Mega Events

Television viewers of a nervous disposition may have been shaken recently by local news coverage of two Michael’s. Yours truly was one and the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, was the other. The contrast could not have been sharper: the one in his mid-70s retired into relative obscurity 15 years ago, the other turned 80 still strutting the stage and wowing audiences worldwide. What linked them of course was an event some 20 years ago, the entertainment spectacle known as HarbourFest. I represented the government in the role of sponsor, he was the star of the show. The organiser was the American Chamber of Commerce.

What dragged the historical saga into current affairs was Singapore’s success in signing up modern pop music phenomenon Taylor Swift to perform in the city state to the exclusion of all other possible locations in the region including Hong Kong.

Local commentators and politicians were quick to claim our rival was usurping our role as an events capital. The annual Formula One Grand Prix there was another example. Singapore was eating our lunch, siren voices murmured. The local administration, always sensitive to any criticism that we might be falling short, was quick to rush out a list of so-called “Mega Events” to prove we were still a major force.

One of the quoted items was a football match with Inter Miami which would star the world’s top player Lionel Messi. Unfortunately when the great day came he sat on the bench for the full 90 minutes looking round bored and not even wearing his boots. (At least Mick sang!) While fans here howled for refunds, Swifties were preparing to fly in from far and wide to Singapore to watch her concerts. The contrast was just too much and revived memories of the 2003 events, hence Mick and my return to the news bulletins.

An in-depth examination of all these aspects produces some interesting findings.

I have never knowingly listened to any of Swift’s songs but am assured by the family’s expert on such matters (daughter) that they are brilliant and her live concerts are amazing. But the peak earning season of such stars tends – with very few exceptions – to be quite short. Hence the drive to maximise income during the window of opportunity. Swift is reported to have sought and secured a substantial subsidy from the Singapore government, possibly amounting to several million US dollars per concert. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has denied the specific sum but defended the principle. She and he are both right to do so.

The whole point of holding a Mega Event is to move the needle. To show that your city or country is not as it is perceived but is something different, and to encourage the visit of people who might not otherwise have come. Singapore is a major international business centre, but sometimes perceived as a bit dull. Splashing out a substantial sum to do something daring helps to move the needle. The exclusivity clause is standard industry procedure. The Macau casinos have been applying it against us for years.

My main conclusion after studying the government’s list of 80 plus events is that virtually none of them qualify for the description as Mega. My second conclusion is that it doesn’t matter and it is irrelevant whether or not Messi actually played. What the list proves beyond doubt is that Hong Kong is a dynamic business city where something interesting is always happening.

The 80 odd events comprise 25 conventions, 19 trade exhibitions,15 sports events and 26 miscellaneous activities no fewer than half of which are outdoors and effectively open to all. Almost without exception these events are important. They are enduring, repeated year after year. Their significance lies in the entirety of the collection and the breadth and depth, rather than focus on each individual item separately. Many attract visitors every year, others might be of interest to people who were coming here anyway, but will not create fresh reasons for coming.

I am not convinced everyone in the administration has a clear idea of what a Mega Event is. Chubby Hearts for example – floating a large red balloon in the shape of a heart – was no doubt of interest to young couples here, especially close to Valentine’s Day. But nobody outside Hong Kong, assuming they heard of the idea at all, immediately rang their travel agent and booked flights and a hotel. The LIV golf tournament, on the other hand, involving as it does the best golfers in the world and a deep-pocketed fan base, might qualify. But earlier this year it did not feature on the Tourism Board website of forthcoming events.

As a matter of interest, Hong Kong did hold preliminary discussions with the Formula One people 25 years ago about the possibility of a Grand Prix here. But the minimum profit sought by the organiser was way beyond anything the government was prepared to guarantee. There were tentative solutions about where (public roads in Kowloon peninsula) and when (week of Chinese New Year holiday) to hold the event, but the money was just too big a stumbling block.

We will need a genuine Mega Event soon: immediately after the article 23 security legislation has been enacted, the western media will be full of stories about Hong Kong not being safe for foreigners to visit. The best way for us to rebut the false narrative will not be wolf diplomacy but something so spectacular everyone in the world will want to come and see for themselves. So, thinking caps on, but be prepared to spend big.