City Weekend

Hong Kong junk boat operators fight to attract richest customers

Companies targeting the luxury market report increased demand this season from high-end clients, but operators targeting mid-range customers tell a different tale

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2016, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2016, 2:01pm

Competition is hotting up to attract the highest paying customers in Hong Kong’s junk boat market, operators have said.

It’s rich pickings for those companies targeting the luxury market with bookings consistently busy since the peak season began in April amid increased demand from high-end clients.

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One operator, Hong Kong Yachting, said they had hosted two high-profile parties this season for an NBA basketball player and a prince. Both men booked the company’s 100-foot superyacht and held glitzy parties with all the trimmings.

The NBA player arranged for a huge banner of himself to be displayed on the harbourfront as the boat sailed past, while the latter treated his guests to a banquet cooked up by a chef from a five-star hotel.

Jenny Cuo, manager of Breakaway, said her company had this year launched an upgraded, luxury-menu option to attract those customers willing to pay a little extra, demonstrating how some companies were targeting the high-end market in a bid to outperform their rivals.

“The people who book with us are looking for a new, luxury experience,” Cuo said. “It is always a very competitive market but for those of us targeting the high end, it is not so bad.”

Breakaway is even targeting the luxury children’s birthday party market, with a day cruise to see Hong Kong’s iconic pink dolphins costing HK$1,090 per person. The package comes with birthday decorations, canapes and instant photos.

The high-end junk hire market has become particularly lucrative for those with the capacity to exploit it. Customers can expect to pay about HK$800 each for a seated three-course meal with full waiter service.

They will also pay extra to hire karaoke equipment, inflatables, television and DVD sets, the latest high-tech sound system , as well as to sip the highest quality champagne.

Some companies even offer to host a live band, a wine-tasting event, an on-board masseuse and for those venturing out on a day cruise, it’s become fashionable to hire a speedboat, banana boat or wakeboards to provide added entertainment. On the more luxurious boats, revellers can even expect to find a few designer-style bedrooms.

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Jessica Harris, owner of Hong Kong Yachting, reported a big increase in the number of large corporate events she has hosted this year as companies go for the “real wow factor”.

Across two of its boats, named Jungle Jane and Tarzan, the firm can offer places for up to 100 people.

Corporate customers wanted an event that would stun their clients, and they were increasingly looking for a boat that would impress as much as the catering, she said.

“People are wanting more luxury boats over the traditional boats,” she said. “Every single year, boating is getting more popular. If something is different and unique in Hong Kong then people jump on it.”

Nonetheless the iconic traditional Hong Kong junk – the red-sailed Aqua Luna (Cheung Po-tsai in Cantonese) – has retained its stake in the market. It was launched in 2006 after being put together using traditional shipbuilding methods over an 18-month period. The junk generally sells individual tickets for cruises, but also offers all-day HK$16,000 packages for up to 80 people.

But while things are bouyant for the high end, operators targeting mid-range clients tell a different tale.

Paco Goetschalckx, manager of Saffron Cruises, said he and his colleagues have had to work harder to retain customers looking for more affordable options.

“It has been very hard work,” he said. “We have spent a lot on marketing in the last eight years. There is more competition now. We just have to make sure we are a bit better than the others.”

Increasing numbers of people are opting to order takeaways for their events, or provide their own food, instead of selecting catering options, he said.

“The economy is not what it used to be so people want to save money where they can,” he said.

The weather had been less than ideal this year, he added, but large companies still tended to book corporate events on his more expensive junks much closer to the planned date, once the weather forecast was better.

All-inclusive packages remain popular, according to operators, as customers opt for fun-filled excursions with minimum fuss.

“People are getting used to being pampered by choice, but their expectation is when they book, they will get cheap deals,” said Benjamin Hadfield, director of Junks HK, an online booking provider for junk trips.

And it’s no longer just an expat crowd opting for junk events. Boat companies say local customers now make up about 50 per cent of their bookings.

Malcolm Williamson, director of Jaspa’s Junks, said locals who had worked or studied overseas were, in his experience, more likely to book a junk party.

“When we first started, it was mainly expats, but now I say it is 50/50,” he said. “Now locals are willing to pay a little bit more, particularly those who have studied or worked overseas. But not every junk party is boozy. Some families just want to get out on the water.”

More and more junk boat companies are being established in Hong Kong as they fight for a slice of the market.

But despite the growth, the competition remains “good natured” as the community is still relatively small, according to LazyDays’ Irene Moore. “It is a very friendly business,” she said.