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THE HOLES IN THE HOLISTIC IMAGE OF THE HKJC AND CRASH LANDING IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE



“Twenty years ago, an invite from a respected member of the Hong Kong business community to join them on a Wednesday night as a guest in their corporate box at Happy Valley racecourse was a huge privilege. There was a sense that you were to be a part of a business elite on an occasion that money could not buy.


“Of course, the wonderful food and drinks were outstanding, and at the start of each race, the guests would shuffle out onto the imposing balcony with the lights and excitement. The racing was fun and exciting even for those who didn't know a thing about horse racing nor having the gambling bug.


“However, by far and away, the privilege of networking with the movers and shakers of Hong Kong was the real prize.


“Everyone aspired to somehow become a racing member and able to host their own events.


“In those days, it was a fairly common occurrence for those on the up and up in business to be invited.


“I don't know what's happened, but I cannot honestly remember anyone I know going racing anymore.


“The sense of occasion has become meaningless in a business opportunity sense and which surely has a huge impact on what continues as ‘Hong Kong racing’.


“Those who were there when this meant something, now see something that’s far less than the sum of its parts”.


A. Non


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If there were a couple of moments over a week ago that showed how bewitched, bebothered and bewildered Hong Kong, China, is these days, it could be two somewhat muddling efforts by the once aspirational and powerful Hong Kong Jockey Club to market one part of its overall business- the racing product and showcase what the “on course experience” is in 2024.


It was work that begged the question whether any of what was shown was going to bring a new generation of racing fans rushing to the racecourses at Shatin and at Happy Valley.


Unless already having a vested interest in horse racing, how many really care?


Has that “class distinction” that’s always been part of horse racing everywhere in the world gone missing in Hong Kong?


Like almost everything else in the city, has the image of horse racing been lowered more than a few notches?


Whereas the Super Bowl might have had Usher and Alicia Keys and the towering presence of Taylor Swift and her Swiftie celebrity friends and Swifties all around the world streaming and watching her every move, in Hong Kong, and a bit later on the same day, veteran actress and television stalwart Nancy Sit Ka-yin, 73, a symbol of laughter, happiness and good fortune to the city’s elderly generation, performed at Shatin on the auspicious first day of the Chinese New Year meeting.



A few days later, the HKJC’s marketing of its horse racing business continued with a rather pretentious looking Valentine’s Day video featuring some jockeys- not exactly Ryan Reynolds or Ryan Gosling- seemingly happy to be directed to look like wannabe movie stars.


Did either of these attempts or things like the rather strange Gentlemen’s Bow Tie Day with the racing fraternity- except the jockeys who were wearing owners’ silks- wearing bow ties work on a Sunday afternoon?


Think about it.



There’s a HUGE difference between promoting the horse racing product with its ties to gambling and those who pay very good money to be members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club- an upmarket multi dimensional club that should be attracting young entrepreneurs and potential new business partners who are interested in their OWN branding and businesses.


But is this happening?


Having been in advertising for over twenty years and piloting the marketing and creative efforts for, amongst others, the launch and sustaining successes for McDonald’s in Hong Kong with their extremely clever strategies for different consumer groups, and knowing something about the inner workings of the HKJC by turning the somewhat tacky Sassy Wednesday into the home run that was the Happy Wednesday brand, it would be fair to say that things at One Sports Road have reached a new level of organised confusion.



The appearance of actress Nancy Sit wasn’t quite kitsch or retro chic enough to be cool, but it probably tapped right into the bowels of the primary audience that still makes the pilgrimage to the places where horses race.


This audience comprises largely of retirees and those hankering for the days when Tony Cruz was a champion jockey in a colonial and happy Hong Kong dining out on a Madras Chicken Curry or Beef Stroganoff at Jimmy’s Kitchen and dancing the night away at Canton or JJ’s.



In a move to retain its captive audience before it finally keels over, wheeling out 73 year old Nancy Sit was probably a good strategic move to appease the village elders.


