I’m writing this Blog onboard Eurostar en route from Paris to London, the morning after a wonderful charity dinner hosted by HNA Group, the deeply acquisitive Chinese hotel-to-aviation-to-leisure giant.
I’ve barely had time to get my land legs, let alone railway ones, having returned from Toronto on Saturday morning after a truly FAB-ulous Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) Conference & Awards in Toronto. I feel blessed to do the job I do. I meet warm, wonderful and talented people all over the globe and am privileged to interact with them, their skills and their cultures.
Last week’s FAB was a case in point. When I stumbled off the plane from London (to where I had only arrived 48 hours earlier from Hong Kong), I felt tired and dishevelled and was grumbling internally about the life I choose to live. All that disappeared instantly when I entered the arrivals hall and saw Toronto Pearson International Airport Senior Manager Business Development Food and Beverage Suzanne Merrell waiting for me, beaming with a smile wider than Lake Ontario. I didn’t expect nor need to be met, but Suzanne just wanted to welcome me to her airport, her city and her country. Fantastic.
From there the hospitality just never let up. An amazing opening night at The Hockey Hall of Fame, courtesy of HMSHost; a FAB Awards Gala Dinner of real vibrancy and outstanding cuisine from OTG; and (although I had to fly home on the Friday so missed it) a wonderful, informal night out in Toronto’s historic distillery district.
The best conferences involve feverish organisational pressure behind the scenes to make the end product look polished. I like to think FAB is one of the best, and delegate feedback consistently suggests that’s true. Certainly, I find it the most fun, maybe because food is such a dynamic, ever-changing sector. Having made our North American debut this year, in 2018 we’re hell-bound for Helsinki, our first time in the Nordic region.
A quick word on the HNA Charity dinner. As charity events go, this reached heady levels. It was held in the Petit Palais, an architectural diamond dating built in 1900 for the Universal Expositio, which houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Wondrously beautiful. The sumptuous menu was provided by Joël Robuchon, the world’s most-starred chef (with 31 Michelin stars), and HNA Catering Holdings; while the evening’s entertainment programme featured a dazzling array of traditional Chinese opera, and western classical music.
HNA’s extraordinary acquisitional trail of recent times has been one of the talking points of world commerce. Besides striking an agreement to acquire 16.79% of Dufry, HNA has acquired gategroup, the Swiss inflight services provider; Carlson Hotels; a quarter of Hilton Worldwide Holdings; and CIT Group’s aircraft leasing business. And that’s just since October 2016.
Since its founding in 1993, the Chinese group has evolved from a regional airline based on Hainan Island in southern China into a global force with approximately US$145 billion of assets and over US$90 billion in annual revenues.
Importantly, and impressively, it is placing a relentless focus on Corporate Social Responsibility projects, the latest of which were unveiled on Monday night.
The event served another purpose. Besides underlining HNA’s tremendous growth story and philanthropic endeavours, it served as the perfect retort to recent negative publicity about possible exposure of China’s banking system to mega-acquisitional Chinese groups such as HNA and Fosun. While the Chinese authorities may want a slowdown in capital outflow and will be wary of any systemic risk to the domestic banking system, it is hardly likely that the HNA juggernaut has in any way been derailed.