Fly into London and there is a blitz of enormous posters showing supposedly typical Brits, arms stretched open and saying welcome to London. Of course, there is a Beefeater, but another poster shows the UK astronaut, Tim Peake. Arriving at InterContinental Hong Kong and there is Concierge Louis Baleros, with his arms outstretched. Welcome to Hong Kong, and welcome to HICAP.
HICAP you ask? This is the annual Hotel Investment Conference Asia Pacific (HICAP), now in its 17th year, and everyone at the 604-room InterContinental Hong Kong was ready for the big event from 18-20 October 2017. As happens every year, teams among the 700 staff start planning and practising months ahead for the period when nearly 900 hotel bosses, plus investors and consultants and suppliers, flood into town. Every year there are new enhancements: since the 2016 HICAP, the hotel has added a Rech by Alain Ducasse restaurant, a divine Scandinavian-look seafood restaurant cloned from the Paris original, which Ducasse now owns. As well as its all-wall windows looking over the harbour to Hong Kong Island, Rech is notable for its supply of Gillardeau and other oysters.
Every year, too, Ida Wong, one-time manager of the hotel’s superb Club InterContinental – meeting point during HICAP – comes back to help the team there. Coincidentally, at one point when a considerable number of A-listers were in the lounge, the CNBC screens showed Keith Barr, CEO of InterContinental’s parent IHG, explaining how many additional hotels he had signed that day (including the first EVEN and the first Kimptons in Asia Pacific). You could hear a pin drop as all eyes turned to the screen to watch and listen – he was actually only in Hong Kong for 24 hours as he had to get back to the UK for a board meeting, but he still had time to sign hotels, work out in the hotel’s 24/7 Technogym, and host the annual IHG Business Partners dinner.
Imaginatively, the menu at the IHG Business Partners dinner that evening did not start with the usual and, to me, increasingly unsatisfactory champagne, which so often gets so warm, so quickly. Instead, they offered big tumblers of gin and tonics with straws and plenty of ice. Equally creatively, the menu finished with ‘Mr Rech’, a concoction of hazelnut ice-cream and meringue, and a pouring sauce that everyone at our table used to individualise their dessert.
HICAP was started by Jim Burba, Robert Hecker and Linda Stiles and although they have now sold it on to Northstar Media (ultimately owned by the Wasserstein family), they remain (thankfully) the public faces of this crucial event. As for the last two years, on the first morning of the conference-proper, I was asked to do a today-live kind of thing, to get delegates away from networking outside and into the room. Co-host this year was debonair Duncan Palmer, who literally that day opened the booking engine of The Murray, a Niccolo Hotel, Hong Kong’s latest luxury hotel which he opens at the end of the year.
The main themes of HICAP this year were disruption, and the growing empathy between sections of the industry. Disruptors are here to stay and are not necessarily the opposition. Work with them rather than against them was a constant message. Web in Travel founder Siew Hoon Yeoh brilliantly moderated a series of startups, including WeWork’s Turochas Fuad, who urged hoteliers to reach out to startups (for this entrepreneur, who started and sold on both Travelmob and Spacemob, COMO are his favourite off-duty hotels); plus Adam Brownstein, Booking.com (‘there is a shortage of hotel rooms’, he says), and such local information sites as GetYourGuide, started as a students-for-students service; it has since received $90 million funding.
Hyatt legend Larry Tchou received the ninth lifetime achievement award, presented by his mentee David Udell, now president Asia Pacific, Hyatt. Among the sessions, David Keen’s moderating of way-out creative thinkers of the calibre of Mark Hehir, from the Maldives’ The Small Maldives Island Company, and designer Bill Bensley, currently designing a jungle camp in Cambodia, was truly memorable. And then there was risk assessor Bob Broadfoot who said Asia now represents 33% of global GDP, and 39.4% of global exports, but 62.1% of its imports are regional. He also reminded everyone that a year ago he had confidently predicted a Clinton win.
Of course there was outstanding hospitality during break-out times, and both evenings. InterContinental Hong Kong’s Nobu stand was the most popular at the IHG-hosted cocktail. Another evening buffet was hosted by Shangri-La’s new Kerry Hotel, and GM Nick Smith had thoughtfully brought along the hotel’s designer, the talented André Fu, until now possibly best known in town for the avocado palette he put into the Upper House. It has been revealed, by the way, that in 2018 and 2019 HICAP moves to The Kerry while the InterContinental undergoes a complete facelift, next year’s event taking place between 17-19 October 2018
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com