Strict mask policy at Rugby Sevens may backfire on HK

Robert Rogers welcomes positive signs of Hong Kong easing its anti-Covid curbs, but fears the PR benefits may be lost if any scenes of overzealous enforcement at its biggest sporting festival go viral

I AM PLEASED Hong Kong is slowly catching up with the rest of the world and making moves to open up. The allowing of live entertainment in smaller venues is a great help for the events industry. Allowing larger events is also wonderful news.

Events Man: Robert Rogers CSEP

The government seems to be using the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit and the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Rugby Sevens as a signal to the world that Hong Kong is back. This is great news. However, as details emerge of the restrictions around these events, I am reminded once again just how misunderstood managing live events is to non-industry people.

Many seem to consider an event from its start time, to its finish time and don’t consider anything outside that to be part of the event. They forget that an event is an experience.

Experiences are greatly influenced by many external factors including weather, time of year, mood…  much of the fun in going to a concert or show is meeting friends beforehand or going to dinner afterwards. Often it is the experience leading to an event that makes or breaks the overall experience.

When it comes to conferences, I find it is rarely the conference itself that makes the event worthwhile, but rather the conversations that happen in the hall, the opening and closing parties, or the private lunches where real connections are made.

Every event is similar in the sense that each contains the same basic elements of administration, coordination, marketing along with legal and ethical risk management. Event management is fairly formulaic and can be done mostly with common sense but every experience is different. Creating an experience takes deep understanding of behavioural psychology, the attendees and myriad influences.

The Hong Kong Sevens and the Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit are apparently being used as an event marketing tool to declare to the world “Hong Kong is open!”

Unfortunately, we are not truly “open” yet. We have only just allowed live entertainment and dancing in regular venues after a 285-day ban. For that to be allowed there is a strict testing (impossible in some cases) of all performers.

Overseas visitors still have to wait four days after arrival before they are allowed to eat in a restaurant. I worry this message of “we are open” will backfire. The Financial Leaders’ summit is smaller and easier to manage. Many of the VVIPs will not need any quarantine as finance is considered “essential business” or they can be wined and dined in private venues. Very likely they will also be given other privileges that come with being “essential” and well heeled. The Hong Kong Sevens, however, faces tougher challenges.

Though Sevens Rugby is a sporting event, in Hong Kong it is more of a festival with crowds singing, dancing and generally “partying hard”.

In order to comply with strict licensing measures, the Hong Kong Rugby Union had to alter many aspects of the event. Only last Friday did government officials grant permission for food to be served at the Sevens beyond the corporate box area. This is great news but it remains to be seen if the caterers will have time to prepare to serve 34,000 people. That is a lot of food to order and workers to hire within two weeks.

Masks must be worn when not drinking. Basically the mask law states lowering your mask to have a drink is fine but you are supposed to raise it between sips. Smoking is not allowed under the mask laws. Revelry is a big feature of the Sevens’ experience with the combined rugby and festival crowd practically guaranteeing the sale of vast quantities of beverages.

In most of the stands it is a fact that alcohol is consumed over a period of 5-7 hours or more. Mixed with food and snacks this makes for a festive and hopefully responsible atmosphere. The South Stand is traditionally known for this with stadium side stairs usually the designated smoking areas especially in the later afternoons as the socialising continues.

More… HK Sevens private boxes face ’beep-out’ bother

Many of the people attending the Sevens will have recently travelled to Australia, Europe and the US where “Covid is over”, masks are not required and life is generally back to normal. The idea of wearing a mask at a festival will be ludicrous for many and enforcing a strict mask policy will be difficult.

Scenes of dramatic encounters with officials will not create positive stories on social media. If mask wearing is strictly enforced with fines handed out amid a heavy police presence the PR will not say “Hong Kong is open”. Instead, it could state the opposite and further tarnish an already damaged image.

My hope is there is a major policy shift in Covid strategy for the whole country before the Sevens that signals a real end to the pandemic for Hong Kong.

Robert Rogers CSEP is principal of Events Man. This is an edited version of an article originally published on Robert’s Events Man blog

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