With sevens rugby headed to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games, the standard of play has never been higher than at this year’s tournament in Hong Kong.
We cannot say the same about the action on the executive level, where the dominant theme was “brand values”, as cost-cutting and public humility continue to affect the level of resources that banks are willing to devote to a three-day binge-drinking costume party in Hong Kong.
Thankfully, there was also a rugby tournament going on. Even a torrential downpour on Saturday failed to dampen the excitement on the pitch, as the prospect of competing for medals in Rio inspired a new level of seriousness and professionalism.
This year’s HSBC Sevens World Series, which finishes in England in May, will determine the 15 core teams that compete for four automatic Olympics qualifying spots next season, so there is already something at stake.
Up in the boxes there were still some banks taking the fun seriously — mostly Europeans, as the US banks tend to keep a lower profile these days. Morgan Stanley is the notable exception, with Goldman Sachs still clinging on to some of its former swagger.
On the plus side, some of the auditors upped their game this year. Ernst & Young took literal inspiration from its corporate motto — Building a better working world — to come up with a construction theme, right down to hard hats, inflatable hammers and spanner pens. It was a hit with the kids, but so was PwC’s door, which featured a (fake) stuffed lion’s head as part of its safari theme.
Another welcome addition was a charity box, aptly called Mission Possible. Supported by the Peter Bennett Foundation — set up by Peter Bennett, former head of JP Morgan’s US derivatives business and mortgage-backed securities — it featured a Johnny Depp-as-Willy Wonka lookalike and a charity auction. Plenty of corporate donors chipped in with free stuff, including the event organisers and stadium caterers, to make sure that the paying guests were well looked after.
The competition was close this year, but Deutsche Bank emerged as the winner among our panel thanks to some excellent decoration and a great atmosphere. We couldn’t say exactly what the theme was, but we liked the execution: a graffiti mural of the Hong Kong skyline and a general urban vibe, complete with neon lights and red Toyotas.
Artist-in-residence Gus was on hand to draw custom graffiti tags for the kids to deface their neighbourhoods with and also worked on a Hong Kong landscape in the box on Saturday and Sunday.
Alan Cloete, the bank’s co-chief executive for Asia Pacific, was on fine form as host on Friday night — and even better form on Sunday when South Africa beat the US.
Phil Kearns, the former Australian captain, was among the rugby greats popping into the box, while the traditional Deutsche dance troupe did some popping of their own, spurred on by the damp fans in the South Stand.
It wasn’t the most original decor (next-box neighbour Goldman Sachs deployed graffiti last year) but Deutsche knows how to put on a good Sevens weekend and this year’s effort struck a good balance between kids and adults (unlike the Transformers theme last year), and allowed the bank’s well-oiled Sevens machine to shine.
Best of the rest
UBS deserves an award for total commitment to a theme. The inspiration was board games, which is perhaps not the most current of social references, but it afforded plenty of opportunity to create a fun-filled space. There was a Monopoly board on the floor, Snakes and Ladders on the ceiling, a giant Connect Four, a Jenga table and a Twister challenge in the bathroom (as if drunken men need an added challenge in that department!). The bar was decorated with mahjong tiles and a supersize egg-timer filled with cranberry juice (no vodka, sadly, though it was available as an added extra). We also have hazy memories of black hats.
Morgan Stanley went to town once again and its box was easily the best of the US banks. Styled as the Wushu Academy, it featured an 83-year old Chinese calligrapher who was writing messages and names on Kung-fu jackets, as well as a registered Chinese medicine practitioner who was checking pulses and dispensing health tips. The Wushu theme emphasised sportsmanship, rather than winning. We weren’t sure if rugby legends George Smith and Serge Betsen, who were on hand in the box, shared this philosophy but were afraid to ask.
Macquarie harked back to its founder’s Scottish heritage with a Highland castle theme, complete with wood paneling, a fireplace and some antlers on the wall. There was a kilt-wearing bouncer, as well as traditional refreshments such as shortbread, haggis, whisky and Irn-Bru, and the wet and miserable weather added authenticity to the Scottish feel. There were plenty of senior Macquarie guys enjoying themselves when we dropped by, including head of Asian sales Robin Black, head of HK/China equities Jeff Shiu and Arthur van Dijk from ECM.
Keeping the spirit alive
The party was rocking in HSBC’s Dragon’s Den, thanks to the resident DJ and nightclub feel. We weren’t sure of the theme, though the Pimms forced down at UBS’s box was starting to take a toll at this point.
There were plenty of other good boxes this year and several that we wished we could have spent more time in. True to form, CLSA went all out for fun with a rock theme. “We will rock you” was emblazoned on staff T-shirts, while female bar staff wore a blue-and-yellow leather outfit with fishnet stockings and knee-high black boots. BNP Paribas also brought some French glamour to the occasion with a pair of models on the door in white dresses and calf-length black boots.