By Hans Ebert

It’s come a long way from when it was launched as the bewildering- and brassy- “Sassy Wednesday”.

Who at the HKJC approved this paean to tackiness and escort agencies in Macau? There’s a veil of secrecy surrounding the answer.

It’s now all about how the Happy Wednesday brand can be enhanced, evolve and go the distance- not through a buffet of random bibs and bobs through creative by committee, but as a sleek interactive horse racing entertainment machine.

Keyword: Interactive.

A Happy Wednesday mid-week break and night out at Happy Valley racecourse for ten bucks is today part and parcel of Hong Kong just as it is a brand that belongs to the HKJC.

It’s also something that adds so much to the overall image of horse racing in Hong Kong. It’s been a product that other racing clubs have tried to copy, but never had the right ingredients. Nor the thinking.

It’s a brand and a showcase where horse racing was not just something for those who know about sectionals and equine bloodlines, who won what on which horse and when and how to read the odds etc etc. Save all that for some place like the Champagne Bar of the Grand Hyatt. Listening to all that verbiage is…

No, these Happy Wednesday nights were created as an “addendum” to the hardcore, “mature” and knowledgeable horse racing fan.

It was about making what can often be one dimensional, multi dimensional. A jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces fit. The coming together of younger people to interact, see if they liked what they saw- and how horse racing was presented to them.

To us working on Happy Wednesday, these were exciting times. We knew we were creating something new.

Coming from heading up EMI Music in the region and seeing how the music industry was falling apart, Happy Wednesday had everything that in time could make even a major music company look insignificant.

Happy Wednesday had the hardware and the software was just a kiss away. A Happy Wednesday record label? Why not? A content provider? Sure. Everyone wanted to jump on the bus, Gus.

These Happy Wednesday nights came into being around eight years ago with a marketing budget for three hosts, a film crew, and weekly “Finding Happy Wednesday” episodes- completely scrapped these days for budgetary reasons- all to create a buzz and attract those people out there in their twenties and thirties, many of whom had never been to a racecourse- not in Hong Kong- and not anywhere in the world. Tough for some in racing to accept, but it happens.

Of course, this consumer group, which could be sub-divided into other very diverse groups of individuals and very selective about what they were prepared to allow into their leisure life, had and have very preconceived and negative ideas about who and what made up horse racing. And they aren’t always wrong.

What was needed was how to communicate with these “non-believers” minus any signs of “forced coolness” or horse racing Corporate Speak. In advertising terms, it’s called Tone Of Voice. Get this wrong, and you’ve lost them at Hello. Ads like the one below are very wrong. They’re not just uncool, they do absolutely nothing except show up pock marks. It’s the Uncool Factor.

We also knew that there couldn’t be a “them” and “us” mentality. It was about creating and recruiting “charter members” and regulars for the most popular and international outdoor club in Hong Kong where horses and riders were the main features starring in the most unique setting for a racecourse anywhere in the world.

It was a Must See experience that started to take horse racing into the much bigger arena of sports entertainment. Where like-minded people could meet and exchange views and create their own community through osmosis.

The key attraction in those early days was- and still is- the Beer Garden- with ‘live’ music in the venue- and heard in between the races. It’s a USP some in racing where turnover is king, queen and joker still find difficult to understand. ‘Live” music- good ‘live’ music is a key driver. Music leads to other relevant key drivers. It’s not feeding the forty thousand with more of the same old punting tools and fakery for which many consumers have no appetite. Why? They feel they’re being duped. Conned. Taken for a ride. Being treated like children.

Those 25 minutes between races are a snooze fest for those not used to sitting there and watching horses going around the parade ring. Or staring at a television set. Or totalisator. They don’t get it.

It’s like attending a sound check at a music event. Many music fans don’t understand the need for these, but they turn up because they might be able to see their idols onstage- even if they’re just tuning up their guitars and choreographing their stage moves.

Horse racing doesn’t have this magnet- music idols- for these newcomers to horse racing, many of whom expect to see older people who have more in common with their parents getting together for a weekly round of Bingo. To them, horse racing is as old as Old Spice. And a little younger than the Spice Girls. They don’t Wanna Wanna Wanna Wannabe.

After a few howls of protest that the sound of ‘live’ music would spook the horses, timing and working together made it possible to have this entertainment in between the races take place.

