HK still has edge on Macau with the crowds that count

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2007, 12:00am

'I think Guangzhou and Shenzhen have been catching up and doing very well. I don't think Hong Kong can dream of outdoing them. For Macau, it was never our competitor in the past. But now that it has the Venetian, I think Hong Kong is in no position to compete.'

Legislator Chim Pui-chung

Ihaven't made it out to see the Venetian yet. My wife suggested going for a weekend the other night but it's one of those places that you tell yourself you'll go to see when the crowds thin out a bit and, anyway, we prefer the Pousada.

It's the same excuse I've used to avoid a visit to the Disney Park - wait until the crowds thin out, as if they hadn't already thinned out within a few months of opening. But then why go to Lantau for an amusement park when we have Causeway Bay? And isn't the whole of Macau a big amusement park?

A friend went last week. He is the investor relations man for a decent-sized listed company and there was an institutional investors' conference at the Venetian.

The result was regular interruptions on Wednesday and Thursday in my daily task of beating the deadline on this column. My mobile would ring, I'd pick it up and I would hear my friend laughing: 'You wouldn't believe what Sheldon's done with this St Mark's of his. You have to see it. Boy from Boston misses again.'

And five minutes later the phone would ring once more and I'd be treated to another bout of laughter and some more derisory comments about the creative mindset of Las Vegas Sand Corp's chairman, Sheldon Adelson.

My friend's final summation was terse and to the point: 'Butlins!'

For the benefit of those of my readers who do not come from a certain rain-soaked island off the coast of Belgium, Butlins is an English chain of working-class amusement parks best described as a cross between Club Med and a down-at-the-heels fairground.

Now of course, the Venetian is not a place you would describe as down-at-the-heels but my friend's point was that the clientele matched the description quite well - thousands of punters from across the border munching through chicken bones and gawping at the wonders made possible by combinations of concrete, plaster and paint: 'Waaahhhh, ho leng'.

This should be no reason for institutional investors from around the world to shun the place. In fact, they might have reason to appreciate being brought face to face with the realities of Asian culture.

But what really put them off, said my friend, was long taxi queues, long check-out queues and a general gulf of understanding with a hotel staff that was well picked for dealing with cross-border punters but less than entirely attuned to the needs of an institutional investment conference.

The attendees, he said, were unanimous on one finding - somewhere else next year. This ain't the place for us.

I think he is probably right about that and I think it is something the HKTB (Hong Kong Tuberculosis, oops, sorry, I mean Tourism Board) needs to consider when pondering whether the almost cancerous spread of convention and exhibition centres across the Pearl River Delta leaves any future for us in the business.

Yes, it does, but the TB's problem at the moment is that it is fixated on the latest industry buzzword - MICE - which stands for meetings, incentives, conventions and something else but I forget what.

The point of this classification is that you ignore sightseers, shoppers and backpackers and then pretend that what you have left are lemmings, virtually indistinguishable from each other who stream all day long between hotel bedroom, hotel meeting room, hotel shop and hotel restaurant and make the hotel lots of money.

But they are, in fact, distinguishable. There is a great deal of difference between insurance salesmen treated to a convention jolly for having exceeded their sales targets and fund managers who invest billions of dollars of those sales proceeds and meet in conferences to hear investment presentations.

These people come in hundreds at a time, not thousands, but they meet often and represent a very good convention business that we in Hong Kong can easily retain against all the allures of Macau and other towns up and down the Pearl River.

What it requires is playing to our strengths - English-speaking staff willing and able to deal with unusual requests, trouble-free meeting arrangements, no queues in the reception lobby, no queues outside, messages to hotel guests guaranteed delivered, ease of transport to the airport, that sort of thing, genuine good service.

And then Macau can have the whole of Venice and Florence and Rome and the leaning tower of Pisa too, plus 20 squillion square feet of exhibition space and 30 gigazillion square feet of shops selling Italian handbags, not to mention gambling, gondolas and girls, and it will make no difference.

The high-end conferences will stay in Hong Kong. We will still have that indefinable that makes the difference to people who look for it.