G2E Asia has been on in Macau this week. The expo expanded into Asia in 2007 from its Las Vegas foundation at a time when there was clearly a need perceived by the American-centric industry and its investor base to understand the phenomenon and exploit the profitability and potential that was gaming in Asia and, in particular, Macau.
Our sleepy hollow had gone from variously being called The Monte Carlo of the Orient to Las Vegas of the East, and blossomed to seven times the revenue of the Las Vegas Strip. It had morphed in style from its own quaint exotic European vibe, through potential faux-American glitz to something quintessentially Macau but inexplicably Chinese. During this time, gaming volume and tourism numbers shifted dramatically; and a realisation that gaming markets, player psychology, regulatory maturity and the degree of extra-jurisdictional influence differed from western markets all created a thirst for knowledge and kept interest levels high.
The shift from an American-centric perspective to an Asian one in management of the expo itself also occurred over that time as contacts and networking within this Asian region were built and consolidated. Although there were a few stalwart industry professionals long active in the region, the speakers initially invited onto the podium were Americans selling their wares and their erstwhile superior gaming knowledge to our ‘developing’ market.
The line-up started to change along with the realisation that what we had here could not necessarily be managed in the same way or with the same mindset. The expo became a valuable way to gain insight and to explore gaming in Asia, to make contact with people and information not readily accessible from outside: it was an entrée to an understanding of opaque junket operations, gaming regulation and matters peculiar to Macau such as infrastructure bottlenecks, and workforce quality and quantity. The string of experts speculating on and predicting Beijing’s next move in command and control kept the media busy and bottoms on seats.
As competition increased for Macau and the writing was on the wall that flow of people and capital would be more or less controlled from outside, the expo broadened its scope and strengthened its network by looking to fledgling gaming jurisdictions. Conversations were had about the Philippines, then Taiwan, Cambodia, the on-again off-again interest in South Korea, and more recently Vietnam and the jurisdiction to salivate over, Japan – perhaps a destination for G2E Asia one day should the enthusiasm over those new IR opportunities be realised.
As with almost anything in life, the pendulum swings. The shine is off Macau, expo management shows again signs of ambivalence towards regional expertise, and investors from outside have renewed their hunt for opportunities to get in the game and suppliers are plying their wares with renewed vigour. A sense from the ground is that this year’s expo is “all opinions, no substance” with the conference being an unabashed promotion of US interests with some vendors being invited onto panels not entirely in mesh with the topics at hand. This Asian conference has returned to having – with a few predictably reliable exceptions – a lot of white heads talking: the regional colour, so to speak, missing.
As each year, this year I tried, really tried, to navigate the G2E Asia website. If my interest had been cursory, I would surely have given up, but once I managed to rein in the irritation from having to pause (18 times as I write) the incessant force-fed pop-up advertising video – “Legends of Asia, entering through the gate…” – at every click on the site, something odd caught my attention. All the sessions in the conference program were stated to be in American. Not English; American. The symbolism is not lost on me.