STAFF AT THE Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel were busy this week performing a task not normally associated with the hospitality industry - removing the alcoholic contents of 250 minibars. It was all part of their preparation for an onslaught by 24 teams taking part in the Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, the fifth consecutive year the Tsim Sha Tsui hotel has played host to the tournament's players. More than 400 players, coaches, managers and physiotherapists need catering to before and during the championship, which starts tomorrow and ends on Sunday. Occupying more than a third of the hotel's 665 rooms over nine floors for a week, the teams together make up the largest group booking the Marco Polo receives - which means one of the busiest times of the year for staff and a great deal of advance planning. Out goes the booze. In go bottles of mineral water. Bathrooms are stocked with stacks of fresh towels - about 1,000 are used each day - with more on hand for players to take to training and games; extra toiletry supplies are ordered in to cater for frequent ablutions. VCRs are installed in every coach's room to review the day's action; cars and minibuses are booked and schedules co-ordinated to ensure each team will get to where it needs to go on time. Bellboys flex their muscles to deal with the 40 or so pieces of luggage accompanying each team, and the housekeeping department carefully plans which nationalities can room on the same corridor and which arch-rivals it needs to keep apart. 'Some teams ask in advance not to be placed next to others,' says assistant housekeeper Nelson Chan, who declines to mention names. 'But actually we rarely get any trouble. These players are professionals representing their country and are real gentlemen.' Staff favourites include the New Zealanders, particularly captain Eric Rush, and the Scottish team who, if the chambermaids are to be believed, are the most handsome of all the players. Perhaps the hotel's biggest challenge is faced by the food and beverage teams in terms of the sheer quantities needed, the food preparation and the logistics of serving it hot to everyone at the same time. The players typically eat a high-carbohydrate diet - fuel for their rigorous training and matches. And they literally eat tonnes of food. For example, last year, players consumed 1.6 tonnes of potatoes, 800kg of bananas, 750kg of pasta, 250kg of toast and 25,000 eggs. 'We tend to buy durable dry goods such as cereals well ahead of the tournament week and brief our suppliers of fresh produce to make sure they have the quantities we need each day,' says Swiss-born executive chef Urs Besmer, who oversees 68 cooks. 'One of the main challenges is to come up with menus that are acceptable to all nationalities, particularly for the gala dinner, which is held on the Sunday night after the final game. We plan the menus at least a month in advance and pass them to the rugby union officials. They talk to the teams and any amendments and extra dietary requirements are made. Like any other guests they are easy to deal with as long as you give them what they want. And we know what they want.' Besmer freely admits this knowledge has come with experience. The first year the hotel played host to the Sevens, he committed the cardinal sin of omitting to serve baked beans at breakfast. 'I had everything you could possibly imagine - times two,' he recalls. 'Chocolate croissants, omelettes, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, sausages, toast, bacon, a pasta station, cold meats, cheeses, vegetables . . . you name it. I was so proud of my team.' That is, until one player, fondly nicknamed Mr Bean by the staff, told him how terrible the breakfast was because it didn't have Heinz's best-seller. Besmer quickly rectified his oversight. This year, 200kg of baked beans are expected to be shovelled down. 'As with all guests, if someone complains you have to act fast. If we hadn't provided baked beans the next morning, chances are we wouldn't be welcoming back the players for the fifth year in a row.' Like all meals, breakfast for the teams is served in the Centenary Ballroom, away from other guests, for practical reasons. Early birds start eating at about 7.30am, but staff are kept on their toes as players trickle in throughout the morning. One chef is assigned solely to make toast, overseeing the seven six-slice toasters, which go like the clappers to keep up with demand. Energy-giving bananas are another breakfast staple. Each morning, a large trolley is wheeled into the ballroom laden with up to 100kg of the fruit, and returns to the kitchen an hour or so later picked clean. The week climaxes with the gala dinner, an event held in a marquee specially erected in the hotel car park on the sixth floor. Most of the food is prepared in the main kitchen one floor below and transported upstairs in a mobile fridge to be arranged on plates and served immediately. This year, the teams will be tucking into a platter of international appetisers, followed by chicken in white wine and chive sauce with tomato mash. 'The crucial point is to keep everything hot and serve it simultaneously,' says Besmer. 'You need planning and organisation to be successful. Fortunately, I'm a born organiser - I think it must be my Swiss genes.' Past headaches for the kitchen have included the winning team being invariably later than everybody else, although this year all teams have been instructed by the rugby union to be punctual or risk a penalty. In addition to planning the execution of the dinner with almost military precision, Besmer has to keep tabs on even the smallest details. 'We only serve sliced bread, for example, never rolls,' he explains. 'Rolls are easier, but they're practically mini rugby balls. This is the first opportunity the teams have to let their hair down and drink alcohol so rolls are asking to be thrown, which creates chaos and a lot of mess to clear up afterwards.' The kitchen staff throw in the towel at midnight, the servers at 3am, but it takes several members of staff from housekeeping until the early hours to get everything shipshape again. 'We all work together to make the whole event a success,' says Besmer. 'And as a result of that teamwork everything runs smoothly and we enjoy it too. As the Chinese say, sap sap sui. It's a piece of cake.'