Macau casinos eye resorts to counter slowdown

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As revenue plummets at China's only legal gambling hub, global casino operators have a new mantra - what happens in Vegas, must also happen in Macau.

Diversifying into hotels, entertainment and retail is the only game in town for companies like Melco Crown Entertainment and Galaxy Entertainment Group. The latter's two new resort projects, worth $3.2 billion, open in Macau later on Wednesday.

Nevada's casino giants blazed a trail in 1999, as Las Vegas sought to shed its 'Sin City' image and become a tourist destination, and non-gaming now accounts for more than two-thirds of total revenue. In Macau, the motivation is different, but urgent - gaming revenue is set to drop 26-30 percent this year as Beijing's unrelenting clampdown on corruption saps appetite for ostentatious gambling.

"We have really focused our attention on things beyond gaming to reach out for a new group of people and tap into new revenue streams," said JD Clayton, president of Melco's Studio City resort project, speaking this month at a conference.

For Macau casinos, a period of stabilization beckons?
For Macau casinos, a period of stabilization beckons?   

Macau operators have little option but to consider such moves, with gaming still accounting for around 90 percent of revenue. As well as the mainland's crackdown, Macau's government is forcing casino firms, also including SJM Holdings , MGM China Holdings, Wynn Macau and Sands China, to diversify resorts being built on the Vegas-style Cotai strip by allocating coveted gaming tables based on non-gaming amenities.

Galaxy, whose new facilities include a Broadway-themed hotel, a street food market and a river adventure ride, has been awarded 150 gaming tables - well below the 400 it asked for.

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According to company data, Cotai strip casino facilities, which also provide a range of leisure and retail options, make up to seven times more in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization than casinos on Macau's teeming main peninsula. Retail has provided a buffer - particularly for Sands - even as gaming table revenue in the territory has slumped for 11 straight months.

Michelin, Batman attractions

Industry executives say differences in Chinese cultural behaviour mean Macau is never likely to match Vegas for non-gaming revenue growth. Still, change is under way, with the average length of stay in hotel casinos edging up to 1.5 nights in the first two months of this year from 1.4 nights last year, according to statistics from Macau's tourism bureau.

Marriott: 'Hotel occupancy still good in Macau'
Marriott: 'Hotel occupancy still good in Macau'   

That's been encouraged by Macau's 29,000 hotel rooms - Vegas has an estimated 60,000 - offering discounts to encourage longer trips and spur spending, say analysts.

Another encouragement - the number of Michelin-star restaurants in Macau has more than doubled since 2009. And tourist attractions are multiplying, with Melco's Studio City featuring a giant Ferris wheel and a Batman movie-themed ride at the resort when it opens in the second half of this year.

The non-gaming push requires investment and isn't without risk. Lackluster demand for the Cirque du Soleil Zaia show forced Sands China to cancel a 10-year contract after three and a half years, while Wynn shut its only Macau night club due to customers' preference for baccarat tables.

But operators have no choice but to diversify, said Tom Arasi, former head of Las Vegas Sands's Singapore resort.

"It doesn't really matter what we think. Governments are going to give these treasured gaming licenses provided that we do this," said Arasi, now president and chief operating officer of the Philippines Solaire Resort in Manila.