By Jenny Bridle
(Courtesy of http://www.fasttrack.hk)
After watching the races from the public enclosure of Shatin Racecourse, I had my second Hong Kong horse racing experience at “Happy Wednesday” this week.
Entrepreneurs and business people will tell you that the most important thing that helps achieve success in business is “Location, location, location” and Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong has this in spades. It is the first thing you notice about this race track nestled in the dozens of skyscrapers that fill every inch of this amazing city.
As Executive Manager, Racing Marketing and Sponsorship, Sandra Chan, proudly remarked to me, Happy Valley is what makes Hong Kong what it is: “It is a gift.” When the sun goes down and lights come on for a full card of racing on aWednesday evening, Happy Valley truly is a site to behold.
Next to its location, it’s clear that a great deal of thought has gone into understanding the different kinds of customers who come to Happy Valley and, consequently, in creating spaces that cater to their likes and wants. There are private members boxes, restaurants and various fast food outlets including KFC and McDonald’s, and large areas for the general public to socialize and watch the races. Part of the apron forms the parade ring and, during Happy Wednesday, the rest becomes a huge Beer Garden, which during the month of October is celebrating Oktoberfest and offering some 17 different kinds of beer. This week over 17,000 came to the races, thousands of them enjoying the very social atmosphere of the Beer Garden, which seems like the world’s largest outdoor pub and nightclub all rolled into one (except this nightclub pays attention to the fact that it’s a week night and closes at 11 pm).
In addition to these areas, in the massive grandstand there is a unique venue called Adrenaline where there are indoor seating areas as well as a balcony offering extraordinary views of the track and the city below. On the first floor of this 2 story bar/nightclub, newer players can learn how to bet from one of the Racing Experts who are there to help customers complete betting slips and to answer questions. They also help newbies learn to become horse players on one of the huge IBU touch tables, which were purpose-built by Longitude especially for Happy Valley.
The second floor of Adrenaline is an even greater surprise for a racetrack. Here, is a superb buffet, a betting counter, and comfortable, relaxed seating in front of the windows overlooking the track. Noticeable right away is that the seating is not facing the track. That’s because here a very creative mindset has been at work designing a space that offers a great social experience.
If the public enclosure of Shatin Racecourse, with its airport type seating and dozens of simulcast TV screens is one version of horse racing in Hong Kong, Adrenaline at Happy Valley is a complete contrast. Of course there is still a betting counter, but it is out of the way and this is key. The focus has not been placed on the racing and betting although you can easily watch the racing both from one of the flat screen TVs, or by turning in your seat to look out the window or by going out onto the open air balcony. But the entire room has a completely different focal point and that is the stage.
Throughout the evening a very talented band, fronted by Jennifer Palor, a singer described to me as the best in Hong Kong, performs in sets between each race. The music and the excellent buffet have been placed above the racing and betting in such a way that all form part of the entertainment experience. This does not mean that betting is an afterthought and something most people there don’t do because self-evidently they do: after all, turnover at Happy Valley continues to show incremental increases year over year.
Overall, what a visitor can feel at Adrenaline is a true sense of community. This week, several jockeys including Neil Callan and Nash Rawiller joined the crowd after the races for a special birthday bash and mixed with patrons. What an experience to be able to meet and chat with 2013/14 Hong Kong Champion Jockey Zac Purton who took time after riding to socialize.
A highlight of the evening was meeting HKJC’s CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges who is a complete – and very welcome – surprise as a racetrack CEO. It was so refreshing not to hear any mention of gaming, as is so common in North America, as Winfried sat with us and talked about the latest RacingB*tch blog which asks an apparently chicken and egg question — What should come first for horse racing: being consumer friendly or customer centric?
Watching and taking part in a conversation with the HKJC’s external marketing and creative adviser, Hans Ebert, and the CEO of the world’s most successful racing organization was truly a privilege if not a fascinating reflection of one of the reasons why Hong Kong racing is so different from racing in other places. It was obvious the two are very close friends, there was much laughter and joking as the discussion went on, but what was also apparent is that both are very intent on solving the challenges that racing faces and on making the Jockey Club the best that it can be both for its bottom line and for its audience.
Winfried comes across as an extremely intelligent, switched on executive who is also – again refreshingly – open-minded and willing to listen to different ideas for improving the racing experience. This is self-evident by the existence and role of Hans, an advertising agency creative director and former executive with EMI and Universal Music. He brings to the table what horse racing so often seems to lack: a professional creative director’s approach to marketing the sport. And, one of the points he was making in the discussion with Winfried is that in order to grow racing, there is a need to make it liked in a much wider community. Winfried countered saying that the club needed to stay more customer-centric. For my part, I said they were both right: Winfried was talking about revenue-generating customers and Hans was talking about acquiring new fans.
Like many of my other experiences in Hong Kong, my evening at Adrenaline had several of what I’ve heard people call “Hong Kong moments,” those times of contrast, of the unexpected, that make you smile. At Happy Valley, these moments started when Hans joined the band on stage to sing and was soon accompanied by jockey Neil Callan. The best “Hong Kong moment” of all though was realizing the CEO of the world’s largest racing organization was dancing to the band’s great rendition of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie and clearly feeling right at home.