To add a bit of festive taste to this financial column, White Collar has chosen a subject that fuses Christmas hamper sales and the economic cycle. According to Michael Tsui, co-founder of Cova in Hong Kong and the guest of our Boxing Day podcast, there is definitely a link between sales of the overflowing food parcels and our economic figures. 'This year, we have sold more hampers than last year as the economy is on an uptrend,' Mr Tsui (right) said. The company has passed through 'two very difficult periods and has seen sales fall in line with the economic situation. The most serious hit was the Sars crisis in 2003 and the other was the period after the financial crisis in 1998'. This link is very much related to the fact that people who send out hampers are usually corporate marketeers whose budgets reflect the ups and downs of the economic cycle, Mr Tsui said. At Hong Kong's lows, budgets are cut, so companies either send out fewer such gifts or the numbers are maintained while the hamper size and contents are reduced. This year, with economic growth in excess of 6 per cent, Cova alone has sold about 6,000 hampers, generating a gross income of about HK$1 million. Mr Tsui's view is shared by Robert Hauck, director of food and beverage of Shangri-La Hotel, who said: 'Hamper sales have increased by 35 per cent compared with last year. It's definitely affected by the economic situation.' Moky Lam, food and beverage director at The Peninsula, said: 'Since Sars in 2003, we have recorded a significant increase in hamper sales, which have a direct relationship with the economic situation. We believe 2006 has been a good year.' pricey goodies The multitalented Mr Tsui is a barrister and a dentist. But being a dentist doesn't prevent him, as co-owner of Cova, offering customers a delightful range of cakes and coffee as well as running three fine-dining Italian restaurants in Hong Kong. The company's hampers range in price from just more than HK$1,200 to HK$33,000 - topping the annual income of many of the city's residents. Are there really people willing to pay that much for a hamper? 'Yes. But I cannot give details, as we have to keep the identity of our clients secret,' he said. So what goes into making up such a pricey and attractive gift? Besides the customary goodies such as chocolate and Christmas panettone, the top-end hampers also come with several deluxe wines - Chateau Haut Brion 1982, Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982, Chateau Latour 1982, Chateau Margaux 1982, Comte de Lafite Vintage Armagnax 1962 and a Cova Champagne Black Label 1998. Also included are beluga caviar and white truffle pate. More than enough for most of us to celebrate the good times. for all occasions Cova's deluxe gifts have come a long way from the old style of hampers of a century or more ago. Charles Dickens, in his The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, wrote: '... one of those hampers which always awakens in a contemplative mind associations connected with cold fowls, tongues and bottles of wine.' Changing times bring other changes to the hamper society, not least in Hong Kong. As mainland enterprises have come to play an increasingly important role in our economy, Chinese style and traditions have set in. So, with an increasing focus on events such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Lunar New Year, Cova, The Peninsula and Shangri-La offer such specialities as mooncake hampers. And not just mooncakes: hampers in line with our changing economy often stock items that include teas and XO sauce, although there seems no obvious direct correlation between the type of hamper sent as a corporate gift and the background of the company sending it. Some Chinese business executives claim to feel strange when they receive a Christmas hamper, as the end of December is not a usual time for mainland companies to send out corporate gifts. To thank the senders, they send back a mooncake hamper during the Mid-Autumn Festival. So, if you sent a hamper to a Chinese enterprise in December, don't be surprised if you have to wait 10 months before receiving a return gift. green message An economic downturn is not the only threat to hamper sales. Some fund management companies and consultancies urge customers not to send them Christmas hampers or anything else valued at more than US$100 to avoid conflict of interest. Environmentalists, meanwhile, urge corporate senders to give out organic food in the hampers and use less wrapping. The Peninsula may be the wrong place to buy a gift if you want to meet the US$100 limit. But for those who want to get across a green message, it offers a hamper that is full of organic wine, organic food and other healthy products. And Shangri-La's Mr Hauck said customers now want more tailor-made products that cannot be found in supermarkets, for example, Shangri-La chocolate, tea, XO sauce. On that note, I wish all readers a Happy New Year!