Leading in stormy seas

Former airline executive Dane Cheng has his leadership skills put to the test, as he steps into the role of Hong Kong Tourism Board’s executive director just as the city is plagued by civil unrest and on the cusp of a global tourism meltdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What are you bringing from your time at Cathay Pacific to this new executive director role with Hong Kong Tourism Board?
I started in 1986 as a Cathay Pacific management trainee and spent half of my time overseas in postings to Mainland China, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and New Zealand/Australia. During those times, one of my roles was to promote inbound traffic to Hong Kong which gave me some valuable experience in destination promotion.

After moving back to Hong Kong, the city saw a change of sovereignty in 1997 and fought against SARS in 2003. Throughout those days, I worked closely with Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), serving as a board member for three years.

You stepped into the new role in such challenging times!
When this job was posted last year, I said to myself: ‘You can do that”. Many critics told me that it was the worst time to take on such heavy responsibilities, as a year’s worth of tourist traffic has being cut in half (by the civil unrest).

There were also others who said it was the best time to join as things couldn’t get any worse. Of course, at that time, nobody knew that the world’s tourism would collapse (because of the Covid-19 pandemic).

The gloom was a blow to me at first, but I’ve learnt to treat it as a test presented by Fate. I’m thankfully to be supported by a big team.

What do you hope to do at HKTB?
We need to renew our tourism branding. It’s not because of Covid-19, but because it is time for change since Hong Kong has been so successful in the last 15, 16 years.

It is time to reset, review and reposition ourselves. This includes changing some propositions and visitor experiences. For instance, we have a splendid harbour but our water activities have been weak in attracting tourists. The upcoming water taxi concept can reinvigorate the harbour experience.

Right now we are about to appoint a project manager – an outsourced firm – to manage this massive destination rebranding for us. Some exciting ideas will emerge within the next 12 months.

HKTB has unveiled a recovery plan for Hong Kong tourism. What aspects are you most excited about?
The three-stage tourism recovery plan will focus first on domestic tourism before expanding to create travel bubbles, where limited travel is allowed between specific tourist destinations where the outbreak is under control. Finally, the plan will tackle full resumption at the international level.

The HK$40-million (US$5.2 million) Hello Hong Kong campaign is scheduled to kick off in mid-June. It will encourage locals to explore the city, not just through wining and dining but also to discover the many hidden gems Hong Kong has.

The campaign has three main components.

First, we are giving away tips on in-depth, immersive travel across six themes. Next, we will have a first-ever one-stop online platform spiced up with over 11,000 offers from dining, shopping and entertainment merchants. That is followed by a spend to redeem free local tours exercise.

These are what we can do at this point when the city is ahead of the curve in combatting the virus.

We intend to use this down-time to rekindle our interest in and love for our home city. I hope to set the right ambience and send a positive message to overseas markets that Hong Kong is doing well and life is pretty much back to normal.

Establishing the right ambience is important because if it is not positive, people may hesitate to come

Is Hong Kong ready to form travel bubbles?
There are cities and countries that are considering bilaterally- or multilaterally-accepted travel protocol.

In fact, HKTB and the Hong Kong government are closely monitoring the situation in various tourist source markets. Factors that will be considered include quarantine, travel and immigration measures between Hong Kong and selected markets that are suitable for travel bubbles. So far, possible candidates include Mainland China, Macau, South Korea and Thailand.

But for longhaul markets, it will take a longer time to rebound as the US and Europe are still in different stages of lockdowns and border closures.

Do you think the road to recovery will be hard and long for tourism?
That’s a question on many destination players’ mind. The path to recovery will, undoubtedly, be very long. We are still talking about whether Hong Kong can start easing health and safety restrictions, such as social distancing, by the end of June or early July.

HKTB spoke about a relaunch in October with such big events as the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens and Clockenflap Music and Arts Festival. While I hope such drawcard events can be a reality, we need to think if, as we move closer into June, a full recovery is possible by October.

But as long as the situation permits, we would continue to push for these events to happen. They can also be major attractions for the domestic market to enjoy.

What is HKTB doing in terms of regional marketing?
We launched the #MissYouToo online social campaign to convey hopes of better times ahead. Our initial target is the local community and their social network overseas.

Our plan is to roll out this campaign in global markets in stages, and in consideration of the market’s pandemic control and containment. As soon as people in a specific source market are able to travel again, we will deploy targeted promotions and distribute information and offers under the Hello Hong Kong campaign. The offers will include special tour packages.


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