10 years after, The Venetian | First we took Paris, now we take London

Wilfred Wong, Sands China president

Sheldon Adelson will land today in Macau to preside over The Venetian’s 10th anniversary celebrations, the “jewel of the crown” in the Las Vegas Sands empire, at a time when the “empire” is expanding its theming to a London-styled property, after the successful one-year operation of The Parisian.

The event, slated initially for August 28, was postponed to Monday, November 20 due to the devastation left behind by typhoon Hato, leaving no room for celebrations. But the region has recovered and it’s time to change the mood.

“The Venetian’s 10th anniversary is a very memorable milestone for our company and for the development of Cotai as well, because we’re the first property on the Cotai strip. We’re going to have a celebration,” Wilfred Wong, Sands China (SCL) President told the Times in an exclusive interview recently held in his Cotai office.

And the gaming operator has plenty of reasons to celebrate. This year’s third quarter has been the best quarter since Q4 2014, with profits reaching USD652 million, up 13 percent year-on-year.

“October was [also] very strong. Hopefully for this year, with only two months to go, we can continue the growth trend. The economy and finance secretary also said that he expects that this year is going to pan out well,” Wilfred Wong said.

It was quite a turnaround for SCL and the whole gaming sector, after three years of steep decline in revenues following the anti-corruption and anti-money laundering drive put in place in mainland China (the major source of Macau’s visitors) which had a tremendous effect on the VIP sector – the driving force of post gaming liberalization.

For Wong, the turnaround came because “Macau, as a brand, has come into force.”

“We see an increase in the number of visitations, increase in our retail, increase in our hotel occupancy. You know, everything’s gone up and what drove the 2014 spike was the VIP segment and this time it’s more solid.  It’s all segments [mass, premium mass], in addition to the VIP segment, which has also done very well in the last six to nine months,” he said.

In the first six months of 2017, visitor arrivals to Macau totalled nearly 15.6 million, up by 5.4 percent from a year earlier. During this period, the number of overnight visitors rose by 13 percent year-on-year to nearly 8.1 million while the tally of same-day visitors dropped by 1.8 percent to just under 7.5 million.

However, the Sands China president has few doubts about what killed the goose that laid the golden egg “it’s still there.”

“I think that this fight against corruption, the anti-money laundering, they’re going to be here forever.  I believe this is a long-term feature, but if you look at the recent APG report [Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering], Macau really passed with flying colours and I think this is really owing to the combined effort of all of us here because we know that the way it’s conducted means that it’s more sustainable. If the economy in China continues to grow – and it’s still growing at 7 percent – I’d love to see that in my private invested funds!”

Regardless, The Venetian is still the jewel of the crown, said Wong, “It is the only casino that has a profit, or EBITDA, of over a billion US dollars.  It’s impressive and if you look at the number of visitations, it’s still the number one destination for visitors. After St Paul’s Cathedral, the next place they hope to come is The Venetian.”

A bit further south on the Cotai strip, The Parisian became a new must-see destination resort.

The Parisian Macao achieved a quarterly EBITDA of USD135 million, according to the latest LVS earnings call, meeting the “targeted 20 percent annualized rate of return,” said chairman Adelson at the conference.

Recently, the Paris-themed resort has brought to Cotai French inspired shows like Crazy Horse, which ran for two weeks. Meanwhile, there was the first Macau Fashion Week, a world-class fashion display that according to Wilfred Wong “is going to become a permanent yearly event.”

And there is more to come, like a resident show which features “a motorcycle [running inside] a ball […] with a bit of Crazy Horse, a bit of dancing, and maybe magic.”

LVS has invested a total of USD13 billion in Macau since the early 2000s in five integrated-resorts. The company announced recently that it is willing to add some USD1.1 billion to revamp and reinvent Sands Cotai Central into another must-see European-themed city, London.

Wilfred Wong: “Mr Adelson has on many occasions said that in a market where there’s many competitors, he would like to use themed developments in order for people to recognise us and really to serve as a destination, and he has proven this right by the building of The Venetian and The Parisian. Both of them are very successful properties, and one of the problems that I have encountered in Sands Cotai Central (SCC) is the lack of a theme and we have many rooms there, but different hotel brands.  You know, the Sheraton, Conrad and all that and so, what do we call that space? It’s now called SCC, but SCC has a blurred identity.”