And now what?


What happened to aspirational and inspirational marketing and branding- and that old warhorse known as the “consumer experience”?


In a city seemingly enthralled these days by light shows, vouchers, red love balloons, firework displays, tit for Tatler football matches where spectators get fleeced, a new generation of wellness gurus, talkfests, more talkfests, a supposed Institute of Philanthropy, and those looking for something to make a name for themselves by throwing anything and everything against the wall to see what might stick, hopefully, the HKJC hasn’t joined the same party of poopers people.


One can only think that the reason for the shift in its marketing has to do with the HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges and his A Team, perhaps in a moment of quiet desperation, concocted a club sandwich that is equal parts “Young Frankenstein”, “Cocoon” and a HKTVB variety show from the Nineties.



If this is not the reason, perhaps the CEO, who’s a very smart Plätzchen has worked out his exit plan and next port of call- Doha?- and is ready to pass on this nearly fine fruity strudel to whoever is going to next inherit the role of leading the charge of the lightweight brigade at the HKJC, which is not exactly a magnet to attract good creative talent.


Will there be any takers- especially those who can make a real difference- for something that one often wonders even needs creativity in its advertising?


Look how well the illegal CITIbet exchange does in the Philippines with government approval and offering big players handsome rebates and accommodating everyone with the big bucks to bet on any sport or offering others somewhere to wash their money.



Another thing is how many truly talented advertising and marketing professionals are there in Hong Kong these days?


Who amongst them know the difference in marketing horse racing and the aspirational value- to customers, sponsors and business partners and the Hong Kong government- of the Hong Kong Jockey Club?


In the meantime, what should those in Hong Kong who are not dyed in the wool horse racing fans expect from the HKJC for the benefit of Mr Kite and the community at large other than the usual sponsored corporate advertorials?


Forget about replicating days like being at the American Club box, the Hong Kong Cricket Club box or even dropping into the Indian Recreation Club box just for the samosas.


Gone forever are those days when James Smith, the savvy General Manager of the Hong Kong Hilton hosted those fabulous race days at Shatin that weren’t about horse racing, but about bringing his clients and guests together.


Same goes for those amazing Martell sponsored Grand National parties at Happy Valley racecourse with people like Elton John and Norah Jones dropping by.


All this helped bring upmarket networking to the different venues of the HKJC that was fun and with some showbiz included and everything enhanced by six and seven star hospitality.


Right now, the holistic branding of the HKJC as an organisation and creating something that’s truly aspirational and relevant to these times and those in their thirties and forties are seemingly non existent.


Then again, how many in this demographic still aspire to be members of the Club?


What’s in it for them?


How many know about the new Clubhouse, its facilities and the almost over-the-top fabulousness of the venue known as Eight?



This just might be because everything is tied to horse racing and turnover numbers with the racing media being Joe Friday just reporting the facts.


Who’s writing about and promoting what is the lifestyle personality available by being a member of the HKJC?


Trying to attract that demographic once associated with celebrating with expensive brands of cognac and being seen as a winner, or those one met around seven years ago at Stockton’s in Wyndham Street have been replaced by hardcore racing facts and figures, a tired looking television product that few watch, and makeshift very local bands at the once popular Beer Garden taking some back to the days when Joe Bananas and the Makati Inn were, well, hot places to trot.


One can’t help but wonder if the “consumer experience” for the old hardcore punter might be even more “enhanced” by the HKJC introducing a designated area for VIP Senior Citizens comprising deckchairs, fibrillators, beds, free flip flops, pyjamas and vouchers for fried chicken wings.


Nothing will surprise us.


As for marketing the holistic brand of the organisation known as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, knowing exactly what this is and understanding the wants and needs of its present and potential members, especially the female consumer in their thirties and forties- and their friends- is not going to be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible.


None of this, however, is going to happen by regurgitating what’s come before- but not as well as it was previously done- and irrelevant to the new abnormal that we live in and those with very different life choices and priorities.


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