, right? You need a large space to run one of your shows.

Lory: Basically, we normally cooperate with some zoos, botanic gardens, or theme parks. We need plenty of area to make our show.

Siyuan: So it really needs a large scale of venue. It's not what we imagine of small lanterns hanging on the roof, it's really a spectacular lighting show. And like where you’re going to a botanical garden, or a manor house with huge gardens, a couple of acres of land, and that's where you see the magic of the lanterns.

Lory: Yeah. You’re right.

Mark: Great. What are some of the venues, if you don't mind, that you've been to? So we've talked about different countries and cities like New York City. But are there some special places that you've held your lantern festival that our viewers and audience would recognise?

Lory: We normally cooperate with zoos and botanic gardens. We have a special place, Citi Field basketball field.

Mark: Oh, wow.

Lory: A famous one. Yeah, a large space, but we prefer venues to have large grass spaces.

Mark: Well, I'm from Canada originally so I'm sure there's a lot of opportunity in Canada because there's a lot of space that's empty. I'm sure there could be a lot of shows. You've explained about making sure you understand what the guests and the visitor experience is and that's what you focus on. What's your biggest takeaway, as we say, from business development in international operations all these years?

Lory: Yeah, I feel very lucky to have a good team to work together with and have the opportunities to bring Chinese lantern shows integrated with joy and happiness to the world. In the meantime, I’ve made friends in the global event industry. It's fantastic to be immersed in cultures and creativity from all over the world. We gain a lot from this.

Mark: Yes, we all gain a lot from that international experience and cooperation. That's something exciting about your product in particular. What about small businesses when they don't have large resources like you have with your firm? Maybe back in the early days, you didn't have so much, what's your advice to them about expanding internationally?

Lory: I think resources and business opportunities are a process of accumulation. We also started from the first overseas show. The key is to seize the opportunity and take the courage to start. The other important thing is we value the customer experience of each show and continue to communicate many successful cases and professional partners. In this process, we also continue to cooperate with international professional consulting institutions like you to seek more resources.

Mark: Thank you for mentioning us, we certainly appreciate that. But I think a couple of other things that you said were really important was you do case studies so you can tell your story and show to different people - here are the different ways we've done this in the past. But what was really important is that the first thing you said is, well, we learn. Whenever we do an event, we learn from it to get better the next time. And that is so true because you can't be in over 60 countries like you've been without always learning, trying to get better, trying to make the visitor experience better. Obviously, that's a big part of your success. That's great learning for a company of any size. Thank you for sharing that.

Lory: Yeah.

Mark: You know--sorry, Siyuan?

Siyuan: Before that, I think there are also two key things Lory you mentioned that jumped out to me. One is courage, and we see a lot of businesses that have the ambition to operate or try to go into the international market. However, there are a lot of unknowns for small to medium-sized businesses, and partly, these unknowns discourage them from trying. I think that courage is very important. If you don't try, you will never succeed. That's one thing I think Lory mentioned is quite important for our audience. And the second thing she mentioned is the customer experience. Because talking about culture, obviously, the culture in China is very different from the culture in Europe, in North America, in GCC. What I see Haitian Lantern is very much focused on is how to make the local audience have the best experience of the show. Targeting the customer experience and what customers like is very key to international expansion. And of course, she has mentioned the collaboration with local people. That's another key area I feel that's quite important that Lory mentioned.

Mark: So let's come back to talk about culture and storytelling. Okay. Now, Siyuan can talk about this, obviously, more than I can, but when you look at the history of the world, Chinese civilisation, it is 5000 years. You have Egyptian civilisation, but that's not what it was in the days of the Pharaoh. There's not that continuity. We all know that the lantern festival has a strong cultural heritage. Sometimes it's very intriguing to people to see something from a different culture. But sometimes, it's not so easy for them to accept or integrate that experience into their own celebration and enjoyment. But you've done that with lantern festivals in many, many countries. We've heard the list from Saudi Arabia to America, completely different cultures, but you've been able to tailor that experience for them. Can you tell us a little bit about how all that comes together?

Lory: Oh, yeah. The lantern show is a magical family event and a form of cross-cultural activity. People in both East and West like to travel and watch lanterns at night. In the East, people have had a tradition of watching lanterns for thousands of years. There would be a lantern show in many big cities in China during Spring Festival currently. So in the West, Christmas also has a custom of lighting up and there are many light outings. Lanterns are a kind of sculptural art, which can be customised and reflects any theme and form. Therefore, before triggering the design process, we always invite local designers to bring their preferred ideas, combining the aesthetics of local people so as to continuously expand the lantern exhibition to more countries. So that's the key, I think.

Mark: Yes, absolutely. And I think one thing you mentioned was you talked about the fundamental importance of light to humans around the world, right? So we all interpret light in different ways in our culture. And we experience it in nature with the Northern Lights, for example. Humans are predisposed to see light and think, oh, that's warm, that's welcoming, or that's exciting because lightness means hope, right, as opposed to darkness doesn't. So when you're running your shows, I can only imagine the first time somebody sees a lantern show on the scale that you do. I'm sure there are so many people who saw something when they're very young, and that experience has stayed with them forever. It’s so powerful, and that's obviously why there's greater and greater demand for your lantern festival. The lanterns tell a story themselves. Siyuan?

