“East meets West” and “shopper’s paradise.” There’s more to Hong Kong than this and Anthony Lau’s task is to prove it. The Executive Director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board talks to Liana Cafolla about responding to emerging travel trends amid fierce competition
Photography by Calvin Sit
As a young man, Anthony Lau, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), fully intended to become an accountant. “I tried really hard. I wanted to be a CPA,” he says. His mother had encouraged him, but despite his best efforts, it was not meant to be.
In his first year at the University of Toronto, he failed his accounting exams. “I found it quite difficult. I was a science student. I didn’t understand what the matching principle is,” he recalls with a laugh.
In his third year, his professor gently advised him to try another subject. Lau was devastated, but decided to switch to marketing and found he loved it. He returned to Hong Kong after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and looked for a job as a salesman, resisting his mother’s attempt to help him find a job as an accountant. “I had to tell her that I didn’t do accounting. I hadn’t told her. She said, ‘you spent all my money and you want to become a salesman?’”
That inauspicious start could have scared off a less determined man and on top of that, his first job was daunting. He started his sales career in a professional equipment company by cold-calling, starting at the top of a building and making his way down floor by floor, office by office. His first sale was to the Hong Kong Tourist Association, the predecessor of the HKTB, a piece of equipment that is still in use at the HKTB office where Lau now fills the top job, a position he has held for the last 11 years.
As Executive Director, Lau has global responsibility for the HKTB’s operations and is in charge of promoting Hong Kong as an attractive destination to visitors from around the world as well as enhancing their experience once they arrive. His long experience in marketing in the private sector has helped him bring an entrepreneurial and business direction to the HKTB, which is a government-subvented body that replaced the Hong Kong Tourist Association in 2001. Unlike its predecessor, the HKTB has no affiliations and supports the tourism industry in its entirety. Under Lau’s leadership, it focuses on promoting Hong Kong’s brand as a city of non-stop intensity, fascinating contrasts, compact variety, and a distinctly trendy place.
From products to experiences
In May, just under 5 million visitors arrived in Hong Kong, an 8 percent year-on-year increase, according to statistics collated by the HKTB, with 77 percent of these arrivals coming from Mainland China. The HKTB, however, spends 70 percent of its budget on targeting non-Mainland visitors.
Lau’s challenge has been to present Hong Kong as a multifaceted destination that offers much more than the city’s traditional menu of dining, shopping and site visits. “In the past eight or nine years, we’ve been busy developing different experiences for consumers,” he says.
“The consumer insights tell us that consumers going to a destination is not about just going to attractions anymore,” he adds. “They want authentic experiences that goes deep into the skin of a culture and a city. The Neighbourhood Program is designed to do just that.”
Perhaps the most prominent of these neighbourhood initiatives is Old Town Central, a series of practical roadmaps and self-guided walks in and around the Central district that brings visitors into closer contact with local communities and helps them find out about lesser known attractions and places of historical interest. These include the Chinese YMCA building on Bridges Street, which was built in 1918, and an easily overlooked traditional teashop specializing in leung cha, or cooling tea, located on Hollywood Road.
Another innovation has been to harness the insights and enthusiasm of locals through the HKTB’s Hong Kong Pals volunteer programme, launched in 2009. The approximately 70 elderly volunteers work in the HKTB’s visitors centres.
They provide an authentic experience by responding to visitors’ enquiries with their own personal views and insights rather than repeating the HKTB blurb. Visitor feedback has been very positive, says Lau.
He has also embraced new technology and social media to spread his messages. Old Town Central has a QR code that allows visitors to download maps of its route, and the HKTB is active on social media websites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Weibo and Instagram. Lau has also overseen the upgrading of the HKTB website, into a highly user-friendly portal that gives visitors dozens of off-the-beaten-track suggestions along with the practical details they need to find them. “I’m so proud that we’ve been able to expand it,” he says.
Plenty of challenges remain to keep him on his toes. For example, the HKTB is limited in how far it can grow tourist rooms as it grapples with the realities of land shortage as well as the tight labour market and its impact on Hong Kong’s once legendary service standards. “We all agree the service in Hong Kong has deteriorated,” he says, alluding to conversations he has had with retailers and restaurant associations. “Are we providing the top service that consumers perceive Hong Kong offered in the past?” More training and awareness of the importance of service would help, he says. “There’s no one major factor. A lot of major cities suffer from that. Hopefully much can be done, but I know it’s very difficult.”
The availability of new hotel rooms has not kept pace with rising visitor numbers, says Lau. “Hotel development is still a great business to be in, but again, getting a piece of land is difficult.” The shortage of rooms keeps prices higher, and encourages cost-sensitive visitors to consider alternative locations in the region, such as Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
“[Consumers] want authentic experiences that goes deep into the skin of a culture and a city.”
Still the go-to
Lau is constantly on the lookout for alternative paths to create new product offerings to achieve his goals. People are travelling far more frequently than in the past, often taking three or four trips a year. Also, many visitors now prefer to travel individually rather than as part of an organized group. In response, Lau has shifted the HKTB’s focus to increasing the attractiveness and range of offerings to encourage visitors to make repeat visits and to extend the length and breadth of their stay by highlighting offerings in less visited places, such as Lantau and Sham Shui Po. “Sham Shui Po is the most traditional part of Hong Kong. Very local,” he says. “These are the places which we seldom introduced to tourists.” He likens the district’s colourful history to New York’s meatpacker district, “unique districts that tourists seldom knew before.”