The revamp, which will commence within six months and should be completed in 2019, is aimed at boosting SCC’s mass market appeal but targeting a higher-end customer.

The investment will provide 350 luxury suites at St Regis and another 295 suites at a new Four Seasons Tower.

The Londoner will be born out of an entire revamp of the Holiday Inn facility.

“Sheraton has 4,000 rooms.  Conrad is a known brand.  Holiday Inn is also good, but is low yielding. And then we have St Regis [at the top end]. We think that maybe we can use the Holiday Inn and convert it into a themed hotel. […] We’ll be combining rooms to make bigger rooms, similar to the Venetian.”

The company plans to retain the other two hotel brands upon completion, Conrad and Sheraton Grand.

Iconic London landmarks, Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster are likely to be the dominant features of The Londoner Macao.  

President Wong added that at this moment it’s still an open plan. “Those are all the things that have come up in our research as to what are the most recognisable features of London and you’re right – Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Harry Potter – they all came up on top.”

What about Mr Bean, the Wax Museum, we asked. “Yes, all these matters we’re looking at.” 

In The Londoner, said Wong, “we can increase retail and we have space in the Sheraton Hotel that we can build on.  You know, like a bigger ballroom and [other facilities] to support MICE activities, because we see an upsurge in MICE activities in Macau this year.”

This is especially relevant given the imminent opening of the Delta Bridge and the proximity of the Hong Kong Airport.

“Hopefully, that will be a game changer. There will be diversification of markets in terms of the origin of visitors. Right now, Macau is basically regional, mainland China and Southeast Asia, but in the future, we’re looking at people from afar. [We have] already enquiries from Europe and from the US about Macau.”

Wilfred Wong is confident in the investment the company is making, especially close to the expiration of licenses (2020-2022).

“We hope that both the Macau community and the government would see us as a long-term commitment – that we have a long-term commitment in Macau and that we are doing our very best to promote Macau as a world tourism and leisure destination. For example, having in mind the award of this title [by UNESCO], ‘Creative City of Gastronomy.’ We’re doing everything we can to match and to support this title, by creating more F&B space, inviting brand names to come and operating and upgrading our own operations.  So, you can expect to see in the next year or two that there will be some major improvement in our F&B offerings,” Wilfred Wong concluded.

All-Italian feast for Venice, Cotai anniversary

The late writer Austin Coates would say when he was waking up in Venice or in Macau that he could never tell in which city he was. That was in the 1950s and sixties when Macau, from Bela Vista Hotel, where he would inevitability stay, truly resembled a Mediterranean port.

Now decades later, the irony is that a Venice replica emerged in Cotai on August 28, 2007 in a Las Vegas fashion, and in a swamp the surroundings of which looked all but Mediterranean.

On Monday, SCL is showcasing an all-Italian event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the biggest and most lucrative integrated-resort in the world titled, “Very extraordinary – Very Venetian.”

“We have video mapping, which will be a reflection of contemporary art and traditional culture and then fireworks. It will be conducted outside in the lagoon, where you will see probably some gondolas floating through, creating that atmosphere of Venice,” Wilfred Wong told MDT.

The party will cost “slightly less” than that of the opening of the Parisian a little over a year ago.

“We’d like our own people to be showcased,” Wong continued. There are over 8,000 staff who [have] worked at The Venetian for the entire 10 years.

For example, Wilfred Wong revealed that every dish “will be cooked by a chef who has worked here for 10 years and we will live-feed from the kitchen so that the guests outside know who’s preparing the dish.”

With an Italian menu and wine, the gala dinner will also feature The Three Phantoms (three tenors) singing songs from famous musicals and Hong Kong star singer- actress Joey Yung.

Ten years on, The Venetian is undergoing a major renovation which will be completed before the Chinese New Year.

Apart from presiding over the celebrations, the Adelsons will be making a donation to a local charity. The amount was not disclosed. PC

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