Hong Kong’s heated race

Hong Kong may be among the last in Asia to reopen, but it is making up for lost time with generous subvention schemes, destination advocacy by business leaders across industries, and intensified marketing, details Kenneth Wong, general manager of MICE & cruise, Hong Kong Tourism Board

Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) and the government have been really generous with subvention support for event organisers this year – the 100 per cent venue rental subsidy for recurring exhibitions is one. But how critical are subventions in the decision-making process for event organisers?
There is a saying that money can’t buy everything. Yet, without money, you can’t do anything.

So, subvention support is very, very important. It is one of the main factors influencing event organisers’ decisions, especially since they are all much more budget-conscious than before due to current and forecasted economic conditions.

However, subvention support is not the most important factor; growth potential of their event is. When event organisers consider Asia as the destination, they will have a number of questions – will it open up a new window of opportunity for expanding attendance from international markets and from China; will the event in Hong Kong facilitate entry into China; will there be access to new potential sponsors; will delegates be happy with the destination experience? These are all very important considerations.

So, when we at HKTB plan our strategy, we aim to enhance every single one of these aspects.

Competition is intense, and the lure of subvention support isn’t something new in our industry. How will Hong Kong stand out?
Yes, there is very intense competition for conventions and exhibitions in our region. Destinations are eager to attract as many business events as possible, and we expect them to also give away some money as an enticement. To beat them, we have to be more flexible and aggressive.

We are very blessed that our government understands the importance of business events, and has approved additional funding to support the revitalisation of the MICE industry.

Adding to that, we are able to streamline the approval process for subvention applications. This is critical for event organisers, as many are fighting to catch up on lost time (throughout the pandemic disruption). They need to reactivate their bid process rapidly and over short notice. Our ability to respond swiftly will impact our success rate in the bidding process.

I must say that our subvention support and streamlined approval processes have resulted in a pretty encouraging recovery rate. Between January and September 2023, we received about 850,000 overnight MICE visitors to Hong Kong, which is about 70 per cent of our pre-pandemic numbers.

Furthermore, our bidding fund has so far supported 55 events with some 330,000 potential attendees. These events include both new and returning events.

I think these are impressive results for our industry.

But to your question about standing out, I would like to revisit my point earlier about how we are focused on delivering on the many factors that event organisers consider when selecting a host city. For many of those considerations, Hong Kong’s location within the Greater Bay Area (GBA) is the answer.

Being the MICE hub of the GBA means Hong Kong can easily talk to both international organisers as well as mainland/GBA organisers. We have deployed two different propositions for the two different target audiences.

Our campaign, Meet Hong Kong, Meet GBA, is designed to speak to international organisers. If they want to get into the GBA market with operational ease, as well as attract attendees and sponsors from the area, then meet in Hong Kong.

On the other side of the coin, we have the campaign, Meet Hong Kong, Meet the World. This proposition is built on the desire of GBA event organisations and associations to position their event on the global stage and connect with international delegates.

Hong Kong’s ongoing urban transformation creates plenty of unique selling points for the leisure travel segment. How do you see the varied new additions boosting Hong Kong’s appeal for the business events segment?
As you already know, the destination itself and the experiences it can offer are factors that will influence the event organiser’s choice. It is so for conventions and tradeshows, and even more so for corporate incentive travel programmes.

Hong Kong had three years to build new and exciting experiences while enhancing our evergreen draws.

Let’s talk about our evergreen draws first. Our harbour, the Peak and our theme parks are enduring favourites, but they have all been refreshed. Have you seen the spectacular multimedia show at the new, taller and bigger castle in Hong Kong Disneyland? Have you seen the new Water World at Ocean Park Hong Kong? Have you taken a ride on the new trams that head up to The Peak?

These are all refreshing, even for repeat visitors familiar with Hong Kong.

We are also repackaging what Hong Kong already has. A good example is our Neighbourhoods programme, which highlights interesting and authentic districts in Hong Kong. Each district, like Old Town Central, Sham Shui Po and West Kowloon, has its own theme or themes, and visitors are encouraged to explore on their own. Neighbourhoods can be adapted for corporate groups, where delegates can go together into a district and learn about the local way of life, arts and culture, food heritage, and so on.

Here is another fresh take on an evergreen attraction – Lan Kwai Fong. Everyone knows about this district in Hong Kong; it is a nice place to enjoy a drink, to see and be seen. We have a collaboration with the Lan Kwai Fong Association, which helps to charter a number of bars and restaurants along the alley and turn the area into one big dine-around party central for private groups. This presents a whole new experience of Hong Kong’s nightlife. We did this for an exhibition organiser focused on transportation and aviation, and had the area dressed in corporate branding.

Karen, we are so excited; there are so many opportunities to create fresh experiences out of what Hong Kong has.