On the events front, faced with a lack of large venues of the size of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and AsiaWorld-Expo for hosting more big events and conventions, Lau is focusing on building awareness among hoteliers and travel trade professionals of the opportunities to attract meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions groups. “Why can’t we work with the trade and encourage them to use their network to bring in more, smaller groups – 100 or 200 people – leveraging on all the great hotel ballrooms that we have for those events?” he says. With that in mind, the HKTB launched “Funding Support for Small- and Medium-sized Meeting, Incentive and Convention (MIC) Groups” scheme in 2016, which aims to assist Hong Kong inbound tour operators to attract more MIC businesses to the city.
Hong Kong is a big tourism hub, he says, with the same attractive buzz as other global cities like London, New York and Paris. “If you’re in the region, somehow you feel like you have to be there for a couple of days.”
Hong Kong is also a key entry and departure point for the Mainland. He says the launch of the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and rail links to Mainland China will make Hong Kong an even more important and attractive hub in the region, with the new bridge cutting travel time between Zhuhai and Hong Kong from about four hours to about one and a half. “That will give us great opportunities to be the hub for both short visits and longhaul markets.” In the medium term, visitors will have “ample opportunities to stay here for a few days, and then move on to the western part of the Pearl River Delta, which has a lot of very nice historical sites and cultural that is worth exploring, and I think we can capitalize on that,” he says. “Tourism is about connectivity as well. Once you get connected, tourism will flourish.”
“Are we providing the top service that consumers perceive Hong Kong offered in the past?”
Marketer and manager
Prior to moving to the HKTB and following his stint in sales, he worked at Philip Morris, working his way up from marketing trainee to a range of senior management positions, including director of sales and marketing and general manager. His early salesman days and his time at Philip Morris, where he marketed tobacco, one of the world’s least desirable products, taught him resilience, how to talk to and engage with people who have different perspectives, including government officials, and to think outside the box.
Marketing is not just about advertising, he says, it’s also about being able to put yourself in the shoes of customers in different countries and understand their perspective, and to act fast in the marketplace armed with price positioning and a powerful marketing campaign. “Like Apple – who knew consumers wanted a walking music library on hand? You need to really sit on the consumer side and pretend you are a 60-year-old lady, if that product is targeting that. You get into the consumer’s mind. I think that’s the value that a good marketer can bring to an organization.”
Those traits and insights proved particularly useful in his current career when he has had to align a large team around new strategies and implement unwelcome changes. “Philip Morris provided me with the opportunity to grow, and learn not only the trade, but also a lot of skills and techniques,” he says. “I really learned the trade of marketing – what it is all about. From a marketer, I grew to become a manager – the manager of a business,” he says. “That’s helped me to learn the human resources perspective, to learn the financial perspective, and also leading a team. All this gives me a good foundation to take up this job.”
He says he doesn’t believe in job hopping. “I tell my son, once you think you’ve found the right company, stick with it.” For Lau, it took 23 years before the offer of promoting the attractions of Hong Kong eventually persuaded him to leave Philip Morris and change job, and he finally made the move to the HKTB in 2007.
“The last thing I want is to see someone who’s working hard getting the same salary increase as someone who’s sitting there doing nothing.”
Initially, he found the transition from the private sector difficult, but after a couple of months in his new role, he began to get a feel for the opportunities in the tourism industry. “Once I saw what this board is doing for Hong Kong, and the potential of tourism in Hong Kong, I got excited,” he says. “I think the tourism industry is very exciting. It changes all the time. The government is behind us in promoting the trade, I have a good gang of colleagues who are working really hard every day to make sure things happen. I am very lucky to have a wonderful board that gives me the support to do things that I think are right for the industry.”
Lau has used his private sector experience to implement a rewards system based on performance measurement system for managers, with measurements of key performance indicators and defined goals and competencies. “On top of that, all the managers have their own goals – just a couple of them – that they need to achieve workwise,” he says. It was, he admits, “pretty painful” to roll out, but he sees it as being as fair as possible and essential to building a high-performing team where people get rewarded for their efforts. “We spend about a day every year to compare every single staff across the board.”
That builds motivation, he adds. “The last thing I want is to see someone who’s working hard getting the same salary increase as someone who’s sitting there doing nothing,” he explains.
Lau’s team numbers about 450 people of whom 300 are in Hong Kong and about 150 are located in overseas offices. Lau’s aim is to align the team behind a shared set of beliefs and an agreed common strategy. Teamwork is essential, he says, “but before you get a good team going, you need to align them – align what we all believe in – and on the strategies.”
Meetings can help. “I believe alignment is about people seeing each other. Email is important, but it’s important to have face to face talk.” He insists that every meeting results in an action point, that things keep going, rather than going around in circles.
“We also talk a lot about teamwork. Teamwork is not just about working together. Teamwork is about how do you help others to become successful. In our annual evaluations, that is a very, very key element,” he says.
He expects people to speak their mind, and his own management style is direct and unequivocal. “I speak my mind, whether you like it or not. I don’t want people to second-guess me. That shouldn’t happen,” he says. “If I’m really angry, for sure they know I’m angry! And if I love a concept, they know.”
For the January-to-May period, the number of tourists rose 10 percent to 25.9 million, with 20.1 million travelling from the Mainland, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.