China In Columbus, Ohio

When I spoke in Ohio last year at a China function, I met Eric McGraw. Eric lived in China for seven years and he is now based in Columbus, Ohio, where he and his company help American companies navigate China and Chinese companies navigate the United States. Eric and I talked about the increase in Chinese company investment in the United States and how so many Chinese companies favor less expensive and less difficult cities such as Columbus for their U.S. locations.

Our China lawyers are frequently asked by companies (and even occasionally cities) what Chinese companies are looking for when doing business in the United States and we are also often asked to write about that here on the blog. However because our law firm’s focus is so much more on helping Western companies with China — not the reverse — I sought to enlist Eric to talk about this from his more in the trenches perspective. In particular, I wanted him to talk about what he is seeing of Chinese companies coming to Columbus, Ohio. He graciously accepted and the below is the result.

According to various sources, there are roughly 20,000 Chinese residing in the Columbus region, up from around 16,000 four years ago. Why are they here and what do they think of Columbus? More importantly, what does Columbus need to do to become more of a destination for Chinese investment?

My company, Laonei Global, surveyed a number of Mainland Chinese in the area. Results reveal how area organizations and businesses can better promote themselves, through messaging and programs, to attract Chinese interest and investment.

How Columbus Promotes Itself to the World. The city and region created a city branding campaign, with its own website. Here are excerpts from Brand Columbus, the marketing website:

Columbus’ top-ranked location, educated workforce and vibrant cultural scene make it the perfect place to locate, whether you’re looking to grow a business, a career or a family.
Columbus is home to 15 Fortune 1000 companies and welcomes one of the highest populations of college students among more than 50 university and college campuses, ensuring we maintain youth and progressiveness. Columbus is also one of the country’s leading research and technology cities, attracting the brightest minds from around the world.

How Chinese View Columbus. We conducted our survey of local Chinese in Columbus. We collected answers from 97 respondents with varied backgrounds. A majority (57%) were university students who had lived in the area for six months to three years. Fifteen percent of the respondents were graduate students and about 30% were either working professionals or looking for work.

The overall impression the respondents conveyed about Columbus was that it is quiet and cozy. Many mentioned liking how easy it was for them to buy Chinese ingredients for home cooking. Finally, the education environments provided by Ohio State and other local universities was often mentioned as a plus. Chinese in the area call Columbus 哥村 – gē cūn, which translates as Columbus Village. On a 1-5 scale (with 5 being the most positive) 65% rated Columbus a 4 or a 5  and 30% gave it a 3. The respondents’ negative impressions related to the difficulties in getting a job in the area after graduating from local universities, the lack of reliable public transportation, and the weather.

Messaging Gaps. One of our main goals was to gain insight on how local Chinese view Columbus. The following table compares how local organizations promote Columbus with a common Chinese viewpoint on that particular issue.

Columbus Messaging

Chinese Views

Great access and test market      Where is Columbus?
Work talent – young and smart      Hard for Chinese to get job
Great environment for business      Not aware of business value
Market access to US population      Not quite sure where Ohio is
Array of higher education options      Ohio State University is famous
OSU Fisher College of Business      Fisher is a famous B-school
Research strength: OSU & Battelle      Know OSU but what is Battelle?
Shopping/retail      Where’s the outlet mall?
450 Intl. businesses in region      Any famous Chinese ones?
Global 500 headquarters      Abercrombie. P&G (in Cincinnati!)
Good US domestic flight service      Not cheap. Inconvenient

Our survey and the Columbus website overlap in higher education, as many of the Chinese respondents were students. But entertainment, arts, restaurants and a few other key points promoted by local organizations did not really register with the Chinese. Our Chinese respondents never mentioned Columbus as being a smart and open city.

The Quest to be Global. Many cities states around the US like Columbus are ramping up their efforts to promote themselves for international investment by touting their communities as the new, hip, affordable place, as opposed to the developed and crowded East and West Coasts. State government and third party reports point out that increased international attention increases local sales and tax revenues, opens up more foreign direct investment opportunities and even boosts American exports to those countries from which foreign investment comes. But on the surface, how welcoming are the so-called flyover regions such as Columbus, Ohio?

Using organization web sites like, as well as local business directories from the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, we called or visited the region’s major tourist attractions, hotels, shopping malls, and local events to inquire about foreign guest services.

The results are clear and disconcerting. Columbus has virtually no multilingual or international guest services, save for a few businesses close to Ohio State, some shops like Louis Vuitton and Macey’s that cater to Chinese shoppers, and ethnic restaurants that Chinese or other ethnic groups might own or work at. Easton Town Center told us they have one customer service representative who can speak five different languages, and the Apple Store at Easton reports having one Japanese speaker. Little or no multilingual literature in any form, such as official web sites, traditional print, or phone apps, has been published in any language other than English. The Port Columbus International Airport has a small welcome booth on the baggage claim floor with a sign directing international guests to use a nearby landline phone to connect with staff that speaks their native language.

Columbus local organizations love to mention how more than 450 international companies have a presence in Greater Columbus and that 109 languages are spoken throughout the area. It is true that Columbus has become more global, with significant business investment from Japan, Germany and the UK, and even a bit from China. Columbus has also has a growing and steady influx of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia. But in terms of connecting with recently arrived international and generating a positive buzz about Greater Columbus being a premiere place to live, work and play, very little has changed.

How Columbus Can Better Promote Itself to Chinese. The benefits to engaging the Chinese community in Columbus are many. Creating a more open and nurturing environment for the Chinese who reside here short-term or long-term will speak well of Columbus and encourage family and friends of local Chinese to want to experience it as well. Not only will local universities benefit from international tuition dollars, but local service industries like hotels, retail and food will reap rewards as well.

Many of the Chinese in the area are here for an American university degree. A number of these students express a desire to remain in the US after they graduate. Our survey results reveal that this young Chinese demographic already views Columbus in a positive light. Columbus needs to make efforts to make their staying here easier.  But opportunities for foreign nationals in the Columbus Region are not as easy to come by as the East Coast (New York, Washington, Boston) or the West Coast (California, Seattle, Vancouver).

Imagine you hop off a plane in a foreign country and are immediately welcomed by signs in your native language. You pick up a local map with multilingual labeling, including your own language. You are greeted at your hotel with a bilingual set of instructions, a local tourist map, and front desk staff member who speaks your language. At the top tourist destinations and restaurants around town, you have access to print or electronic versions of key information in your native language. This does not sound like Columbus – but it could.

Columbus can and should promote the following in its marketing messages to Chinese:

  • Clean air and water quality, food safety – massive problem in China
  • Affordable real estate – high value in comparison to other US markets (and Chinese)
  • Big local China community – Chinese supermarkets, authentic restaurants
  • Arts and entertainment scene in bilingual marketing forms (English/Chinese)
  • True ease of doing business – establishing a business or simply doing business
  • Easy connections to Chicago, New York, Washington, DC

Columbus is a great, open-minded city, which is the reason I founded my company here when I moved back from China in 2013. The Chinese are a small but key population for realizing both regional and city goals. We can’t be everything to everybody, but better understanding our Chinese residents and better connecting with them would benefit our area by expanding our global reach.

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