Macau: The next Vegas? - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

This small Asian enclave is on the verge of supplanting mighty Las Vegas as the top gambling market in the world.

The entire Macau peninsula, two islands and a reclaimed river delta, covers about 16.9 square miles compared with Las Vegas 84.3 square miles. But pound for pound, gamblers in Macau are far more aggressive than those visiting Southern Nevada.

When Macau was turned over to the Chinese government in 1999 -- the same year Hong Kong made a similar but more newsworthy transition -- one of the first moves by the new administration was to open the gaming market to competitors, ending a 40-year monopoly.

The resulting injection of competition has made the market explode, with analysts expecting gaming revenue to surpass Las Vegas levels this year or next.

The Macau government reported gaming revenue of $5 billion in 2004, about $3.5 billion ahead of 2003s total and slightly ahead of the $4.9 billion generated last year on the Las Vegas Strip.

With 15 casinos operating in Macau with about 1,000 table games, the per-table win in Macau is nearly 10 times the per-table win in Las Vegas. Experts say Macaus gaming market could grow from $9 billion to $12 billion in the next five years as the Chinese tourism market expands and more resorts are built.

Now, a familiar shape -- familiar, at least, to Las Vegas residents -- is joining the skyline of this island resort city that shares a fascinating blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures.

Wynn Macau, the 600-room hotel due to open in the third quarter of next year, will look a lot like its American big brother, Wynn Las Vegas, which opened on the Strip in April.

To people familiar with the Las Vegas version, Wynn Macau wont hold many surprises. But to Macanese who are watching the building take shape, the resort will be a dramatic departure from anything in the market today.

But thats what makes Macau the worlds most intriguing gambling center and why most experts expect it to surpass Las Vegas as the worlds dominant casino market.

"Weve heard Macau referred to as the Las Vegas of Asia," said Grant Bowie, who as president and general manager of Wynn Macau is Steve Wynns top man in Asia. "But theres only one Las Vegas in this world. Our objective here is not to be seduced by another market as the way (Macau) is going to evolve."

Las Vegas companies are clearly leading the change that is taking place in Macau, which is on the tip of Chinas southern seacoast and is a one-hour boat ride from Hong Kong.

There are varying theories as to how the evolution of Macau is going to occur. But most agree that the transformation will involve turning it from what is predominantly a day-trip market to a resort destination where tourists stay longer. Operators also hope to bump up hotel occupancy rates.

L.C. Koo, head of the performance improvement department for Sociedade de Jogos de Macau, the dominant casino operator in Macau owned by Stanley Ho, said in 2004 that visitors from China stayed an average of 1.1 days at the companys 15 casino properties and visitors from Hong Kong stayed a day.

Since 1999, the occupancy rate of Macaus 9,600 hotel rooms has gradually increased to 75 percent from about 50 percent.

William Weidner, president and chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sands Inc., believes the demographics of the population that lives a few hours of Macau will lead the city to surpass Las Vegas become the dominant gambling market in the world.

Experts say there are more than 100 million people within a three-hour drive of Macau and more than 1 billion people within a three-hour flight. As the Chinese economy expands and travel and visa policies are relaxed, more and more people are expected to make the trek to Macau.

"The opportunity is just terrific," Weidner said at a recent gaming conference in Singapore. "The developments planned will change Macau forever."

The Sands Macau has been open for more than a year, and executives are happy with the early results. But the companys big push in Macau will occur with its development of the Cotai strip, on what once was a river delta on the island of Taipa, connected by bridge to Macau.

"Since the opening of China, things have changed dramatically," Weidner said. "Given the growth of the Chinese economy overall, there is just a huge opportunity for Macau to develop into something much, much greater than Las Vegas."

Gaming analysts say the Las Vegas companies are well positioned in Macau and that existing casinos will have a hard time keeping up with the Americans.

"Outside of Sands Macau, the existing properties are nowhere near the quality of the next-generation projects coming on line," said Marc Falcone, a gaming analyst with Deutsche Bank, after a June trip to Macau. "As such, we do not anticipate that the older supply will be able to compete, and that attrition from these facilities will offset some of the new supply."

But Bowie and others think the Macau market expansion will play out much the way that it has in the United States with the proliferation of tribal casinos: The entire market will grow as a result of the increased competition.

"Were going to be a player in the high-roller market and were going to be a player in the premium mass market," Bowie said. "Well have a bigger piece of the pie, but we also expect the pie to grow."

Hos empire

If the pie grows as Bowie suspects and the American interests get rich as a result, few will be shedding any tears for Ho and his Macanese empire.

Ho owns many of the concessions, including Asias largest hydrofoil fleet, and a helicopter service that ferries passengers between Hong Kong and Macau.

