HK Sevens

Who had the Best Box at the HK Sevens?

During the Hong Kong Sevens the action on the field is only eclipsed by the contest to win the best VIP box theme.
Fiji celebrate after defeating New Zealand
Fiji celebrate after defeating New Zealand

As the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens 2015 kicked off, a competition of another sort was getting underway in the cushy confines of the VIP boxes circling the stadium.  

At this late March rite, global finance houses and those that vie to do their due diligence are the prime tenants of these choice seats, and, like all alpha industries, there's a good bit of one-upmanship going on to see who's got the tastiest spread, the hippest theme, the most actionable box in town. See our gallery for pictures. 

Goldman Sachs opted for a Japanese theme for its skybox replete with lanterns, a shimmering wall mural of Mt. Fuji and sake served in dainty masu wooden box cups. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Sevens, which drew forty international teams from five continents to this financial centre in the South China Sea, the US investment bank used the occasion to mark its fourth decade of dealmaking in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

UBS's selfie wall a big hit 

From the mountains to sea, next up was Credit Suisse, which counterintuitively stepped off the Alps and onto the beachhead with a seashore motif that featured a surf board bar and floor-to-ceiling photos of a sun-drenched coastline. Nary a yodel was heard.

Whoops and hollers produced by thousands of fans periodically flooded into the boxes as one probed deeper and deeper into this exclusive sideshow. 

To be sure, there were other reminders that this was indeed a major sporting event, founded in 1976 and organised by the Hong Kong Football Rugby Union, and not just an elaborate pretext to party and dress up like faeries and bumble bees. 

Société Générale, proud sponsor of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, used the occasion to pay homage to the early days of the game, recreating a vintage rugby locker room littered with retro leather boots, jerseys and jackets. Citi followed suit with a box theme that celebrated of the origins of rugby (the game dates back to the 1870s when it was first played at its namesake school in the UK and assessed a more genteel pastime than violent Cornish hurling) and recapped great moments in the sport's lore. 

While Citi took an ecumenical view of the game, not focusing on any one national team in particular, Société Générale gave a preferential deal to the French squads of yore. Sepia-toned photographs of legendary French rugby teams adorned the walls of the box, and former French union rugby player Thomas Castaignede mingled with bankers, clients and fans.

Yet, for all its historic propriety, the French banker's VIP suite nevertheless was one of the more raucous and rollicking of the Sevens. One of SocGen's senior bankers, ensconced in a DJ booth, insisted banking was just a hobby and that DJing was his true calling. Bien dans sa pu, funk soul brother. 

Playbooks differ

As night fell over Happy Valley and the powerful floodlights at Hong Kong Stadium popped on, the concourse that links the VIP boxes was buzzing with chatter. Sponsors pay mucho dinero for these rarefied rumpus rooms, once virtually open to anyone with a laminate and now, in the time of Basel III, tightly guarded and accessible only to those with chip-embedded lanyards that permit one entry only.

One senior banker said he was going to complain to the rugby union about the policy of electronic lanyards as it meant less footfall and less buzz in his box.

Alterations to the VIP pass structure in recent years was reminiscent of the compliance rules hashed out in the inner regulatory sanctums of Brussels and Washington to many of those present. A few major multinationals have had to scale backed or discontinued their participation altogether. 

Nomura, for instance, opted for no box at all. 

“Unfortunately we gave up our box last year already so this will be our second year without one," said a source with the bank, adding that the Sevens weekend may be "a bit more somber this year with rising compliance and the new electronic ticket system for the box area.”

Other stalwart financial institutions, longtime habitués of this banking paradise and sharing its love of sport, neither pulled out all the stops nor played it quite as safe as Morgan Stanley, which went with a themeless box, perhaps in deference to the US Federal Reserve Board's tougher-than-Basel high quality liquid assets requirement.

There was a decided lack of consensus when it came to how much or how little new compliance rules constrained participation at the Sevens. One senior banker said only a small minority of his clients begged off due to compliance issues. He maintained that large asset managers and insurers still sent representatives and hedge funds were hardly impacted.

As a relationship-building opportunity, few regional sporting events can match - pound for pound - the upside potential of the Sevens. "This is a great event to network, discuss some business and have fun," said Marlon Sanchez, Deutsche Bank's managing director and head of prime finance Asia Pacific, attending his 14th Sevens event. "A lot us take personal time to be with some of our most important clients at the Sevens." 

UBS went with a theme that revolved around social media. Very au courant. The Swiss banker encouraged passersby to hashtag #ubs2015sevens, capitalising on the opportunity to expand their social media engagements. The UBS box featured a so-called "selfie" wall, interactive photo booth, a Skype-themed bathroom and an emoticon-lined ceiling, making millennials feel all warm and fuzzy. UBS nailed the self-obsessed social media zeitgeist by handing out branded sunglasses and selfie sticks (retractable mounts for smartphone cameras).

Relaxing even tricky clients

"We decided on the social media theme because, more and more, that is how we are interacting with out clients," said Gloria Lai, events marketing specialist with UBS.

By Sunday, the field thinned and the deciding final matches were afoot. Deutsche Bank's box hoped to win hearts and minds by providing relief from the low frequency drone of some 120,000 fans who made their way to the stadium over the three-day event. Suffice it to say, the German bank's relax- and recharge-themed box was off limits to the lumpen proletariat, with only executive pass-holders vouchsafed entry. The box was transformed into a high-brow bar, manned by professional mixologists whose concoctions included espresso martinis, cosmos and Bloody Marys. 

