Expo industry shows up challenges
Despite recent efforts by AsiaWorld-Expo (AWE) management to improve its facilities, the local exhibition sector fears that the industry is still facing serious challenges, such as a shortage of hotel rooms for trade-fair participants and visitors.
Industry representatives are also worried that with poor government support, Hong Kong's strengths could be matched by other Asian economies in a rush to expand trade-fair facilities.
The opening of the AWE at Chek Lap Kok in December last year has helped attract major international trade shows, but industry leaders feel complementary policies in hotel development and cross-border accommodation have yet to match the sector's expansion.
Accommodation for exhibitors and buyers has long been a problem, according to the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Industry Association (HKECIA).
And this is being exacerbated by the opening of AWE, which aims to hold international signature events, according to association chairman Stanley Chu Yu-lun.
The real test will be next month's China Sourcing Fair, which is expected to attract 70,000 visitors, and the ITU Telecom World fair in December, which will probably be attended by about 100,000 visitors.
According to Hong Kong Tourism Board figures, the city had about 43,800 hotel rooms at the end of last year, up 12 per cent on 2004. Some 2,000 new hotel rooms are set for completion by 2008.
However, Mr Chu doubted whether these existing and planned rooms would be enough for the growing number of exhibition visitors at AsiaWorld-Expo and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. 'Remember, the hotel rooms also need to accommodate general tourists,' he said.
AWE's management said it was common for large trade shows, such as ITU Telecom World in Geneva, to have some visitors staying in nearby cities. But Hong Kong's situation was different due to complicated cross-border issues, Mr Chu said.
He said his association had been pushing the government to resolve these matters, including immigration arrangements, for mainland exhibition tourists looking to stay in Macau and Shenzhen hotels. Unfortunately, the government did not see it as a problem. 'It is very inconvenient for buyers, carrying large luggage, to queue for immigration,' Mr Chu said.
Asked about this problem, a government spokeswoman said: 'The Trade Development Council will keep a close watch on the supply of hotel rooms and facilitate the development of new hotels [in Hong Kong].'
She said the Immigration Department would continue 'to facilitate immigration arrangements'.
Some trade-fair organisers have taken matters in their own hands.
Global Sources, organiser of the China Sourcing Fair, which will run from April 15 to 25, said it was arranging accommodation for buyers and exhibitors in local hotels.
Global Sources, which used to stage the trade fair in Shanghai, chose Hong Kong following the opening of AsiaWorld-Expo.
Another event scheduled for Chek Lap Kok, the ITU Telecom World fair, will mark the first time it will be held outside Geneva.
Last month, the HKECIA released a study it commissioned with KPMG in a bid to pressure the government to increase funding for the sector's overseas promotion and create a department for the industry.
The association pointed out that the sector was a major economic contributor, as the KPMG study found that international exhibition visitors spent an average of $2,313 a day in Hong Kong, compared with the $1,210 a day spent by general tourists in 2004.
However, the government has rejected the exhibition sector's request to create a department specifically for the industry. A spokeswoman said while the government recognised the industry's contribution to the city, there was no need to change the existing mechanism.
Currently, the Commercial, Industry and Technology Bureau is responsible for the provision of sufficient exhibition space to support the industry's growth, while the Tourism Commission under the Economic Development and Labour Bureau promotes exhibition tourism.
The HKECIA also said that, with governments from the mainland, Malaysia and Singapore aggressively helping their exhibition sectors to grab business, there was an urgent need for Hong Kong to increase funding for the overseas promotion of its trade fairs.
In response, the government said it had allocated funds from TDC's annual budget for promotions to support the industry and would continue to do so.
Meanwhile, back at the AWE, which had just finished some remedial works for its facilities, management is not expecting a repeat of the chaos that marred the recent Connie Chan Po-chu concert there last month. People attending the actress' show complained that they got lost in the basement car park, and that toilets were too far away from the concert hall.
AWE spokesman Kenneth Chan said fans might have found it difficult to access the toilets because only two halls were open for use at that time.
AWE deputy chief executive Allen Ha said the venue had responded by putting up more signage in the underground carpark, and that more toilets would be made available with the venue's full opening on April 15.
This confidence will be tested next month when the venue plays host to its first big trade show.
Mr Ha said while previous shows were aimed at 'testing the waters', the China Sourcing Fair will be the venue's first major test, with all of its eight halls - totalling 70,000 square metres of space - being used.
'We have done a lot of improvement work,' he said.