Now, on the other hand, Hong Kong also boasts many new developments. One, which needs no further introduction, is our enhanced accessibility through the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Express Rail Link.

Two, our range of venues is expanding. AsiaWorld-Expo is on its way to its Phase Two expansion, and will transform Hall II into a 20,000-seat Super Arena for future major concerts and conferences. Meanwhile, Kai Tak Sports Park will benefit conventions coming to Hong Kong. Although it is positioned as a sports facility, it could very well host global, gigantic conferences with 20,000 or 30,000 people.

Three, Hong Kong’s continued urban development will give us the SkyCity Development, which is a highly anticipated landmark spanning approximately 25 hectares. It will transform Hong Kong International Airport from a city’s airport into an airport city. AsiaWorld-Expo is part of this area, and it will soon be joined by 11 SKIES, Hong Kong’s largest hub for retail, dining and entertainment. 11 SKIES will open in phases from now to 2025.

These venue enhancements will benefit big events. Is there support for smaller gatherings?
If you look at the whole MICE business portfolio for Hong Kong, a big portion of business actually comes from small groups with 10 to 200 attendees. Such groups may be here for corporate incentive travel or small-sized conventions.

While small, they are an important source of business for Hong Kong. So, we’ve built up a funding scheme for trade partners across the supply chain, ranging from overseas agents to hotels in Hong Kong. Such support will enable them to spend on reconnecting with overseas partners and marketing activities.

It is necessary to ensure every scale of player gets help with establishing recovery momentum.
Indeed. I must say that the whole of Hong Kong is working together very closely to rebuild tourism and events. We have resources from our government, as well as top-level recognition of the importance of attracting business events to Hong Kong.

Along with these affirmations, HKTB has the support of business leaders, chambers of commerce, and professional bodies in the areas of accounting, legal, medical, and more. In 2021, we created the Hong Kong Convention Ambassador programme and invited 120 people from different sectors to be advocates of Hong Kong. Their mission is to contribute to the resumption of travel and business events in Hong Kong.

These ambassadors are leaders in their own industry or sector, and they would come to us with event leads or ideas for events that Hong Kong could develop. They may also be organising a conference themselves for their industry or sector. Because of the power they hold and the respect they command among their peers, the conversion rate of their leads is very high. Since the launch of the Hong Kong Convention Ambassador programme, we have won over 50 events through ambassadors’ referrals.

The programme is expanding, and this year we recruited 20 ambassadors from China who are heads of professional bodies and industry leaders. Very recently in October, we brought these Chinese ambassadors to meet with our Hong Kong ambassadors. It was an opportunity for them to meet their peers, network and discuss new ideas to support Hong Kong’s travel and events recovery.

Our ambassadors get quite a bit of support from us. We have built them an Intranet mini-site that carries information on Hong Kong’s business events capabilities, a database of ambassadors, and news updates on events won and coming up. We have also given them recognition plaques, and are planning a fiscal event where they can come together and share the success of their efforts.

Macau is very aggressive in trying to get more international events too, and is also leveraging its role in the thriving GBA zone. How do you see Hong Kong positioning itself against Macau while still being a friendly GBA neighbour?
The global MICE industry is huge, and Hong Kong and Macau are so different. The types of industries and sectors we are pursuing for business events are different. We are not direct competitors.

Hong Kong’s strengths lie in its foothold on some of the developed recurring exhibitions, which has room to expand here.

Macau has its own strengths.

For events that need to rotate, going between Hong Kong and Macau is an option. The Hong Kong and Macau combo itinerary is nothing new, and we both can cooperate to attract events to the GBA.

Last question – can you name one event that you are super proud of, and why?
That would be Asia Fruit Logistica. The event left Hong Kong in 2019 and went on to explore other Asian cities, holding editions in Singapore and Thailand.

At that time, we did not realise how big an impact the event’s exit made on Hong Kong. We knew we had to bring it back. We needed to tell the Hong Kong story again, and have Asia Fruit Logistica recognise the value Hong Kong would bring to the event, its exhibitors, and its attendees.

We kept up communications throughout the pandemic, and were focused on rebuilding our relationship.

When Asia Fruit Logistica finally decided to return to Hong Kong in 2023 (September 6-8 at the AsiaWorld-Expo), it had a very successful comeback. We were told that space was sold out two months before the show.

Another interesting story about Asia Fruit Logistica – the last day did not happen because of a typhoon. So, activities were only held across two days, yet total transactions broke pre-pandemic records.

Asia Fruit Logistica is a very special event because it is a genuinely international show – 80 to 90 per cent of attendees are international.

If Hong Kong is able to keep supporting Asia Fruit Logistica, I am confident that it will stay here forever.

Nothing is forever, only diamonds.
(Laughs) Well, at least it has announced 2024 dates in Hong Kong.

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