Siyuan: Yeah, and I think what Lory said is really important in terms of taking the key or common element of light in different cultures. Because as a Chinese, I had before this conversation, or even before working with Lory many years ago, it is a kind of a dilemma all the time, in a way, of how do we actually bring one culture to other cultures? As Mark mentioned earlier, when you introduce a new culture in a different country, sometimes people are very intrigued about it, but sometimes people feel it's something very strange. So obviously, the lantern festival has a strong heritage in China. My question was, how do we bring that culture to a different country for people to learn about it? But I think what Haitian Lantern has done really well is instead of introducing the ‘culture’ culture, they focus on how light makes people happy and makes the audience happy. That is the key thing that is common in any different culture. Haitian Lantern is not afraid to tailor the culture and localise that element in different countries so that they can provide the best experience for the local customers so that we are not really taking culture as a product to say, you need to like our culture, but creating a new culture with the common key element of the lantern across the world. And I think that's the best thing when we introduce our product or services, whatever the product or services we're introducing to a different culture, we need to tailor that to the local market and really focus on are the customers in the local market really buying into what I'm offering, whether it's a product or whether it's a service. I think it's because of focusing on the core thing but being able to tailor that to the local market that makes Haitian Lantern so successful, and that makes Haitian Lantern able to launch such spectacular lighting shows and lantern festivals across so many countries.

Lory: Yeah, I can’t agree more. You need to make the Chinese lantern festival into their own light festival.

Siyuan: Exactly. Very well said.

Mark: So why don't you tell us, Lory, about some of the shows coming this winter? I think you've got a number of different productions going on around the world. Obviously, there's one in the United Kingdom.

Lory: We all know that it’s still a difficult time for the event industry this winter, but cultural activities are gradually recovering in some countries. This winter, we will host lantern festivals in the city of Manchester, the West Midlands in the UK, Dubai, Niagra Falls in Canada, two cities in the Netherlands, Spain, Lithuania, and so. Among them, the West Midland Safari Park exhibition will be held on the 22nd of this month. Dubai's exhibition will be held on the 1st November, welcome to all.

Siyuan: Fantastic.

Mark: That's fantastic. We have a team member at gigCMO who's in Dubai in the region, and she has it to go look at the show in the UAE that you're running shortly. I mean, that's really exciting and shows how much is going on it. As somebody said, let there be light, and there's light. It also shows what a successful business you've created because you're able to run these across different continents. That is really exciting. And your team at home must be so excited because they get a chance to wake up every day, I love this about our business, you get international markets. If the weather's not good at home where you are, you might be dealing with a market like the UAE that's absolutely beautiful and sunny at this time. You always have that international perspective in your business, which is great. If a venue wanted to host the lantern festival, what are really the requirements in the operation model? Can you tell us a little bit about that? Of course, you're not going to give us your secret sauce and recipe for success, but can you give some of the broad parameters in case some of our listeners wanted to speak to you about this? What they should do or what their expectations should be?

Lory: Sure. Thanks for the opportunity. The lantern shows have brought good attendance and revenue to our previous partners. Many exhibitions have been held for many years in the same venue and the attendance is still great. Generally speaking, zoos, botanic gardens, manors, theme parks, and parks with large green areas, ponds, and trails of more than one mile are suitable for lantern festivals. The partner shall have professional operational and PR teams, perfect in supporting facilities and stable visitors flow. Normally we have two cooperation models. The first one is the ticket sharing model. We provide lanterns, send a team to install and maintain on site, and the partners are responsible for marketing and operational extras. The other cooperation model is that the owner of the venue purchases the relevant services of the lantern show from us. Two models, the sharing model and the purchase model.

Mark: Great, so you're very flexible. Obviously, potential partners with you have two different models to work with so you make it very easy for people to do business with you, which is another key factor of success. Siyuan, would you like to add anything else?

Siyuan: I think this is very exciting. Obviously, we are supporting Haitian Lantern and our sister company, Magnacca & Associates, which is a deliverable capability under gigCMO. Obviously, we're supporting you delivering the West Midland Safari Park lantern festival, and it's very exciting. To summarise what you said earlier, I think there are a few things that are really key. One is really looking at the local market, the customer experience, and really tailoring to their needs and wants and to deliver to their expectations. Obviously, as I mentioned earlier, the lantern festival is a very core heritage for the Chinese people, but Haitian Lantern is able to identify the core of the core, and adapt that to a different culture, and create a local culture and bring that joy to individuals and families around the world. That is a true adaptation to different markets. I think that is a key point for international expansion. The second point that you mentioned is to work with local partners because local partners have the on the ground experience and knowledge. They know local customers better than you do, and they are able to provide advice to you to create that experience. You mentioned working with local designers, and it is quite important to use them to create the story of your lanterns to create that experience for the local customers. What I really like, which you mentioned, is the word courage. Without courage, you wouldn't be able to now be exhibiting in over 60 countries. I could imagine how difficult that was when you first launched your international festival in Singapore. In our informal chat, you mentioned that your exhibitions have grown in Dubai, starting from a very small test run years ago in Dubai. Now it has become one of the key activities in winter. And without courage, without continuous learning, cumulative learning, you wouldn't have come this far. That's really, really good experience that you have shared with us. It's very invaluable.

Lory: Thank you.

Mark: Yes, and thank you very much. We've had a great conversation today. There's a famous phrase or sentence that many people know, but I'm going to paraphrase it because I think it perfectly sums this up. Haitian Lantern said, let there be light, and there was light.

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