Coronavirus could be beginning of end for WeWork in Hong Kong as start-up indefinitely delays opening three branches

Pearl Liu

WeWork has indefinitely delayed the opening of at least three co-working spaces in Hong Kong that were planned for late last year. Now, market observers believe the coronavirus pandemic could force the company to retreat from the city as it takes a toll on an economy already in recession.

The cash-strapped company had planned to open stations in Hysan Place in Causeway Bay and Sun Life Tower in Tsim Sha Tsui at the end of 2019, while its operations in Octa Tower in Kowloon Bay have already been delayed by more than six months.

“At the moment, we are focusing on our top priority of ensuring members across the world to have a safe workplace environment,” the company said in an email, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic. It, however, did not provide any update on the opening of the three centres. WeWork’s operations have been hit in the city for over a month as people avoid crowds and work from home in a bid to prevent the disease from spreading.

The virus has now infected more than 190,000 people, claiming at least 7,800 lives, mostly in mainland China. As the pandemic spread globally, it’s weighing on the city’s economy that has already been hit by anti-government protests last year. Dozens of small businesses related to retail, food and drinks and tourism have closed, while many are barely surviving.

“The cost of surrendering the space may be just too high,” said Vincent Cheung, managing director of Vincorn Consulting and Appraisal. “We see a lot of co-working spaces are at least half empty while some are even worse.”

He added that keeping the leased space idle and not making further investments, such as hiring staff and saving on facilities maintenance fees, is the best way to stop the bleeding.

Will WeWork’s woes affect Hong Kong’s overbuilt co-working sector?

WeWork’s rapid expansion in Hong Kong has seen it acquire about 1 million sq ft of office space, translating into about 1 per cent of Hong Kong’s leasing market, while the co-working industry as a whole in the city accounts for 3 per cent.

In a press release sent out in October, the start-up said “in the fourth quarter, WeWork will add four new locations in Hong Kong, namely WeWork The Quayside in Kwun Tong, WeWork Sun Life Tower in Tsim Sha Tsui, WeWork Hysan Place in Causeway Bay and WeWork H Code in Central.” Back then on its website, WeWork had Octa Tower as “opening soon”. Since then only HCode and The Quayside have been launched.

WeWork’s co-working space in Causeway Bay. Photo: Edward Wong

WeWork is not the only flexible office-sharing company that has suffered from the market downturn.

Hong Kong-based Campfire, which launched in 2016, has surrendered some spaces at the end of last year. It currently operates only three sites, down from six. Beijing-based Kr Space, meanwhile, shut down its last co-working facility in Hong Kong in November.

Chinese co-working operator Kr Space retreats from Hong Kong

“The impact on co-working sector is worse than that caused by the social unrest as now people are trying to stay away from crowds and avoiding contact with strangers, which is basically the contrast of the idea of sharing or flexible work space,” said Peter Yuen, managing director and head of investment and sales at Savills.

But there are some in the industry willing to take a gamble even in such uncertain economic climate. The owner of V-Point in Causeway Bay said that it plans to run nine floors of co-working space surrendered by Campfire on its own.

“The flexibility of co-working space is quite important for companies when economy is looking gloomy as some may downsize in the short-term,” said Tim Li, the general manager of V-Point, which has renamed the shared-office space as V-Co.

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