In keeping with its relax and recharge theme, Deutsche Bank had a masseuse on hand, who proved immensely popular, as did a recharging station for cell phones, luring guests from other VIP boxes in need of a jolt.

Wicket truth

One expected a conflict of sporting interest to show its teeth in Macquarie's box, as the Cricket World Cup championship was reaching its denouement Down Under. Australia, the bank's home turf, had made it to the final, as had neighbouring New Zealand - for the very first time. But the bank's abundant good cheer and ample pro bono wine provisions made rooting for any team in any sport in any time zone a win-win deal. 

Macquarie's 1969 Victoria Vineyard-themed box played well with punters, a few of whom remained lucid enough to grasp that the vintage represented the year Hill Samuel morphed into Macquarie.

Ever attuned to the obligations of corporate citizenship, the Aussie banker supports a different charity every year. Hat's off to Macquarie for encouraging clients to support micro financing for women worldwide and offering to match client donations dollar-for-dollar. And bless their doorman, veteran entertainer Simon Watkins, dressed as a grape.

Worthy cause

Pro sports are given a bad name by headline-grabbing hooliganism, racial taunts and doping scandals, but there's a tremendous amount of charitable giving and good deed-doing on the part of individual players, clubs, unions and their sponsors. The Sevens have a solid track record in this regard.

For three years running, the Hong Kong Rugby Union has set aside a box for the Peter Bennett Foundation, which supports a variety of humanitarian causes in the region. At last year's match, the foundation raised HK$3.95 million (US$510,000) and hoped to bring in HK$5 million this year. One hundred percent of the funds raised go to charity, according to Jessica Bennett, the foundation's director. Some 30 sponsors stepped up to support the foundation's box at the Sevens this year.

The charity box enjoyed its share of high jinx and antics, as well. An ersatz constabulary was out in force in the form of policewomen who tried but failed to maintain order, despite an appearance by John Tsang, Hong Kong's financial secretary, who dropped by on Saturday morning to show his support.

Peter Bennett, the Hong Kong native who started the foundation after a career in banking, said the foundation is unlikely to get a box next year without the support of a major financial institution or the Hong Kong government. 

Hocus Pocus

BNP Paribas went with a Las Vegas magic theme at this year's Sevens, and won extra credit for having the chutzpah to feature a beer tap-cum-magic box with a women's legs jutting out the top. 

That alone, however, did not guarantee their being named 'Best Box' at the Sevens by FinanceAsia.

In a tight contest, BNP Paribas earned the distinction for a number of antics, ornaments and excesses that made its box more fun than the rest. 

Magic box/beer tap

A magician made old sovereigns appear behind the ears of bemused investors, playing to his audience of bankers' no doubt.  

Although some box themes seemed quite random, each had a methodology or underlying meaning tied to its institution's mission. In the case of BNP, the magic act was a metaphor for taking an innovative approach to opportunities. "Our motto is to be the bank for a changing world," said Jessica Chan, the bank's event manager for global equities and commodity derivatives. "Just like magic, there are different opportunities that you can play and innovate with."

BNP Paribas put on an unapologetically extravagant show, winning accolades and scoring points for a restroom that closely approximated the backstage dressing room at Moulin Rouge and a mirrored ceiling, so one could both look down upon, and up to, one's peers. A local DJ of some renowned laid down hit-laced tracks throughout.  

Put Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest in a mash-up at Davos and you might get a inkling of the prevailing mood at Friday night's opener.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch hosted a media party that evening. Underpaid and known to suffer terrible thirsts, the media party was packed. BofA ML kept the decor understated, with rugby-shirt seats being their sole indulgence. A staffer at BofA ML's box quipped that the lack of frills was "in line with the general atmosphere of cost cutting and extra compliance."

General Atmosphere

Ernst & Young, which now likes to be called EY, wallowed in a bit of retro excess, harking back to disco days with a 70s-themed box dubbed Studio 7 - a play on the iconic studio 54, the number of their box, and the number of players fielded by each rugby team, one assumes. 

The consultancy's box had glitter balls dangling from the ceiling and staff done up in battery-powered t-shirts that flashed. Woo hoo! 

EY expected in excess of 300 guests to drop by this weekend, some coming from as far afield as Europe and Australia, but noted that a very small number of clients had taken a pass due to compliance and cost control regimens. 

To give some idea of how large the Sevens looms on the consultancy's calendar, planning for the event started way back in November.

Seventies child in EY's box

"Keeping the funk alive," said Karen Hopkins, EY's brand, marketing and communications director Asia Pacific, "we wanted to create a fun client experience."

And they succeeded, at least in the eyes of Keith Pogson, EY senior partner in financial services Asia Pacific, who was priming the pump ahead of his birthday, which would fall on the 'morrow. "I was born in the seventies so I loved this theme," said Pogson.

Eponymous rex

It came as no surprise that HSBC was nigh ubiquitous at the stadium. The world's local bank had been running Sevens-linked spots - proud sponsor of the "fan cam"  - on Youtube weeks if not months in advance. The sponsor was given high marks for attention to detail, delivering Sevens' tickets to VIP guests' offices in a rugby-ball shaped pouches, complete with a sweat absorbing towels in anticipation of an abrupt onset of Hong Kong's asphalt-melting monsoon seasons.

Despite the extra emphasis on compliance this year, there was still fun to be had, a fact confirmed by numerous sighting of vikings, fairies, native Indians, nine pins and a bowling ball, and the aforementioned bumble bees, nuns and faeries in the South Stand, a precinct that enjoys a certain infamy for its unabashed camp at the Sevens.  

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