Do Meetings Run on Coffee? It Depends on Where You Are.

A new Hilton International survey looks at the meeting preferences of attendees in the U.S., the U.K., and China, including how they like their coffee. The differences are eye-opening.

Steaming white cupI learned to make a decent cup of tea when I worked in the U.K.; at a country pub, my barmaid duties included steeping perfect cups of milky tea for the managers, several times a day. Later, when I worked in business settings, “elevenses” — late-morning tea, coffee, and sweets — was such a formal ritual that at one place, uniformed women parked a tea cart outside of our office every day at 11 a.m. My coworkers and I would immediately stop what we were doing to serve ourselves bracing cuppas from a huge, dented metal urn.

I was reminded of this as I read the results from a recent Hilton International global survey on “The DNA of successful meetings,” which seems to affirm caffeine as a pillar of our workdays, though not consistently from country to country.

During 15-minute phone interviews with professionals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and China, researchers found that coffee and tea “play a much more important role in success for business people in the U.K. and China, than they do for business people in the U.S,” according to the survey’s executive report. 

Only 64 percent of Chinese respondents show “strong preferences,” for face-to-face meetings, versus 82 percent in the U.S. and 87 percent in the U.K.

U.S.-based businesspeople are keen enough on the strong stuff — 80 percent drink a cup of coffee or tea before 10 a.m., but only 46 percent sip it after 10 a.m. — versus the majority of U.K. and Chinese staffers, who sip coffee throughout the day.

To perhaps explain their habit, 68 percent of U.K. respondents consider coffee and tea to be important to successful meetings, and 58 percent of Chinese and 61 percent of U.K. respondents think the most successful meetings happen over coffee, compared with 44 percent in the U.S.

And if you’re going to serve coffee to Chinese attendees, make sure it’s not weak, burned, or otherwise lacking: 54 percent of Chinese respondents think that if it’s going to be served, coffee should be of high quality, compared with 43 percent in the U.S. and 37 percent in the U.K. (I recall that the coffee on our tea cart was — gasp —instant.)

But Wait, There’s More

Uneven reliance on coffee wasn’t the only difference that emerged between businesspeople in the three countries. While most of us are sharper prior to noon — professionals in each of the three countries agree that the best meetings should be held in the morning (95 percent in the U.S., 93 percent in the U.K., and 91 percent in China) — the Chinese are more open to those meetings being virtual. Only 64 percent of Chinese respondents show “strong preferences” for face-to-face meetings, versus 82 percent in the U.S. and 87 percent in the U.K.

Another interesting tidbit about China: Start on time, but don’t sink or swim according to your agenda. Seventy-four percent of Chinese professionals prefer meetings to be scheduled, versus 58 percent in the U.S. and 57 percent in the U.K.; however, half of Chinese business people gravitate toward unstructured meetings, versus a relatively paltry 16 percent in the U.S. and 11 percent in the U.K.  And here’s another interesting comparison: Chinese respondents have a “significantly higher” interest in ice breakers (86 percent China versus 63 percent U.S. and 61 percent U.K).

And lastly, when it comes to ambience, don’t assume it’s secondary to getting business done: 70 percent of U.K. and 53 percent of Chinese respondents consider windows important, and 76 percent of Chinese respondents agree that a meeting’s ambience is important to its success, compared to 67 percent of U.S. respondents. (To wit, 67 percent of Chinese professionals would rather be in a two-hour meeting in a comfortable room versus a 15-minute meeting in an uncomfortable room.)  

Those are a lot of stats to digest, but it boils down to this: During a meeting, coffee and tea unite (most of) us. Yet culture is a determining factor in how we view, participate in, and ultimately perceive the meetings we’re a part of.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.