While tourists from China have access to Macau by land from the mainland side, visitors from Hong Kong must either take a boat or fly to Macau.

Getting to the harbor at Hong Kong island is easy with the terminal at the end of one of the easy-to-use, high-tech subway lines.

Its fairly simple to book a seat on the Jetfoil boats, which leave every 15 minutes and cost $141 in Hong Kong currency -- about $18 in U.S. dollars.

The voyage on the South China Sea skirts several islands and offers passengers views of Hong Kongs impressive skyscraper-filled skyline.

Boats seat about 600 passengers in two classes with passengers in the front of the boat getting a meal. The seats are comfortable and a comedy reel runs on video during the voyage. The air-conditioned cabin offers relief from the sticky humidity and 90-degree temperatures or frequent rain storms.

Tourists arriving in Macau by ferry see the 1.1-million-square-foot Sands Macau and its 71-foot sign as soon as they hit the harbor. A themed fishermans wharf retail attraction nearby is in the final stages of construction.

The ferry station is a study in organized chaos with passengers getting off the boats scrambling to Customs and Immigration service lines. People traveling between the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau are required to carry passports and go through the same entry process as those going to another country.

Once inside the main terminal, there are taxi lines and buses available. Few taxi drivers understand English. Knowing Spanish offers a little help since it is relatively close to Macaus secondary language, Portuguese.

But the easiest way to get around is to go to the information desk and find a bilingual employee to write a destination in Chinese characters.

Wynn Macaus corporate offices are on the ninth floor of the Hotline Center office building near a major hotel and the cab ride was a few dollars. Although the pacata is the standard currency of Macau, the local merchants accept Hong Kong dollars.

Hos casino empire is spread out in hotels throughout the city and on the nearby islands of Taipa and Coloane. His company, known throughout the region as SJM, controls more than 80 percent of Macaus five-star hotel rooms -- a standard that may rank closer to three stars in the United States.

Among the SJM casinos are the Lisboa, where a doorman dressed like a conquistador meets hotel arrivals, and the Casino New Century-Greek Mythology on Taipa, which seems to have torn a page out of the Caesars Palace playbook with characters dressed as Greek gods and goddesses being photographed with guests, just like the versions of Caesar and Cleopatra are in Las Vegas.

There are similarities and differences between the SJM casinos and a traditional Las Vegas casino floor. Casino operators take security seriously -- players have to pass through a metal detector like those at airports and courthouses to get to the casino action.

The most striking difference between an American casino floor and an SJM property is the dominance of table games to slot machines. Reports about the two-fisted style of gambling at the tables are true. On a Monday afternoon, players were standing about three deep wagering at the Lisboas tables. Baccarat is the game of choice and chain-smoking, serious gamblers play undistracted in a noisy party atmosphere.

Private gambling salons ring the main casino and provocatively dressed unaccompanied women are all around -- a lot more visible than their Las Vegas counterparts.

At the Greek Mythology, the gaming extends upward several levels with balconies overlooking an open theater with live entertainment.

Sands Macau

The atmosphere at the Sands Macau is as electric as it is at the Lisboa with table games dominating the floor.

The six-acre parcel is 1,200 feet long and 300 feet wide and built on piers over a flood plain.

With a 50-foot ceiling, the cavernous building became Macaus first stadium-style casino. A massive chandelier -- the largest in the world -- dominates the room.

The property has Macaus first Las Vegas-style buffet, a total of 1,600 restaurant seats and a porte cochere with four lanes.

Eighteen private gambling salons attract Chinese high rollers as the company markets the invitation-only Paiza Club concept it is using at the Venetian to draw premium players to the resort.

While a four-lane porte cochere wouldnt attract much attention in Las Vegas, its a major breakthrough in Macau where long taxi lines are the norm. A one-minute wait for a cab makes it popular with players and the Sands Macau also has a separate bus entrance that makes the property popular with large groups.

The casino is designed so that a future tower expansion for hotel rooms is possible.

In addition to baccarat, players seem to be drawn to "Big Small," a dice game that plays similarly to roulette. Three die are rolled beneath a bell-shaped shield and players wager on a board on the outcome of each roll.

The property has 370 table games, the most in the Macau market, and about 300 slot machines.

Weidner said Las Vegas Sands decided to leap quickly into the mass day-trip market with a casino "as close to the ferry terminal as we could build it." The strategy is certainly paying off in terms of visibility.

Wynn Macau

Closer to the central Macau business district are three construction projects in various stages of completion.

The Wynn Macau, Galaxy Casino S.A.s StarWorld and the MGM Grand Macau are all being built on one of the last vacant parcels in the central business district, next door to the Lisboa.

