Sat, Mar 27, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Sevens tournament puts Hong Kong on world rugby map

AP , Hong Kong

The ad banners across the street scream the arrival of the Rugby Sevens tournament, the annual international sports competition at the heart of Hong Kong's social calendar.

In Lan Kwai Fong, the dense, raucous downtown entertainment district, Sevens excitement is at fever pitch: bars are decked out in the red, white and blue of the local team's jerseys and plasma screens that usually project giant images of pop stars over the crowd-filled bars are rerunning past rugby successes.

Behind the glitz and the glamour, however, are some serious numbers that reflect the magnitude and importance of the tournament as a social and economic event as well as a sporting event.

"In terms of the numbers of people we get here, it's huge -- probably the biggest weekend of the year," said Aviva Graeve, the head of marketing for the Lan Kwai Fong Entertainments Group, an umbrella organization that coordinates promotions among the neighborhood's bars.

By the time the ball is kicked off for the start of the final tomorrow evening, some 50,000 people would have gathered into Lan Kwai Fong's small and chaotic bars.

According to surveys carried out by the Hong Kong Tourist Board (HKTB), the NGO charged with promoting the city's image overseas, more than 20,000 of those will be foreign visitors in town just for the rugby.

"The Sevens is very big for us," said Simon Clennell, spokesman for the HKTB, said. "There isn't any single event that brings so many visitors."

Interviews with some of the 40,000 people who have packed past events in the Hong Kong Stadium show they stay for longer than the event.

"The majority of people said they come here for at least seven days, spending a bit more time to take in the rest of the city," said Clennell of the three-day event, which started yesterday.

With overseas visitors spending an average of 8,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$1,000) during their stay, it adds up to a potential spend of HK$160 million, excluding the cost of hotels and flights.

Factor in the higher premiums charged by venues for companies to hold corporate events during the prestigious weekend -- and the increased number of companies applying to hold such events -- and you have a huge money machine.

"It's the biggest weekend of the year for us," said Mark Choleuka, manager of a group of Lan Kwai Fong bars, including Stormy Weather and The Keg, two of the most popular in the neighborhood.

"It's when we pull out all the stops -- we spend on gimmicks for the Sevens in a way we don't at any other time of the year."

With so much potential lucre at stake, the LKF Entertainment Group also pulls out the stops to ensure that after the rugby has finished, fans travel to its bars rather than those in the other popular tourist areas like Wan Chai, SoHo and Tsim Sha Tsui.

"We have spent about a million dollars this year to provide fans with the full service," Graeve said.

Most of the costs have gone on hiring a suite at the stadium to lure high-roller punters from the corporate boxes, a fleet of shuttle buses to carry fans from the stadium to the bars and a multitude of banners, bunting and streamers.

While the majority of visitors come from the big rugby nations of England, Australia and New Zealand, the event is watched by millions all over the world, thanks to lucrative deals with international TV stations.

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