We had just over a week to recover from the exertions of Bangladesh, and then we were off again, this time further afield, to Hong Kong, and then on to either Indonesia or Sri Lanka. Under normal circumstances I would have tried to squeeze all this into one trip, but the thought of being away for almost a full three weeks without a break was too much, even for me. Leaving home on a Sunday evening, for a 12 hour direct flight to Hong Kong, I was again realising that I seem to be spending a great deal of time in airports and on aeroplanes, but I do actually enjoy this aspect of my role. I have two teenage children, a more than full time job that requires me to manage 8 very diverse departments, and a ninety minute commute each way to the office. Hence the reason that an opportunity to sit on my backside for 12 hours, starting with a glass of champagne, watching movies and being waited on hand and foot, whilst tucked up under a snuggly duvet, has immense appeal! The majority of us arrived, in two groups on different flights, on Monday evening, reaching the hotel just in time to unpack and grab some dinner at a local Vietnamese restaurant. It always feels good to be back in HK – having visited roughly twice a year, every year for almost the last two decades, it feels like my second home, and I still love it! I am always mesmerised by the skyline, and the people are generally really friendly and easy to work with. I have made many good friends here over the years, although my schedule here makes it impossible to catch up with anyone!
This time we were a team of seven covering menswear, boys wear, baby wear and girls wear, visiting a variety of factories and suppliers, both well-known existing sources, and one or two potential new ones. We were up and out early – some straight off to their first supplier appointments, and three of us sorting out visas for a trip to the Chinese mainland later in the week, before meeting a relatively new supplier who had travelled down from Shanghai. A tricky first meeting, as their introduction to the business has not run particularly smoothly. They do, however, offer us a unique product at a very competitive price, so I am convinced that our perseverance will be worthwhile.
After a quick lunch in the hotel lobby bar, and fighting our way through the torrential rain, we were off to our next appointment, with a rapidly growing supplier to our business – who not only make a wide variety of product types, but are also relatively vertical, ie. they weave/knit a large proportion of their own fabrics, as well as actually making the garments, which is fairly unusual in China. Jet lag setting in, as we meet the team and start going through product development, with a particularly humorous moment over a misunderstanding about a fabric description I had never come across before. Just to be sure, I Googled it, and was very shocked by the resulting answer, which had nothing to do with fabric and everything to do with something I could not possibly share in a meeting – my introduction to the “urban dictionary”, which, naively, I had never even heard of! Am I the only one?
Onward that evening to a very traditional dinner with another supplier, and a treat in the form of a demonstration by the chef, of Chinese noodle making, whilst we tucked into our first course. No sharks fin soup, no birds nest soup and no abalone this time, which is a relief, as, although all are considered to be a delicacy, the tastes are completely alien, and the process of producing some of them, does not sit well with my conscience. I’ll spare you the details! Dinner over and we’re off to one of the best bars in town to admire the view and sample the cocktails – and so begins the round of early morning starts, very long days and very late nights which seems to be the norm on trips here – it’s adrenalin, alcohol and caffeine that keep you going til the flight home!
Day 2 and we’re all up and out to various appointments around the city. My first stop was with an agent and factory who seemed very confused about our new terms of trading – instigated at their request, not ours, so I was finding it somewhat frustrating that no-one seemed to understand what was going on. An indication of the importance of very clear communication, both between buyer and supplier, but also internal company communication, which had clearly broken down in this case! Further difficult negotiation at another supplier later in the day – sometimes you have to really labour the point to get the message across – why does it feel like no-one is listening to what I am saying? We make progress, but the process is fairly long-winded and painful. I will always do my absolute best to understand the external factors affecting a supplier and their costs/lead times, such as rising fuel prices, labour costs, the impact of Chinese New Year, cotton and other raw material costs, and the fluctuations in currency etc, but in this case there was little evidence that the supplier in question was making the same effort to understand the stagnant nature of the UK market and the implications that has in terms of order quantities, retail prices and lead time. In fairness, on the plus side, they have been exceptionally good at getting us quick repeats, and the profit margin is generally good on their product, so although they were trying my patience a little, they are a key source to our business, and again, perseverance will be worthwhile.
Just time to hot-foot it back to the hotel, dragging our enormous sample bags, for a quick ten minute change and out again for dinner with another supplier. They had booked a private dining room at a beautiful Chinese restaurant with a great view, and we enjoyed a lovely evening getting to know our hosts a little better, before moving on to Ozone, the bar in the Ritz Carlton, at the top of the ICC tower. Now, this was a new one on me – the building is relatively new, and, from the bar on the 118th floor, the view was spectacular! It was also Halloween, so plenty of opportunities to people watch as they wandered, dressed up for the occasion – they go bonkers for it here, and take their costumes very seriously.
Day 3 and we’re meeting another supplier in the hotel business centre – plenty of great outerwear and fleece development, as well as good wovens, keen prices and very “on the ball”. I am looking forward to the development samples and prices that will come back from this meeting – it was all extremely positive and there is great potential. By 2.30pm we are ready to move on to our next meeting, but lunch has passed us by, and tiredness has kicked in – I feel dreadful! On arrival at our next appointment, our ever courteous host manages to conjure up a very late lunch in double-quick time – never has a cheese and ham toastie looked so good! More caffeine and I’m back in the room, for what turns out to be another very positive and exciting meeting, and I finish the day feeling very positive about all our AW13 development. There follows an evening off, some choosing to head for a low-key tapas dinner, and others of us taking a trip to a local Chinese spa – now this is an experience you should not undertake if you value your modesty, but we all felt much better after being scrubbed, wrapped, pummelled and walked on! Yes, it is true, the massage therapist holds onto bars on the ceiling and walks up and down your back – not without its painful moments but it does appear to be very effective at releasing knots and tension! Arrived back at the hotel to find it full of very drunk Westerners and Chinese dressed in “lederhosen” and “dirndl’s”, and staggering about very loudly, carrying tankards – apparently there is a German beer festival going on in a gazebo in the hotel car park, all week. The drunken revellers become a regular feature in our evening entertainment – the small stature of the Chinese clearly does not cope well with large quantities of German beer and their antics were endlessly amusing!