The Wynns American-style construction methods have enabled workers to surpass Galaxys project, which had an earlier groundbreaking but is using bamboo scaffolding for its work crews.

Phase I of Wynn Macau -- which will have 600 rooms, 100,000 square feet of gaming housing 200 table games and 350 slot machines, seven restaurants and 28,000 square feet of retail space, a spa and entertainment facilities -- is nearly ready to add its trademark crown that holds Wynns signature.

Judging from models at the Wynn Macau corporate headquarters, the building will have some subtle differences from the Las Vegas resort -- the curve into the crown bends the opposite direction.

With the opening of the property still a year away, plans for Phase II of the Wynn Macau already have begun to take shape. The expansion will add another 85,000 square feet of casino space, enough for 150 more table games and 500 more slots, a sports book, two restaurants, a theater and a water attraction at the front of the property.

Construction is expected to start on the expansion this quarter and it is expected to open in the first half of 2007. That will bring Wynns Macau investment to just over $1 billion.

MGM Grand Macau

Wynn Macaus next-door neighbor will be one of its Las Vegas rivals, MGM Mirage, which is developing the 600-room MGM Grand Macau resort.

MGM Mirage is engaged in a 50-50 partnership with Stanley Hos daughter, Pansy Ho Chiu-King, manager of MGM Grand Paradise Ltd.

The partners broke ground last month on a 28-story wave-shaped tower. Company officials envision suites and villas on par with the Mansion at the MGM Grand. A 222,000-square-foot split-level casino floor will have 300 table games and 1,000 slot machines.

The property also will include a 1,500-seat theater, a 5,500-square-foot nightclub, and 13,500 square feet of meeting and convention space which will include an 11,000-square-foot ballroom.

The $975 million property will have nine restaurants with varying cuisines, including a restaurant on the roof with views of the city and the harbor.

A 25,000-square-foot spa rounds out the amenities for the resort.

Like Wynn Macau, the MGM Grand Macau already has announced plans for an expansion with the ability to add 72,000 square feet to the casino floors second level. The additional space would give the property the capacity to expand to 400 table games and 2,000 slot machines, which would make it the largest casino floor in the city.

Will tourists gravitate to slots when the culture suggests that most players prefer table games?

John-Martin Meyer, managing officer of Revive Gaming, MGM Mirages slot technology division, and a former slot director at Las Vegas Excalibur property, believes slot machines can still be a viable market in Macau and that they just havent been marketed properly there.

"Its an understudied, understated misconception" that slots are destined to be the weak sister of the Macau market, Meyer said.

He believes that with proper positioning and better presentations, slot machines can be as lucrative as the table games in Macau.

The Cotai Strip

Possibly the most intriguing addition to the Macau market is the Cotai Strip, located on reclaimed land between the islands of Taipa and Coloane, a short hop over a bridge from Macaus central business district.

Thats where Las Vegas Sands is building the Venetian Macau, with 3,000 suites, 1.2 million square feet of meeting and convention space, 850,000 square feet of shopping space, a 2,000-seat showroom, a 15,000-seat arena for world-class entertainment, 22 restaurants, a 66,000-square-foot spa and wellness center and an outdoor recreation area with waterfalls, wave pools and a lazy river.

The Venetian Macau, currently under construction, will be the $1.8 billion anchor for seven resort hotels offering 12,500 guest rooms, 1.8 million square feet of meeting and convention space, 1.6 million square feet of retail, 550,000 square feet of casino space and a total of 25,000 seats in venues for live entertainment.

"If you take a piece of the (Las Vegas) Strip of what is now the Wynn Resort and what is now the Bellagio Resort -- that piece in Las Vegas -- move it over to Macau, thats about the volume of space and distance generally and about the number of rooms that are being developed there," Weidner said.

The first phase of the Cotai Strip is due to open in early 2007. Joining the Venetian clone on the Cotai will be properties by the Dorsett Hotel Group, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Hilton Hotels (which include the Hilton, Conrad and Scandic brands), InterContinental Hotels Group (which offers the InterContinental and Holiday Inn brands), Marriott International (which has the Marriott and Renaissance brands), Regal Hotels and Starwood Hotel and Resorts Worldwide (which offers the Sheraton and W brands).

Although there are a number of buildings that will look much like properties in Las Vegas -- the Venetian Macau and the Wynn Macau will look just like their counterparts and the Macau Tower has an eerie resemblance to the Stratosphere Tower -- Wynns Bowie insists that Macau is its own market and duplicating the Las Vegas experience down to the last brick would be a mistake.

He also cautioned that the transition of Macau to a world-class resort destination wont happen overnight.

"This is going to take a lot of commitment by developers," Bowie said. "Its not a quick transition. Its more like War and Peace. "

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