18 February 2019
There are fewer corporate bookings for spring banquets at big Chinese restaurants this year. Photo: Laguna Palace Restaurant
There are fewer corporate bookings for spring banquets at big Chinese restaurants this year. Photo: Laguna Palace Restaurant

Spring banquet — the death of happy meals

Spring banquet has always been one of my favourite staff benefits.

On that night, everyone seems to relax a bit, enjoying free abalone and shark fin soup (or seafood soup to be environmentally friendly), watching colleagues sing on stage and, most importantly, awaiting the lucky draw with an Apple iPhone 6 as the grand prize.

It is probably the only day in the year when you feel the warmth and care of your employer.

Well those will soon be mere memories.

Spring banquet bookings at restaurants in the Year of the Sheep are reportedly as poor as in the aftermath of the financial tsunami, because of cautious spending amid antigraft sentiment spilling over from the mainland.

Even if you have tickets for a raffle, chances are you will get fewer dishes, without shark fin and probably without abalone.

No fun.

The new corporate saving culture stems from the mainland’s tightening up on three forms of public consumption (overseas trips, vehicle purchasing and maintenance, and official receptions).

It has become the new normal in Hong Kong.

Many high-end Chinese restaurants that used to be fully booked in the springtime now struggle to find enough customers to fill their tables.

Presumably the more high-end they are, the more severely they will suffer.

Ming Pao Daily says spring banquet reservations have dropped 10 per cent this year, thanks to the “eat down” culture among mainland companies in Hong Kong.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants & Related Trades, said corporate banquet downsizing was common and firms that used to book 40 tables now limit themselves to 30.

Not only the number of tables, but also the number of dinner courses was trimmed down, typically to six from eight, said Wong.

He said such a big drop in bookings has not been seen since the financial tsunami in 2008.

“Abalone King” Yeung Koon-yat, owner of the Forum Restaurant, said gone are the days when high-end mainland clients spent half a million Hong Kong dollars on dinner without blinking an eye.

Now they order fewer abalone or sea cucumber dishes, and the average spending of his customers has fallen as much as 40 per cent.

Some firms are looking for substitutes for the spring banquet.

One option is to organize a group tour, to take advantage of the currency weakness in Japan and Europe.

Others simply cancel the annual thank-you dinner, if not the annual bonus as well.

Behind the corporate trend toward saving costs is rising rents.

How can a company afford to pay rent that jumps by double-digit percentages every year without cutting down on discretionary expenses?

If landlords are not the culprit, let’s not forget the average expected salary rise of 4 per cent, not to mention the increased MPF contribution or discretionary bonuses.

Forget Fook Lam Moon or the Four Seasons Hotel – enter Café de Coral and Pizza Hut takeout.

Well, we can still have fun in the office conference room, right?

In no more than five years, I boldly predict the word “spring banquet” will disappear from the Chinese corporate dictionary, where Xi Jinping’s “big tigers” has already joined the lexicon.

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EJ Insight writer

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