So who had the best box?

Our annual look at the best corporate boxes at the Hong Kong rugby Sevens.

With Asian markets broadly up and minus a killer disease, it was a safe bet that this year's Cathay Pacific, Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Sevens (aka, the CXFB Sevens) would be a sellout.

And so it proved, with a euphoric mood once again restored especially among the English who saw their team win for the third year in a row. Likewise expectations were running high that corporate boxes would be something special this year, since first quarter broking P&Ls have been strong.

At FinanceAsia we have been awarding a Best Box at the Sevens since 2001. Last year, however, we decided not to give out an award on the grounds that it would have appeared tasteless in the midst of SARS.

This year there were no such qualms and once again we scoured the boxes. After a whole weekend of box-hopping, we found this one of the most difficult years to judge, but by late Sunday night a clear winner had emerged.

Making life a little easier for us was the fact that the number of financial firms with boxes has declined since 2001. Box legends of yore such as WI Carr are long gone, and we basically narrowed it down to eight contenders. Five from the West stand (ABN AMRO, Citigroup, CLSA, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs) and three on the East (JPMorgan, Merrill Lynch, UBS).

Of course, tournament sponsor, CSFB had two boxes, but neither was themed. The CSFB box was a good place to go if you wanted to catch a glimpse of former British Prime Minister, John Major, or watch some rugby.

The last winner of this award was UBS, whose box is traditionally run by the eponymous, Lee the Landlord. His claim to fame was introducing a specially reinforced bar (circa 2002) that catered to those who wished to dance on it. This year he went with a yachting theme, complete with wavey strobes on the wall.

Sadly no longer flanked by Morgan Stanley (which have given up their box suite), UBS could no longer hope to win cheap points simply by the chiaruscuro effect of being next to a box which had no theme. Lee's unique selling point this year was thus serving Old Speckled Hen ale and having a chef on hand to make omelettes and carve roast beef.

UBS's box continued to please (it is a great box), but was somewhat lacking on the fancy-dress and gratuitous freebie front. There really was no fancy dress and the giveaway was a whistle.

At the other end of the giveaway scale was JPMorgan, which went with an Ali G bling-bling theme and was handing out basketball vests and large dollar-sign medallions. The latter became a virtual craze among kids and definitely ranks as the most inspired freebie of the weekend. I even had an HSBC banker begging for mine in order to appease his second daughter.

Twas thus that the JPMorgan box did not disappoint. Once again there was a strong disco feel inside the suite and it swayed for much of Saturday. In fact, it may have become a victim of its own success. By late Sunday afternoon, with the Sevens completely full and many calculating where best to watch the final, JPMorgan's box may have appeared a bad choice to game theorists. Ironically it became quite quiet just as the event reached its climax.

Another box that managed to create a kicking atmosphere, was Citigroup's. Last year, we noticed Citi step up to the plate with its Cowboys and Indians theme. A key attraction were three fetching squaws: one of whom is a TV presenter on the local cable network and this year the girls were back as equally spritely pirates.

Among their piratical duties was getting guests to wear a bandana and a captain's hat. Likewise making his triumphant return, Citi used the same dance-crazed DJ. Clearly somewhat perturbed by the musical limitations of the pirates of the Caribbean theme, he spent a lot of the time playing a selection of Indian bangra music instead.

Indeed, he had stoked up such a reputation by Sunday that Citi was sucking in the dance-crazed. When a Scotsman wearing a kilt begins dancing on what appears to be a gunpowder barrel you know you have attained a measure of success.

By late Sunday this success had got a bit of out of hand. Citi was having to operate a one-in, one-out policy for those who wanted to walk its plank. And increasingly the average age dropped to about 15. We began to feel a little old.

At the other end of the stand, Goldman's theme was Hawaii and the US bank gave away probably the best themed rugby shirts of the weekend (indeed probably the only apparel that will ever see the light of day again). Once more a strong atmosphere prevailed, in this case thanks to the Coyote Ugly tactic of getting a blonde to sing "One Way Or Another" on the bar.

The salarymen of CLSA went Japanese for their theme in order to celebrate the success of the bank's first Japan equity conference. As ever, CLSA proved an accomplished party host and the Japan theme gave the world its first blue and yellow geishas, as well as the more customary sake and Asahi beer.

The Merrill Lynch box has come along way since 2001 when it was unthemed and largely unoccupied. This year it was buzzing, and as you walked around the stadium you saw a lot of people in Merrill rugby shirts. However, after an hour mingling in the box the theme was still not clear to me.

While I signally failed to figure out Merrill's theme, no one could deny the dominant theme of the year was India. Not one, but two boxes chose India, and they were ironically enough near neighbours. Whether this is good for the Indian equity market remains to be seen.

Deutsche and ABN, two box stalwarts, both went subcontinental. I went to Deutsche's box on the Saturday and was given Indian garb to wear by Ed Peter, a man who doesn't take no for an answer. However, for the rest of the day I was continually asked which firm was having the surgeon theme as I looked like "Dr Kildare" in my green cotton smock.

In comparison, ABN managed to create the most coherent dress theme of the entire box circuit. Practically everyone in the ABN box was wearing the branded long white Indian shirt and a yellow turban (complete with a fake green emerald). From the other side of the stadium, the only box that could be easily identified was ABN's due to the profusion of white and yellow.

The ABN box managed to achieve an atmosphere that was just right. Neither too rowdy, nor too dull; it had Indian dancing girls, and Indian music; it had a profusion of Indian food and a flat screen TV showing Bollywood classics. As Scots broking boss, Alastair Barr put it, "Beer, curry and rugby, what more could you want"?

Indeed, Barr ran a good bar, and on Sunday it was going right till the end - eventually shut down by the local constabulary at around 9pm. While everyone else had left, ABN was still carousing, dancing on tables and talking about the result.

Even a Scottish rugby hero from the days when Scotland had rugby heroes, Gavin Hastings, turned up. It was an official rugby recognition that Barr's bar was the place to be.

So there it is, after a close call with the usual excellent showings from UBS and JPMorgan and an outstanding Citigroup box, we finally opted for ABN AMRO as the winners of this year's Best Box.

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