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Travel Leaders: Karen Macmillan, Director Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific, Hong Kong Tourism Board

For Karen Macmillan, a love for travel and endless memories of Hong Kong has led to a role with Hong Kong Tourism Board where she can share her passion for the region. After a trip to Hong Kong with Karryon, she talks about life, work and what's next.

For Karen Macmillan, a love for travel and endless memories of Hong Kong has led to a role with Hong Kong Tourism Board where she can share her passion for the region. After a trip to Hong Kong with Karryon, she talks about life, work and what’s next.

While most people can remember their first trip to Hong Kong, for Karen it’s all a little unclear. You see, she was just two years old when she first visited on a stopover from Sydney to her parents’ native Scotland for a family holiday.

“Back then there were multiple stops to the UK, so you’d potentially stop in Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi or Bahrain, and then make it to London, before another British Caledonian flight up to Scotland,” she said.

It was on her first visit to Hong Kong that her parents bought a set of stackable wooden carved coffee tables that remain in the house Karen grew up in to this day. A souvenir from a destination that would come to mean more to their daughter than they could possibly know at the time.

A career path that’s less travel, more lateral moves

Karen Macmillan HKTB in Malta_1000x648
Karen in Malta.

Growing up, Karen spent a lot of time with her family on Sydney’s Stanley Street and as a teenager, her first job was working at the Little Italy institution, Bill and Toni’s restaurant.

“Bill and Toni were both good family friends. I couldn’t take orders because women weren’t allowed to do that so my job was cutting the bread, serving the orange drink and clearing the tables. I’ve still got the Pac-Man Machine from the restaurant.”

Soon she was working two jobs while going to school with a Saturday newsagency job joining Bill and Toni’s weekend night shifts. When she finished Year 12 she added a full-time job at a publishing company to the lineup and worked three jobs until she’d saved enough money to head to the UK when she was 19.

Karen at the Qantas Hong Kong Lounge.
Karen at Kings Canyon, Northern Territory.

“I went with three girlfriends and did a Contiki tour and saw a lot of countries in 20 days. Then I based myself in London and travelled all around Europe for a few years.”

After returning to Australia and studying make-up artistry, Karen felt drawn back to London where she worked for cosmetic companies at Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Liberty and more.

She also spent time in Canada where her more unusual roles included trying to explain to businesses in the mid ‘90s what the internet was and why they should buy a domain name, and being an extra on TV series The X-Files with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson where she played a dead body.

Tempted back to travel

L-R: Lisa Lee, Karen and Jess Rowden from Hong Kong Tourism Board.

After returning to Australia, Karen’s jobs included doing cricketer Allan Border’s make-up on a TV sports network and becoming the sports administrator in The Sydney Morning Herald’s sports department. But when she realised how much she missed travelling, she decided to find a job in the industry and quickly landed a role that would take her back to Hong Kong.

“I started as Sales & Marketing Coordinator for Cathay Pacific back in 2000 and I was there for just under 12 years in various marketing roles. In the end, I was looking after all digital and online sales and marketing and social media.

“When I was living in London I’d stopover in Hong Kong for a couple of days. Now that I was working for Cathay, we’d go up for training and other things so I had the chance to spend a lot of time there.

“Then I went to Emirates for just under five years where I was the E-Commerce Manager for Australia, and then I went to Hawaiian Airlines for just under five years, including a role as Director of Sales and Partnerships. Then COVID came and I was made redundant.”

Silver linings lead back to Hong Kong

Karen Macmillan at the Qantas Hong Kong Lounge.
Karen at the Qantas Hong Kong Lounge.

Having never not worked since those early Bill and Toni’s days, Karen was not one to sit idly by after her redundancy. Instead, she started reinventing herself.

“I started doing an MBA and I was doing some consulting work on a project in Canberra for digital literacy. Then I got the job at the Hong Kong Tourism Board. So it was kind of full circle after starting travel work with Cathay and being in the Hong Kong hub, and now ending up in this tourism role.”

As a travel journalist who has joined Karen on two Hong Kong famils, I’ve seen her passion for the region firsthand and experienced a very enjoyable part of her work, in a role that has many parts.

“As the Hong Kong Tourism Board Director for Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific, I work with a lovely, small but mighty team that encompasses everything from trade to MICE to cruise as well as PR, media, content, digital marketing and campaigns,” she said.

