City-wide protests and major flight delays affect travel, but will media hype have a longer, more damaging impact on the business of events?
Months of pro-democracy protests culminated in Hong Kong this week as thousands of demonstrators shut down the territory’s airport, one of Asia’s busiest hubs.
The protests, ongoing since June, forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights on Monday and Tuesday (12-13 August). Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said in a statement it had cancelled 272 flights, affecting more than 55,000 passengers, while several incoming flights from other carriers were delayed or diverted.
Demonstrators who initially hit the streets to oppose a Bill allowing extradition to the mainland now have a host of demands including the resignation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam. Meanwhile, nationalist anger is mounting in China, as satellite images released this week show what appears to be thousands of Chinese paramilitary police gathering in Shenzhen.
In recent weeks, international media outlets have published ‘shocking images’ of violent clashes between Hong Kong protestors and police, tear gas fired outside shops, and widespread civil unrest.
At least 28 countries – including the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan and Singapore – have issued travel warnings to exercise increased caution and steer clear of areas where demonstrations are taking place, but have not advised travellers to avoid Hong Kong.
But has the damage already been done?
Speaking to Biz Events Asia, Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Industry Association (HKECIA) chairman, Stuart Bailey, says the ‘summer season for exhibitions’ has not been disrupted.
“Until the current time there have been no major events that have been cancelled or postponed, we are currently in the summer season for exhibitions where the majority of the events are targeted at local consumers rather than overseas trade participants,” he says.
“The HKTDC Book Fair recently concluded and while attendance might have been slightly down, the majority of the near million visitors attended as usual and the average visitor spend increased. The trade events begin in earnest at the start of September, by which time we hope that cooler heads will prevail and the situation has stabilised.”
For Bailey, international media coverage of the Hong Kong demonstrations may prove more harmful for the business events industry.
“Having recently returned from an overseas trip I can say that the perception is much worse than the reality. The nightly news I saw in the UK featured prominently the scenes of clashes with police outside government buildings, giving the impression that Hong Kong is not a safe place to visit.
“Of course people coming to Hong Kong should take extra care and be mindful of areas in which protests might be taking place but it’s worth remembering that Hong Kong is one of the safer cities in the world, with low crime rates and excellent standards of medicine and healthcare.”
Bailey says HKECIA has received “many enquiries regarding the situation in Hong Kong, but the true test for the MICE industry will come after the summer, when the autumn trade fair season starts to ramp up”.
Similarly, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (Management) Limited (HML), the venue management company responsible for the day-to-day operation of the convention centre, says it’s business as usual.
“Except on 30 June when the Government decided to close down the HKCEC, the HKCEC has been operating as normal,” says a HML spokesperson.
“As of today, no international major exhibition or conference has been cancelled. Although there have been road closures nearby during several public activities, the HKCEC remained accessible by foot, private cars / freight trucks and public transportation.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s hotel industry is reportedly struggling with a collapse in bookings.
As reported in The Straits Times, revenue from room sales is set to plunge as much as 50 per cent this month, as visits from mainland China (usually accounting for 80 per cent of arrivals) are down, and room rates are falling.
Alicia Seah, director of PR and communication at Dynasty Travel, based in Singapore, says many clients have diverted their travel plans away from Hong Kong, instead looking to South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
“Prolonged city-wide protests in Hong Kong have resulted in a change of event venue and [we have] poor business expectations for the rest of the year for Hong Kong.”
Seah says major disruptions at the airport this week have proved detrimental. “Damage to the city’s reputation has been done and enquiries and bookings to Hong Kong have come to a standstill since the airport facility came to an abrupt shutdown.”
She adds: “Although the city is still open to travellers and many parts of Hong Kong are still open such as the Peak tram, theme parks and Victoria Ferry Harbour, travellers are “spooked” by [media] reports of protests spreading into various districts over the last 10 weeks.”
Media hype can have severe implications for the risk-averse business events industry. In recent years, convention bureaus and tourism organisations across the globe have battled to ‘rebuild’ their brand following mass media coverage of an environmental or security-related incident.
To overcome this, Marine Debatte, head of event solutions Asia Pacific at BI Worldwide, says trusted relationships are key.
“We trust our onsite sources, locals, expats and administrations such as consulates, not social media or any flash news,” she says. “In the era of fake news and scandals, like Cambridge Analytica, we listen to the people we trust, not the videos shared out of context and by strangers.”
She adds: “Hong Kong won’t be the first or the last victim of sensationalism or overhyped news. We have seen Turkey, Bali, the Philippines, Malaysia and Sri Lanka suffer from it. But if you realise, more mature markets like Paris, Barcelona or London won’t suffer so much. If anything, some [travellers] try to benefit, thinking prices will sink.
“We tend not to let our emotions get in the way and rely on trustworthy sources and our security and safety assessments. However, our clients get affected, worried, scared, over-conscious and these emotions are hard to fight with rational thinking. It saddens me to see so many amazing places still suffering years and years after bad press when stronger destinations hold their prestige.”
At this stage, Debatte says BI Worldwide clients still have faith in Hong Kong and its ability to get the situation under control. “We don’t see cancellations at the moment. But this will evolve based on how events unfold.”
Main image: Cathay Pacific cabin crew walk past anti-government protesters at Hong Kong International Airport this week. Source: SCMP