Hong Kong Embraces Sold-Out Rugby Party as Relief From Slump

Chris Hemsworth

Hollywood actor Chris Hemsworth attends a Hong Kong Rugby Sevens 'kick off' event on April 7.

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
  • About 11,000 hot dogs, 380,000 pints of beer to be consumed
  • Highest sales month forecast for party district Lan Kwai Fong

Bankers parading in outlandish costumes, beer taps flowing and tens of thousands of revelers cheering beefy men in shorts -- it must be Hong Kong’s biggest annual social event, the Sevens.

Hong Kong eagerly embraces the infusion of visitors -- and cash -- during the three-day extravaganza starting Friday as an antidote to sluggish markets, a slump in Chinese tourism and a precarious property outlook.

Fiji team in 2016
Fiji team in 2016
Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

The top draw on the city’s entertainment calendar, the tournament provides a shot in the arm for the Asian financial hub that is set for the slowest economic expansion in four years. For the next few days at least, banks and other top companies in the former British territory will forget their troubles as they host clients in pricey corporate boxes.

"Hong Kong Sevens has developed into one of the biggest sport events in the region,” said Peter Lam Kin-ngok, chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. “It draws a large flock of rugby fans to our city every year. Sevens is crucial for reinforcing Hong Kong’s reputation as the events hub of Asia, and an important means to boost local businesses."

The event is the seventh of a 10-tournament series held around the world, and this year also serves as a qualifier for the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where rugby will be included after a 92-year hiatus. Fiji is leading the series, with South Africa second and New Zealand third.

Sold Out

As over the last 12 years, three-day tickets for the 40,000-seat stadium were sold out in advance, at the official price of HK$1,800 ($232) each. Only in 2003 did the Sevens fail to sell out, the year when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, killed 299 people in the city. 

Fans wearing costumes
Fans wearing costumes
Photographer: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

Spectators are expected to show up in fancy dress and costumes that in past years have featured angels, bananas and even likenesses of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. It’s a voraciously hungry and thirsty crowd, too, with nearly 380,000 pints of beer, 23,000 pies and about 11,000 hot dogs expected to be consumed, according to suppliers.

The surge in visitors will be welcomed by the city’s retailers, which saw sales plunge in February by the most since 1999 as fewer Chinese tourists visited Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year holiday.

"We haven’t found demand for this event decreasing this year, despite economic headwinds," said Gary Hwa, EY’s regional managing partner for financial services for Asia Pacific. "In fact we expect to have similar participation as last year, hosting over 300 guests in our corporate suite over the three days." Others with boxes include banks such as UBS Group AG and Citigroup Inc.

Hong Kong’s entertainment districts, including Lan Kwai Fong, count on the annual competition for a big part of their annual revenues. Fans will spend about 40 percent more during the month in the bar district than the next best month of the year, December, according to Allan Zeman, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings Ltd. Buses will be hired to ferry people from the stadium to the district.

"Sevens is very good financially for the city because you have people from all over the world coming and spending money,” Zeman said in an interview. “It’s an amazing event.”

The Excelsior hotel, operated by Mandarin Oriental International Ltd. and within walking distance of the stadium, has a "very, very high" occupancy rate during the tournament as in past years, spokeswoman Wings Mok said days before the start of the tournament.

Heart of Sevens

“Hong Kong has always had the tag of being the heart of Sevens and the number one tournament,” Andy Friend, coach of the Australian team, said by phone. “It has prestige. It has been the premier event on the Sevens calendar, but Rio will probably supersede it this year.”

Fiji team in 2015
Fiji team in 2015
Photographer: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

Fiji is the most successful team in the history of the Hong Kong tournament, winning 15 titles since it began in 1976. New Zealand, which featured Jonah Lomu on debut in its 1994 winning side, is the next best with 11 cups. Lomu was selected as one of the seven best players to have appeared at the event during the past four decades. He died in November at the age of 40. Among this year’s featured players will be New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams.

“The sort of things that Hong Kong conjures up for overseas visitors are visions of the harbor and Bruce Lee -- not far behind that is the Sevens,” Robbie McRobbie, general manager of operations at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, said in a phone interview. “It’s an iconic event and it’s become part of the fabric of the city in the same way that the carnival has for Brazil.”

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