Private jet holidays. Yacht parties in Monaco. Cocktails with Roger Federer. Formula One pit passes.
In the arms race to win new Asian business, private banks are notching up client privileges, offering pampered treatment and access to special events that set new benchmarks for exclusivity.
To get a sense of the lengths banks will go to, consider the case of a Hong Kong client of Merrill Lynch who wanted to scout for universities in the United States for his children. The bank arranged for a two-week private jet tour of the top American schools on both coasts, according to Dana Liao, chief executive of VRV Travel.
Liao's company specializes in private jet holidays, but also organises exclusive events such as yacht parties. A typical private jet holiday package will begin with a budget of around US$15,000. Among the more exclusive events she's helped put together is a yacht rental package for an evening party in the harbour of Monaco during the Grand Prix costing US$80,000. Private banks of course are not just showering gifts and services on clients out of a need to be generous. They view it as an investment in a relationship-driven business. It can also help to establish a personal connection and foster important trust between a client and adviser.
"If done right perks contribute to a stronger client relationship-manager bond, especially if the perk offers an opportunity for the client and relationship manager to spend time together," says Kees Stoute, chief executive of Sonam, a private-banking consultant.
UBS' global sponsorship of Formula One, now in its third season, gives the Swiss bank access to the 19 worldwide events that make up the 2013 race calendar.
"It's mainly targeted at the ultra-high-net-worth [individual] because it's an expensive sponsorship," says Jean-Claude Humair, regional market manager for UBS Hong Kong.
UBS flies clients from around the world. As a title sponsor it has guaranteed allotment of some of the best seats in the house situated in the paddock area that typically accommodates about 100 people.
An added perk for clients comes from the bank's relationship with Mercedes-Benz. "At the Shanghai race, our paddock is immediately above the Mercedes garage so we have access to garage tours … and inside the ropes during the front lane or pit walk," Humair says.
Throughout the week leading up to race day, UBS hosts special tours that enable clients to visit behind the scenes and speak directly with Mercedes engineers.
Other events include the chance to personally meet veteran Formula One drivers like Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard and Martin Brundle.
"The perk is already going to the Formula One, one would argue, but these are some of the ancillary benefits they [clients] get - this heightens their experience while they are there," Humair added.
Meanwhile, other big European banks are keen on tennis.
BNP Paribas has been the title sponsor of the French Open since its inception 40 years ago. In some cases guests are flown in to attend the tournament at the bank's expense. Other benefits are day tours to local vineyards or the chance to meet with senior management at BNP's Paris headquarters.
This year will also mark the French bank's inaugural title sponsorship of the Hong Kong Tennis Showdown, an event slated to feature star women's players Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki, and the tennis veterans John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.
Credit Suisse's tennis conviction is evidenced through its partnership with Swiss pro Roger Federer, since 2009. During a January stopover in Singapore while en route to the Australian Open, the international tennis champion attended a Credit Suisse reception that brought together about 150 of the group's private banking clients.
Private banks often partner with luxury goods firms to host joint functions in what is often regarded as a mutually beneficial relationship. The two target the same set of customers but don't compete with each other commercially, so it makes sense to do events together, perhaps with some cost sharing, according to Andrew Mossop, the Asia managing director of Quintessentially Events.
Examples of recent jointly sponsored events include a talk on the mechanics of the world's most expensive watches, scent workshops where guests can make personalised perfumes, or small gatherings with automotive designers to discuss new technology. "These are all experiences that demonstrate the insider access that private banks aim to offer their VIP clients," Mossop says. Standard Chartered followed this path when it teamed up with American jeweller Harry Winston for a Lunar New Year event in London. The jeweller opened its store after hours to Standard Chartered's private banking clients for a shopping session accompanied by cocktails and canapés. Last summer Standard Chartered arranged for a private viewing in London of Sotheby's art and diamond collection. Clients who had an interest in jewellery, either a personal hobby or as a business, were invited to join the dinner. Standard Chartered Private Bank executive director Helen Westbrook says it was the first time Standard Chartered had organised a joint event with Sotheby's in London. After a champagne reception, the dinner took place in one of the auctioneer's art galleries. Each table had a Sotheby's representative to discuss the art and history with guests, Westbrook says.
A family affair
Swiss private bank Lombard Odier recently targeted family business owners within its client network, inviting them to a dinner of about 50 people at a luxury Hong Kong hotel. The event was hosted by champagne maker Pierre Taittinger. "Clients expect this kind of treatment but often they get flooded with these kinds of proposals so you have to find a way to differentiate how you do it," Vincent Duhamel, head of Asia at Lombard Odier says.
The boutique bank also used its little black book of connections for its 25th Asia anniversary celebration, held last year. Duhamel secured former US vice president Al Gore as guest of honour for the get-together.
Having high-profile politicians such as Al Gore in attendance makes events easier to pitch, says Duhamel, but if you're a Lombard Odier client expecting front-row invites to the usual grand prix or golf tourneys, you might be disappointed.
"The theme of sports just wouldn't work for us," says Duhamel.
Swiss private bank Julius Baer brought a taste of its home country to Asia in March this year by sponsoring the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra tour through Hong Kong and China.
As part of the tour, Julius Baer invited its clients and their children to join a music lesson with star musicians.
Meanwhile, BNP Paribas has been one of the main sponsors of the Le French May cultural festival in Hong Kong since its debut 20 years ago. Last year, the festival hosted an exhibition of Picasso's pieces, marking the largest-ever exhibit of his work in Hong Kong. BNP private bank clients got to preview the exhibit before it opened to the public. Last year Credit Suisse put on a private luncheon for about 40 clients in an event attended by Dr Uli Sigg, owner of one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Chinese contemporary art in the world.
Meanwhile, UBS last year brought part of its pop art collection to the Hong Kong Arts Centre for a month, hosting events that included attendance by some of the featured artists. Viewings in Hong Kong were restricted to its client base, but eventually the collection travelled as part of a public exhibition that was displayed in Sydney, Tokyo, Guangzhou and Shanghai. "The cost of moving and insuring these around the world is very expensive so only firms like us with the size and scale can afford to do it in different places," says Humair.
Wealthy bank clients love their fine wines. However, as Humair from UBS says, "wine tasting was exciting 15 years ago," so such events need a twist.
For example, a subsidiary of Credit Agricole owns Bordeaux wine estates. A selection of fine wines from the estates will be brought to Hong Kong and Singapore for the Credit Agricole Master Wines series in May this year, Georges Zecchin, chief executive of Credit Agricole Private Bank in Asia, says.
UBS flew in the chef and the wine of a French chateau to create an authentic "culinaire français" experience for its clients in Hong Kong.
Beyond the freebies
Consulting firms say there's a tendency among clients to garner important impressions about a private bank's staff and services by the quality of the exclusive events they host.
"It definitely does provide a unique way to connect with the client and understand him/herself better as a person and the specific needs. It also creates a better link through joint experiences outside the usual office environment," says Sigrid Seibold, managing director, financial services at Accenture.
Chrissy Coleman is the Asia correspondent for WealthBriefingAsia