Beyond the Fairway
“Be the first to do it or be the biggest!”
Mission Hills Vice Chairman Tenniel Chu recalls the advice his father imparted upon his two sons before dying of cancer in 2011. The elder Chu lived by the mantra, which has since become a part of the family-run business’ corporate DNA.
A multibillion-dollar company, best known for building two of the world’s largest golf resorts—one with 10 courses, the other with 12—the Mission Hills Group is making a concerted effort to expand far beyond the fairway. During the past five years, Mission Hills and its partners have invested 1 billion US dollars in five new gated attractions on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, south of mainland China. Three of those projects—each in partnership with a major international brand—debuted in 2018. Not one had anything to do with a driver, wedge, or putter.
First came Movie Town, an attraction based on the film sets of renowned director Feng Xiaogang. Some 2 million people pay up to 148 RMB a head to visit the park each year. Then in late 2015, a few kilometers from its golf resort, Mission Hills launched a shopping and entertainment complex named Centreville that would become home to the next four attractions: The Teddy Bear Museum, Wet’n’Wild Haikou water park, NBA (National Basketball Association) Exhibit, and The Barça Experience. In order, these are partnerships with a Korean company, which owns half a dozen teddy bear museums; Australia’s Village Roadshow Theme Parks; NBA China; and soccer team FC Barcelona.
“What we are really trying to do is showcase a huge, comprehensive diversification of attractions that stimulates and caters to everyone’s needs and interests,” Chu explains.
Mission Hills is a large private sector driver of the Hainanese government’s goal to make the island the sports and leisure capital of Asia. Visa-free access was introduced for residents of 59 countries in May 2018, but the bulk of the visitors are currently still Chinese.
“Hainan Island was born in the country’s reform,” says a spokesperson for Hainan’s Department of Culture, Radio, Television, Publication, and Sports. “We will further expand the degree of openness to the outside world and move toward the world with an unprecedented open attitude. Mission Hills acts as a ‘super contact’ to greatly promote Haikou.”
For Chu’s family, though, Mission Hills is not simply about tourism—or property sales, for that matter, which provide the majority of company revenue—it’s about playing a key role in showcasing China to the world, promoting healthy lifestyles to Chinese youth, and fostering the country’s next generation of elite athletes.
That’s a tall order. To understand Chu’s drive—and the focus to continually be at the forefront of China’s development that he shares with his elder brother Ken Chu, Mission Hills’ chairman and CEO—one needs to first return to a different era, when golf was banned as a bourgeois sport and the country was just beginning to emerge from the Cultural Revolution.
A Patriot and Pioneer
Born in Hong Kong, David Chu became one of the first entrepreneurs to invest in the People’s Republic of China following the opening up of the country in 1978. Less than a year after Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” declaration, Chu began manufacturing corrugated packaging in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. He instituted round-the-clock production, with three shifts of workers, something unheard of in China. His company grew into the country’s largest business of its kind.
Then in 1994, to the chagrin of his sons, the senior Chu launched the Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen. While the sport was legalized a decade earlier, there were less than a thousand golfers in the entire country. Today, the China Golf Association estimates there are 3 million.
Chu didn’t build just one golf course in Shenzhen, though. Over a period of several years that spanned the Asian financial crisis and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, he grew Mission Hills to 12 courses, each designed by some of the biggest names in the golfing world. The resort is certified as the world’s largest golf facility by Guinness World Records.
Other firsts and monumental-sized projects would follow: Tiger Woods’ first visit to China, the launch of the world’s largest public golf course (Mission Hills Haikou in 2010), the world’s largest spa resort (again, as certified by Guinness World Records), the first Tour of China cycling race, Asia’s largest tennis center, and China’s first golf club to be certified in environmental management. David Chu also played an important role in China’s successful bid to host its first Summer Olympic Games, held in Beijing in 2008.
“China is a hero-driven market. With a JV (joint venture), your partner is fully committed. We work as equals to make sure the success of the project. It’s a very special relationship.”
—Tenniel Chu, Mission Hills Vice Chairman
Into the Next Decade
Today, Mission Hills is breaking new ground through partnerships with FC Barcelona, the NBA, and potentially other major international sporting brands, as the Chu brothers pursue a vision to create a mega-sports hub on Hainan Island. While golf and, more recently, basketball and soccer (known around the world as football) are attracting the most attention, they plan to feature 30 sports—that’s right, 30—from badminton to ice hockey and possibly even Formula One auto racing and horse racing, should the latter be legalized.
“Our mission and vision is to bring China to the world and the world to China,” Tenniel Chu says.
While other companies may express similar sentiments, Chu points to Mission Hills’ track record: events on Mission Hills’ properties with elite athletes, including basketball player Kobe Bryant, golfer Rory McIlroy, tennis star Boris Becker, and WWE wrestler John Cena, as well as Hollywood celebrities Michael Douglas, Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Grant, to name a few.
“There’s no better way to connect the world than to make use of sports,” he argues.
Chu’s vision has a multipronged approach: inspire Chinese youth to lead active, healthy lifestyles, provide world-class training facilities for the country’s athletes to excel, and attract the globe’s best sportsmen and sportswomen.
“To have sustainable growth, you need a healthy population, and what better way to do that than through sports? This will be the future of any country’s wellness. That’s why we are so keen.”
In addition to attractions, Mission Hills and its partners will continue to build training centers and athletic facilities, like an NBA Basketball School and a Barça Academy with 30 indoor and outdoor soccer fields. The company also has plans for a sports medicine division, targeting the top 1% of global athletes. In addition, a partnership with a prominent Swiss company is in the works.
This approach also complements a national strategy. President Xi Jinping wants China to be a “world football superpower” by 2050 and envisions 50 million Chinese playing the sport by next year.
“As an international tourism island, with close to 70 million visitors annually, golf can only do so much. It attracts high-net-worth travelers. But at the same time, you need to cater to the mass market,” Chu says. “With education, entertainment, and the diversity of sports, [it shows] what the new China is all about and how Mission Hills has become the super-connector of all these international brands.”