The jury might still be out on where the property market is heading, but if Hong Kong's developers and architects have their way, shopping for a new home will soon be a recreational pastime. It will be much like a trip to the mall or the movies, with thousands of people passing through for a look. To gain a competitive edge, property developers are moving away from the traditional show-suite concept and are turning to architectural firms to create a dramatic vision of what the future could hold. 'The energy used to be concentrated on a couple of flats,' says Andre Fu, a partner of architectural firm AFSO. 'Now it's more like a theme-park experience. People are given 10 minutes to experience a vision, either for an investment or for a dream of the future, a place where their children will grow up.' The 29-year-old Cambridge graduate started his own design firm with partner Stephane Orsolini in London five years ago and quickly gained a reputation for blending clarity with playfulness. 'What developers want is to be exciting and youthful,' says Fu. 'These days, marketing property is like selling hardware - often the property goes on sale before it is built and our job is to convey what the development actually is - we are promoting a dream.' When that dream is Chelsea Court, the new 'six star' serviced apartment development in Tsuen Wan, it is easy to see why architects like Fu get excited. 'It is challenging because it's not limited to designing an interior space. We are selling the location and the lifestyle before the flat, trying to provoke some emotion.' When Chelsea Court went on pre-sale in October last year, the developer, Sun Hung Kai Properties, sold 630 of the 1,624 units in one weekend for an average of $4,400 per square foot. More than 100,000 people passed through AFSO's 3,500-square-metre sales pavilion in two days, many drawn by the hi-tech audio-visual display. 'We call it 'entertainment architecture',' says Fu. 'A journey of experiences, combining intelligent architectural aids such as digital technology, multi-media effects and pre-programmed lighting.' In contrast to Chelsea Court's theatrical display, the three show suites created for Henderson Land's new Sai Wan Ho waterfront development, Grand Promenade, are of a more traditional type. Designed at a cost of about $1.5 million, they are aimed at older buyers. 'One of our show suites is a classical deluxe design by John Chan and the others are more contemporary, to appeal to a younger audience,' says Thomas Lam, assistant general manager of Henderson Land's sales department. Considering Henderson Land expects to make $12 billion from the 2,020-residence project - the largest housing estate built on Hong Kong Island in the past four years - the cost of the show suites is easily offset. According to Lam, more than 60 per cent of the units have already been sold, thanks to a successful marketing campaign. 'In marketing, the delivery of the product is critical,' he says, 'so the show suite is of the utmost importance.' The rest of Hong Kong's big developers, who have had to up the ante since the pre-1997 property boom, seem to agree. 'The market has become more competitive, especially after 1997, so developers are trying to add more product features such as higher ceilings, bathroom televisions and built-in entertainment systems,' says Lam. 'The show suite is our chance to present these benefits to the potential buyer.' 'The situation is more competitive,' agrees Patricia Ip, marketing manager at Swire Properties. 'With consumers becoming more discerning and sophisticated, show suites are an integral part of residential development marketing campaigns, especially for pre-sale developments.' However, when Swire put its Island East development The Orchards on the market in September 2003, the building was already finished, so the task was a lot simpler. 'We were able to open the site so people could see the development,' says Ip. 'The show suites were important though - if you walk into an empty flat it's difficult to get a sense of perspective.' Whether it was due to the marketing campaign or sheer curiosity, The Orchards attracted an impressive number of visitors - and buyers. 'We adopted an appointment system for viewing the show suites and recorded around 10,000 visitors in the first week,' says Ip. All 442 residential units were sold within six months at a per-square-foot price of $4,500 to $6,500 for the standard units and more than $8,500 for the penthouses.' All nine of The Orchard's show suites were sold as seen for between $5,000 and $9,500 per square foot. 'Slightly less than the cost of furnishing the suites,' according to Ip, 'but we have to allow for the fact that the public have been walking through them.' By selecting five companies - two architectural firms, two interior design practices and a furniture supplier with an interior consultancy service - to design its nine show suites, Swire Properties ensured there was something to appeal to every taste. As such, the design cost of each suite varied, with the most expensive penthouse suites fitted at a cost of $1 million each. The amount invested in the show suites also varies enormously depending on the project. According to Knight Frank's research manager, Benedict Ma, Sino Land spent $4 million on its show suites for Three Bays at Stanley last June; Citic invested $5 million in 57 Shouson Hill Road in March 2003; and, last November, show suites at New World Development's The Merton in Kennedy Town were fitted at a cost of $650,000, compared with a whopping $15 million invested by the same developer for its show suites at 11 MacDonnell Road a month earlier. 'The Merton is a typical mass residential-type development, whereas the others are all prime luxury properties,' says Ma, accounting for the difference in cost. Not only do the show suites serve as a marketing tool, they can also prove attractive purchasing options for investors. 'People who buy property as an investment often prefer to purchase the show suite so they can rent it out straight away,' says Maria Swaine, a property consultant for Knight Frank. 'The property industry does not have the same marketing restrictions as the financial world,' says one property consultant, 'which is why the sales brochures contain small print telling buyers to check the condition of the flat as it can differ greatly from the show suite. Once you purchase a unit, you are given the precise floor plans, but it is your responsibility to check them.' John McLennan, managing director of interior design and retail operation Indigo Expressions Living, has been involved in creating show flats for years and offers similar advice. 'Show suites are set up for looks more than functionality,' he says. 'In new developments they rip up floors and tear down walls and reconfigure the space to suit the profile of the person they are selling to. They are trying to say, 'In a perfect world this is how it should be'.'