“I love my job because every day is different. I get to be involved in everything. For example, one day we might be working on the MasterChef broadcast, where we took up 80 cast and crew to Hong Kong earlier in the year to film, or I might be on a media famil in Hong Kong, or going down to Melbourne to represent Hong Kong Tourism Board at a conference or event.

“I could be talking about Hong Kong at a trade show or working with our lovely trade partners on content partnerships or campaigns. So it’s really diverse and I really, really enjoy it.”

Fond Hong Kong travel memories

Karen Macmillan, Director Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific, Hong Kong Tourism Board
The Lounge & Sky Terrace atop Landmark Hong Kong affords stellar views. Image: Amanda Woods

Karen has lost count of the number of times she’s visited Hong Kong over the years and smiles when asked about some of her favourite memories.

“The first time I went on my own I was traveling back from London for Christmas and it was freezing. I didn’t really realise that Hong Kong had seasons until then,” she laughs. 

“And the amount of Christmas lights and Christmas markets was incredible. I remember walking down Nathan Road and seeing Christmas lights everywhere and it was so special. People don’t really think of Hong Kong as a place for Christmas but they do it really, really, well.”

She’ll also never forget her first junk boat ride in the harbour.

“I was organising some activities for a sales group and the Aqua Luna junk boat was quite new at the time. People didn’t know what to expect and I remember being on the harbour on this amazing junk being served drinks and nibbles and watching the skyline and the lights and the buildings. And it was just like, wow, this is Hong Kong. You really need to get on the harbour whether it’s a Star Ferry or a junk or a private cruise. It’s something I always like to do when I’m there.”

While she’s usually busy working in Hong Kong, when Karen gets some time off she loves to go walking up The Peak, shopping at the markets and enjoying the great food Hong Kong has to offer, including finding the latest great food spots.

“There’s always something opening. Follow the lines. What’s everyone lining up for? The thing with Hong Kong is everything is quite reasonably priced,” she explained.

“You can have a Michelin-starred bowl of noodles for the equivalent of $5 Australian or you can go to a high-end restaurant and have the most amazing meal you’ve ever had and it’s still pretty good value.”

What’s happening next in Hong Kong?

1000x568 West Kowloon Promenade 西九龍海濱長廊 01
West Kowloon Promenade. Image: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Karen has seen a lot of new developments in Hong Kong over the years and considers the West Kowloon Cultural District one of the best new additions to the city.

“There’s 17 cultural venues along the harbour on 99 acres of reclaimed land. Some are still under development but we already have the M+ Museum, which is Asia’s first museum dedicated to visual arts and culture, and the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which presents over 900 pieces of priceless treasures from the Palace Museum in Beijing and some of them have never been seen before in Hong Kong.”

“It’s a really cool harbourfront space with restaurants, bars and the Art Park where you can hire a beanbag and watch the boats go past.”

As for up-and-coming developments, Karen said she’s excited to see the new Kai Tak Sports Park that’s being developed in the space where the old airport used to be. The Sports Park is expected to be opened early in 2025 in time for the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens and other events throughout the year.

“There’s also the 11 SKIES, a ‘retailtainment’ centre right near the airport that is going to be huge and will make Hong Kong an even greater hub and stopover spot than it already is.”

HK attracts high-value Aussies back in 2024

Hong Kong Peak Tram 2022
Hong Kong Peak Tram.

In June, Karryon travelled to Hong Kong with Karen to join the celebrations as Qantas marked 75 years of flying between Australia and Hong Kong.

She said while capacity isn’t back to 2019 levels yet, the good news is the Australian market is seeing month-on-month growth with the average length of stay for Australians rising to 4.5 nights.

“Australians and New Zealanders are coming back, they’re staying longer, they’re enjoying visiting attractions and experiences and love spending their money on wining and dining and going shopping.”

Karen said there is also a high repeat visitation rate as Australians embrace all the things they can do in Hong Kong.

“There’s very few places in the world where you can wake up in the morning, run up a mountain, jump on a ferry and go to an island, have a beautiful seafood or dim sum lunch, come back to the city and go shopping in a market or a mall, then have rooftop drinks overlooking a spectacular harbour before dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant and partying the night away in one of the best bars in the world.”

And as Karen smiles when she thinks about a great day out in Hong Kong, it’s clear that this is more than just a job. This is a passion she gets to share with the world. And she does it well.