Who had the best box at the Hong Kong Sevens?

Our annual pub crawl, err box tour, at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens proved that while there was still plenty of liquor, the banks had cut back on trimmings and give-aways.

My, how times have changed. For the first time ever, bankers begged us not to select them the winners of this "competition".

Any bank that has taken (or been forced to take) government money to help buoy its bottom line, went to great lengths to demonstrate how modest its Sevens box was. They noted that the bankers who flew in for the event did so on their own dime, that the live music or elaborate sound systems of previous years had been replaced by i-Pods, and that they had not splurged on decadent decorations.

Also, there was a distinct lack of scantily clad women, and no excess of branded give-away T-shirts, hats, rugby balls, toys or beer mugs. In fact, most banks had refrained from having a theme altogether, settling for a few rugby-inspired pictures on the wall and the action on the pitch below as the main attractions. Morgan Stanley even went as far as reusing the decorations from last year after finding them still on the walls when they returned to set up their box last week.

Tightening the belt even more, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch had no boxes at the executive level at all this year, although Goldman did have a reserved seating area downstairs. Many of the hedge funds and private equity firms who had boxes -- or at least stalls -- last year, had also not booked their own area this year and were probably pleased to attend one of the bank boxes -- even if the hospitality was more restrained than in yesteryears.

All banks took pains to point out the number of clients in their boxes -- perhaps to demonstrate that the money spent on food and beverages was legitimate. This was also evidenced by the increased security at the doors, which meant people whose names weren't on the list or who could quickly come up with a name of someone inside who might be able to verify them as legitimate invites simply had to go elsewhere. 

But that doesn't mean there wasn't a little bit of excess -- and a winner this year.

Deutsche Bank takes the silver prize for classic Rugby Sevens spirit. The bank's Long Lunch on Friday afternoon, which doubles as a charity fundraiser, was noteworthy for the cheese fight, allegedly started by two spirited women who held their own in the corner of the tent. Even better was the air-raid siren to call all to the table for the meal. Two points for a twisted sense of humour.

And Deutsche Bank carried on for the rest of the weekend with a box that sported a beer fest theme that came with the old Rugby Sevens-styled giveaways -- aprons featuring heavily-endowed beer maidens, yellow-plaited wigs and blue Trilby hats. And for the kids, an innovative pull-out banner with the word TRY! next to the Deutsche Bank logo to accompany the screaming after those unforgettable moments on the pitch. Bavarian castles on the walls and giant beer mugs completed the theme, but where was the wurst and sauerkraut?

This was also the box that barred people from entering for a good part of Saturday simply because it was too full, which resulted in a queue outside the door -- just like in the old days. A good show all around and, as many rival bankers said, still appropriate since Deutsche Bank hasn't taken any bailout money.

BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered and UBS were runners-up for crowds, as well. The Standard Chartered box was simply designed to celebrate the bank's 150-year history and the clients thronging the box seemed happy to be a part of the festivities and with the fact that the top Asia management had made an effort to be there. The UK-based bank hasn't taken government money either and a rival banker noted that it can also "afford to wine and dine clients as it is still making profits".

Other banks went to great lengths to stay out of the limelight or to ensure a message of moderation was put forth. Citi bankers actually used their box to watch rugby -- and network. Former head of the Institutional Clients Group for Asia, Bob Morse, stopped by on Saturday, with many ex-colleagues clearly pleased to see him and catch up. Indeed, he caused nearly as much of a stir as did former Australian rugby union legend David Campese (considered by some as one of the greatest wingers in rugby union history) when he stopped in at the Citi box for a bit.

In Morgan Stanley's box, a plexiglas box was on the bar for donations to the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children (HKSPC). In an atypical Sevens marketing move, the bank was keen to point out that: "Donations made at Morgan Stanley's box at the Sevens will help fund the complete renovation and upgrading of the HKSPC -- Morgan Stanley IT Education Centre in Mongkok, Kowloon, which provides underprivileged children with the opportunity to learn how to use a computer and develop their cognitive abilities, opening up a whole new world to them". You still awake? We are definitely pro corporate social responsibility, but the words social and responsibility usually don't go hand-in-hand at the Sevens.

Similarly, the Royal Bank of Scotland turned the Sevens into a do-good marketing event. It had Earth Hour adverts on its wall and also handed out T-shirts promoting the global event that called for folks to turn off their lights for one hour on Saturday night (which in Hong Kong was sponsored by RBS). A spokeswoman also pointed out that: "RBS's activity around this year's Rugby Sevens is a fraction of what we did last year in recognition of the very different market environment we now operate in. We have aimed to strike the balance between honouring our commercial agreements and supporting our business and its customers here in Hong Kong. We have reduced attendances at this year's event by over 50% with very modest hospitality."

This is more palatable -- at least it addresses the issue head on. But while we applaud do-good acts, we recognise that they aren't truly in the spirit of the Sevens. They're surely part of the banks' CSR (we'll give you that) but they're also all about staying out of the global tabloid press should a story about excessive spending on a drunken debauchery in Hong Kong be picked up by some scribe looking for another excuse to stick it to the financial community.

But then, you could say our winner was sticking it to its peers -- which is suddenly making us wonder whether we should indeed award them this prize. But, we go ahead anyway, because they are a regional bank, not eligible for a bailout from the US, UK or Europe -- so if they go down, the Sevens will come to haunt them as a poor joke. And everyone else will have the last laugh.

So, tip your Trilby hat to CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets for its Bondi Beach-themed box, complete with a bikini top marking the door (No, boys - there were no topless barmaids inside. It wasn't that over the top. But the box did come with a mural featuring the famous Sydney beach, complete with a swimsuit-clad crowd). You see, CLSA was also using the Sevens as an advertising vehicle -- but their marketing was more closely aligned to their core business. It was to underscore that in mid-January the firm opened the company's first Australian office in Sydney. So every time they had to answer "Why Australia?" they got to go into their sales spiel. Not bad. Aside from the Bondi Beach mural, there was Bundaberg rum from Queensland -- an Aussie institution -- on offer for drinks. It was crowded and fun and, for a few hours at least, gave everyone a needed break from the woes of the financial crisis. But the prize touch was the Sevens tank top, which advertised "Brokers Brew" as being "free of taxpayer's money, conflicted advice and credit...100% original".

Ok, so it should have said taxpayers' money... but you get the point. And so did everyone else -- thankfully with a bit of a chuckle. But then again, that might have been down to the Bundaberg rum.

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