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The Rewards of Olympic Hospitality

Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2008

Companies in Beijing Spend Lots on Clients And Employees; Inspiring the Work Force

Shirely S. Wang and Betsy Mckay

For General Electric Co., being a big Olympic sponsor isn't only about generating revenue and buffing its public image. The Fairfield, Conn., company also sees Beijing as an exotic venue for wining and dining top-performing employees and important clients.

General Electric  is hosting 2,000 customers and other guests from around the world in Beijing during the Games, inviting them to meals and offering tickets to Olympic events and sightseeing trips. Chairman and Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt and other senior executives are among those playing host, according to GE spokeswoman Deirdre Latour.

Coca-Cola Co. is accommodating about 8,000 Chinese guests at the Games, as well as about 1,500 key customers, bottling executives and other guests from other countries, with tickets, dinners and other entertainment. "We want to make sure they have a quality experience," says a Coke spokesman.

Overall, Coke and GE are each spending as much as $400 million on Olympics sponsorship and marketing programs, estimates IEG LLC, a firm that tracks corporate sponsorships. That includes a payment of $70 million to $80 million for the right to sponsor the games, as well as advertising and marketing.

The perks come as the economic slowdown has damped morale at many U.S. companies and made winning over clients particularly important. While sponsors regularly entertain guests at Olympic Games, Beijing offers a prime locale in the growing Chinese market, and many chief executives have made the trip. Companies also are using trips to the Games or assignments in China as a motivational tool for their own employees.

Among those enjoying a free trip to Beijing, including hard-to-get tickets to events and sightseeing tours on Coke's tab are 32 rank-and-file employees who "have made an extraordinary impact on the business by positively inspiring others and living our values," according to Coke.

Coke's "Go for the Gold Ambassadors" employee-reward program is the first in its 80-year history of sponsoring the Olympics, a Coke spokesman says; it grew out of a company strategy adopted a few years ago that puts a priority on programs to inspire the work force.

Winners include a manager who helped develop and introduce Coke Light Plus and Coke Light Plus with vitamins -- versions of Diet Coke sold in some markets -- and another who helped shape the company's strategy for addressing health and wellness concerns about beverages. They spent five days last week participating in "a market learning and immersion experience" in Beijing, and blogged about their trips on an internal Web site.

"It's been a remarkable experience," says Bryan Jacob, a director in Coke's Atlanta-based department of environment and water resources, who won for his work on climate-change programs. The group stayed at a five-star hotel, had breakfast with former Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and watched the women's gymnastics final with her, and were treated to a sightseeing tour that included the Great Wall. The trip wasn't Mr. Jacob's first to the Olympics: He competed as a weight lifter in Barcelona in 1992 and in Atlanta in 1996. (Coke says his Olympic pedigree didn't factor into his selection.)

GE held a kite-design contest, open to all its employees world-wide. The winner got a trip to the Games, and miniature versions of the design, featuring a wind turbine, sun, leaves and a red butterfly on a sky-blue background, have been produced and distributed as a souvenir at the company's booth on the Olympic Green.

Johnson & Johnson sent the top three winners of company-wide essay and photography contests to Beijing to blog about and photograph the Games for an internal Web site. The idea was to "capture the excitement of the Games for their colleagues world-wide," says Lorie Gawreluk, a spokeswoman for J&J, of New Brunswick, N.J. J&J is also hosting customers of its Asian consumer-health business.

One of the winners was Maria Kielar, who submitted a photo depicting her niece and mother embracing while standing on a track that was meant to convey the idea that the Olympic spirit spans generations.

Paris-based information-technology company Atos Origin SA sent more than 30 managers from around the world to China to participate in an "Olympic Certification Program," setting up computer systems for the Games. Managers had to have at least 10 years of service and show that the skills they learn in China will be useful at home, Atos says.

Other companies selected top employees for plum assignments. McDonald's Corp. sent 1,400 of its best restaurant workers from 36 countries to staff four temporary restaurants, using the assignment as incentive to motivate workers, says Johan Jervoe, corporate vice president of global marketing at McDonald's. "We are very different than any other business," Mr. Jervoe says. "We are not shipping people in who do not have a role."