Having had an evening without food or alcohol, I feel much fresher and ready to face day 5, not one I would have wanted to endure with any trace of a hangover. Having retrieved our visas from the hotel concierge the previous evening, we headed off from Kowloon’s Ocean Terminal on the ferry to Nan Sha. Despite the fact that Hong Kong is now officially part of China, the immigration procedures are a little laborious, filling in arrival and departure cards every time you cross in or out of both! After an hour and a half on the ferry (amongst a party of Chinese paralympians), and 20 minutes in the car, we reached the factory, a large, well run and very efficient set up, with which I was very impressed. Again, this is a relatively new supplier relationship, for which I am very optimistic. There is huge potential for us here.
The return journey was a marathon! The route back to the ferry was blocked by a massive traffic jam, it being a friday afternoon, and many making their way back to HK for the weekend. So there followed 2 hours in the car to get to the train station, fill in departure card, through immigration to leave China, walk over border across bridge, fill in arrival card, through immigration to enter HK, jump on train, dragging sample baggage, 40 minute train journey before joining the MTR (underground), change trains twice in the friday night rush hour crush, and then a short walk back to the hotel from Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station. Knackered! Most novel moment was catching sight of a woman on the tube with very weird, bath-time inspired shoes – covered in plastic bubbles, small rubber ducks and a miniature scrubbing-brush sitting on top! This place is truly bonkers! Just time for a quick change (again), before heading down to an Italian restaurant in the shopping centre behind us for a well-earned dinner, stopping briefly on the way to admire the mental Christmas decorations going up all around us.
Day 5 – it’s Saturday and we are all headed for one supplier to negotiate across the children’s wear departments on our outerwear business for AW13. They have also managed to get the majority of our samples made, which is a result, given the timescale they had to make them. All in all, despite more confusion surrounding the payment terms, a much more positive meeting than I was expecting, although it drags on til 3.30pm. One of the teams moves on at lunchtime to recap with another supplier they met earlier in the week, and the rest of us head back to the hotel to get packed up, before enjoying a night out over on the island. We set off from the hotel on foot, before jumping on the Star Ferry (2.80HKD each, which is around 20p!) from Kowloon to Central, and then getting a taxi to the Hollywood Road area, to find the restaurant and meet up with an old colleague. A very enjoyable evening, great food, great company, and a chance for the whole team to relax a little, but I have one eye on the clock! We have a very early start in the morning!
Up at 5.30am on a Sunday morning, 4 of us are in the car at 6.30am, on our way to the airport for a 4 hr flight to Jakarta, Indonesia. This is another location I really love; culturally it is a really interesting place, the hotel we are staying in is great, the nightlife both interesting and exciting, and the business potential is huge. The late nights, early starts, and constant information overload, however, are clearly starting to take their toll and we all sleep most of the way. Everyone else has a final day in HK, before heading on to Sri Lanka later that evening. We arrive at our hotel in Jakarta at around 3pm, heading straight for a late lunch. It is hot, sticky and humid, but pouring with rain, so I leave the rest of my colleagues unpacking and head for the hotel spa and a Balinese Herbal massage. I make the mistake of posting this on Facebook, whereupon my 14 yr old daughter comments “Work, this is not work, it’s a holiday!”. The cheek of it! It is Sunday afternoon! And this is definitely no holiday! We round off the day with dinner in a new local bar/restaurant, meeting up with an old friend of mine who lives in Jakarta.
Day 7 and we’re up and out to visit our first factory. The traffic is diabolical here, though not quite as chaotic as Bangladesh, and it takes us just over an hour to get there. It is an outerwear factory, and one we have had a few problems with, but they have a new account manager managing our orders, so the meeting is positive and we are, on the whole, very pleased with what we have seen. Leaving later than planned, we do not arrive at our second destination, a large knitwear manufacturer, until 3pm. Thankfully, they have laid on some lunch for us – the local speciality “nasi goreng”, even managing to come up with a vegetarian version for our non meat eaters! I seem to be mentioning food a lot! You cannot imagine how much you think about it, when you are not sure what it will be, or when/if it will arrive! The product development is great, they have made some beautiful samples, the prices are good, and the factory set up is amazing. The designers amongst us are on fire and we put plenty of new styles in for all departments. We could easily have spent a full day here! We eventually leave at 7.30pm, to endure a 2 hr drive back to the hotel, a quick buffet dinner and bed. We are all exhausted.
Day 8 and it is beginning to feel like we have been away from home a very long time. We have meetings today at one of our agents offices – knitwear, cold weather accessories, socks, jerseywear and a quick look at some homeware, before dashing back to the hotel to meet 3 more potential new factories. These are all speculative appointments, but we see some very interesting product, so it will be all down to sending them some designs to cross cost and sample, and see where we land.
Day 9, our final day, and we’re heading for a mens trouser supplier that I have worked with for many years. They have always been very loyal to me, and seem happy to start small and work with us to grow potential here. We have a very positive discussion, before leaving to head straight for the airport, and the start of a marathon 20+ hour journey home via Hong Kong. I manage to read an entire book (the in flight entertainment on the first leg is broken!), before falling asleep and waking up just in time for breakfast, before landing at Heathrow at 5am. The first thing I notice is the freezing cold! I am craving a proper cup of “builders tea” and beans on toast!