It wouldn’t have happened without the support and calm insistence of HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. It was his idea. His vision. It was a game changer. Still is. So is Winfried.

It didn’t take long for various bands wanting to play the Beer Garden. Hong Kong had never had a venue like this- an open air venue right in the middle of the city and surrounded by skyscrapers which offered so many opportunities. It still doesn’t. Let’s not waste it.

In the beginning, to test things out, different bands performed- some better than others. Everything was still being fine tuned. It was a dress rehearsal. This was before the social media monster inherited the earth and captured the minds of the meek. It was still the days of MySpace and YouTube.

It was a roller coaster ride of more hits than misses until we arrived at where we are today.

And where is this?

It’s now eight years later. Those one-time 24 year old regulars are eight years older. Some have married. Had children. Opened their own businesses. Have new priorities.

One only has to walk through Lan Kwai Fong, SoHo and the old Wanchai to see that the new Hong Kong is now in Sai Ying Poon, Kennedy Town and the small pop-up creative communities in Sheung Wan.

Lan Kwai Fong, meanwhile, is part of the past whereas Wanchai is pretty much DOA.

So what next for a Happy Wednesday? First and foremost, it’s to remain relevant. But this must mean having the finger on the pulse of what the new Hong Kong wants. Catering to constantly changing Hong Kong chockablock with more and more choices.

What none of these choices can ever compete with, however, is the unique location of Happy Valley racecourse- and the welcoming home of a Happy Wednesday- the Beer Garden and all the other venues. Different strokes for different folks like at Adrenaline.

What’s been achieved at this venue in such a short period of time after a complete makeover is remarkable.

Again, what’s one of its key drivers? Two or more songs performed ‘live’ between races. It puts an extra spring in one’s step while walking over to one of the counters to test your luck.

It’s now all about what new “content” will be created for these venues and how to keep the Mothership flying high.

It still comes down to the horse racing and the ‘live’ music. The latter can’t be what it was eight years ago because musical tastes change. Remember Taylor Swift? Barely.

With Hong Kong having an extremely small music community who make music for a living, it means looking outside of the square and foreign shores for talent.

This isn’t as easy as some might think. There’s an awful amount of red tape involved. Like the time and hassle of obtaining work visas and then finding the “right” musicians, especially for the Beer Garden crowd- international, young, selective and not exactly fans of Bon Jovi and covers bands performing Top 40 hits. There’s Dusk Till Dawn, Insomnia, Amazonia, Escape, Carnegie’s and Hard Rock Cafe for this. Plus some satay, spring rolls and various dim sum on the side.

There’s more as we’re in 2019 and where that Refresh button must be pressed. But first, the HKJC needs to face some home truths. The revolving door must stop. There’ve been too many personnel changes too often and way too many order takers. And if these orders are coming from those who might know their racing product, but are hobbyist consumer marketers, what one has is Willy Wonka talking Double Dutch.

A Happy Wednesday must be creative in a holistic manner. Like making clever use of social media. Not more Me Too thinking and in the hands of young hires not given any real direction. It’s unfair to them.

It’s about knowing the mediums for the messages. It can’t all be Twitter. And if Instagram, how does the content stand out from the clutter? Where IS the content?

More importantly, what IS the content? More drab interviews cobbled together with some “dramatic music” in the background? Haven’t we seen all this weak kneed dreckola from most racing clubs for almost three decades? Why? Racing executives meddling where they shouldn’t go.

Here’s a thought: Can’t the Trackside team on a Happy Wednesday include the next generation of hosts- like Hannah Butler, the popular host of the Instagram-popular Fashionistas series?

Apparently, this is now on “hiatus”, also for budgetary reasons. Okay. Whatever. Apart from Hannah, there are the two very professional young Racing Specialists at Adrenaline whose personalities and knowledge could be far better utilised.

Having them read daft cue cards for equally daft “tipping challenges” is not exactly making the most of their talents. I just got a migraine.

What about creating breakthrough content for those restless 25 minutes of dead air between races? Something that makes horse racing and those riders and horses and winning by being part of it all far more attractive? Not simply regurgitating everything from the past because that’s all some think is required. Think again.

A Happy Wednesday has always been about forward thinking. About swimming against the current. It still should be. And it can be. It just needs someone with the balls and knowledge and experience and passion to make this happen. It’s about going the distance with confidence and without taking shortcuts. And with no compromises.

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