When wealth is not enough: China’s rich seek luxury experiences to show off their fortunes

Luxury brand retailers tap into the growing demand from mainland consumers to experience the nicer things in life, rather than own them

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 10:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 1:36am

For China's consumers, luxury is no longer about "having" but "being".

Amid the mainland's clampdown on visible luxury, consumers are shifting away from merely owning things to seeking experiences that will help them acquire a modicum of savoir faire.

Luxury companies ranging from jewellery maker Van Cleef & Arpels, auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's and fine wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd are responding by ramping up their educational initiatives, which cater to mainlanders' yearning for bespoke experiences and their desire to become world-class connoisseurs.

The … appetite for learning in Hong Kong and [the] mainland is incredible to see

Earlier this month, Van Cleef & Arpels chief executive Nicolas Bos was in town to announce the L'Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels Hong Kong edition, which will offer two weeks of courses on jewellery making at PMQ in Aberdeen Street from October 16 to November 1. It is only the second time it has travelled outside Paris.

Limited to 12 per class, students pay up to HK$6,200 to learn from experts how to sketch designs, identify gemstones, polish gold or set a stone, receiving a certificate at the end of the course.

"You go away with your design - good or bad. There is an element of entertainment. It is very educational, but we wanted it to be pleasurable as well," Bos said. Imparting its long history of fine jewellery making could set Van Cleef & Arpels apart from the many luxury brands that have bombarded the mainland market in the past decade, he said.

"There is a premium now for brands and houses that come with real authenticity, real history, not just about opportunistic marketing strategy but to come and show who they are and be genuine with their customers."

In a similar vein, two weeks ago, Berry Bros & Rudd, Britain's oldest wine and spirit merchant, made a winemaking experience in Bordeaux available to its Chinese clients through a partnership with Viniv, a French winery.

Wine enthusiasts head to Chateau Lynch-Bages to make their own vintages and can try out every step of vinification, from grape-picking to bottling, including designing a customised logo and bottle label.

BBR has already signed up 12 wine lovers. Depending on the grapes and the barrel wood one chooses, the experience costs between £6,900 (HK$90,800) and £12,500 for a barrel, not including the cost of travelling to France.

The package taps into a desire for something completely unique, which is the ultimate luxury, Berry Bros & Rudd sales director Adam Bilbey said.

"They like the exclusivity of it. Half of our clients because they really want to learn more and the other half because they can have their own bottle of wine," Bilbey said. "[Wine consumption] was very much price-led, but we're seeing more and more that people are willing [to search for] exclusivity and getting their hands on things that are impossible to get a hold of this year … [to say] 'No one has this wine.'"

A report from Boston Consulting Group in February said experiential luxury - such as travel, gourmet dining and art auctions - now accounts for 55 per cent of global luxury spending. Annual growth of sales of luxury experiences grew 14 per cent compared with 11 per cent for luxury goods.

Wealthy mainlanders often have a stronger interest in learning about luxury than their European or American peers.

"[Demand for these experiences] has been stronger than in the UK; the euro zone has this history of drinking wine," Bilbey said. "The passion and appetite for learning in Hong Kong and mainland China is incredible to see. We have clients who started buying wine a year ago who now have a deep understanding and knowledge of fine wine."

Education becomes even more paramount within fine art circles. Collecting art is not simply owning a piece by Tracy Emin or Zhang Xiaogang but also being able to engage in intelligent discourse about it.

In October, Sotheby's Institute of Art, which has campuses in New York, Los Angeles, and London, will pair up with Beijing's Tsinghua University to launch its first Chinese campus.

Offerings include a six-week programme in which participants do intensive week-long residencies over the course of one year in major art centres around the world.

Rival auction house Christie's has education initiatives of its own for Putonghua speakers. It is bringing back a programme launched last year with China Europe International Business School. The five-week, 248,000 yuan (HK$352,500) module gives participants a foundation in the international art market.

Students are treated to "auction previews, tours of galleries and extensive handling sessions where they can look at art up close under UV light," said Elaine Kwok, director of Christie's Education Asia.

"They've heard of the big names like Picasso or Monet, but they don't know how to contextualise this in the development of Western art and why this person is meaningful," she said. "Being able to offer that, to give them a narrative, has led to quite a lot of 'aha!' moments."

For the companies, better-educated buyers translate into better buyers overall.

"Some hadn't bought a single piece of art before joining and bought something during their first year of study, which is really exciting," Kwok said.