As chairman of Melco, one of Macau’s largest resort development firms, it is in Lawrence Ho’s interest to remind people how different the Cotai Strip looked just a short time ago, the better to draw the contrast with today.
“Back in 2003, Macau was quite literally a smoky gambling den,” Ho said in an opening address at G2E Asia, the global gaming expo that recently hosted some 15,000 local and international guests in Macau’s Venetian hotel.
“Luxury didn’t exist, entertainment didn’t exist. So when I said I was going to build a five-star hotel with a spa and luxury restaurants, everyone said I was insane."
Ho and Melco went on to build the Altira hotel, followed by the City of Dreams, a multi-themed, integrated resort that, as of June 15, will add another 770 rooms to its portfolio with the opening of a new hotel, Morpheus.
Designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid as a “sculpture” covered in an “exoskeleton mesh”, Morpheus is a US$1.1billion project expected to attract a new wave of what Ho calls “premium mass” visitors with its extravagant restaurants, high speed lifts and range of suites and villas.
What does it mean for business travellers and incentive groups considering Macau? The new Morpheus does have some impressive spaces designed for meetings, including a private room on a 30th floor "sky bridge’" suspended over one of the building’s eye-catching voids. For the most part, however, Morpheus’s opening will allow the resort to refocus on and improve its existing MICE propositions, said Melco’s chairman.
“The Grand Hyatt is really our MICE facility and so I think with the opening of Morpheus and diverting more of our gaming guests over there, it will give us more opportunity to do even more MICE events,” Ho told CEI Asia.
“Our positioning for Grand Hyatt for events is always on the higher end. Rather than big cheap exhibitions, it is more of the better incentive groups and that does dovetail into what City of Dreams is really all about as a higher end, premium luxury resort.”
The opening of Morpheus, combined with other new builds like The 13 Hotel and the hosting of events like G2E, are a sign that Macau is getting “more and more sophisticated” in its MICE offerings, according to Josephine Lee, COO of Reed Exhibitions Greater China, which co-organises G2E Asia with the American Gaming Association.
G2E is on its 12th annual run in Macau and is experiencing a 20-30% year-on-year increase in visitor numbers, said Lee: this year’s 37,000sqm event space is 30% larger than last year. “A lot of famous conferences are choosing Macau as the destination,” said Lee. “Infrastructure-wise, it is unbeatable.”
There are some healthy numbers to support this view. According to the Statistics and Census Bureau (DSEC), a total of 1,381 MICE events were organised in Macau in 2017, a small rise on 2016.
The number of participants and attendees, however, rose to 1,901,000, a significant 23.8% jump on the previous year. The number of hotel rooms in Macau is also set to rise by almost a third in coming years, with 20 projects under construction and 27 more in planning stages, and the opening of the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge this summer will give Macau another valuable transport connection with both Hong Kong and mainland China.
If there are any obstacles to growth, thinks Lee, they will centre on the fact that development in Macau has been so rapid that the skills of the local workforce haven’t been able to keep up. The number of participants attending courses related to tourism, gaming and MICE events rose 128.2% year-on-year in Macau to 7,327 in 2017, according to the DSEC.
Sourcing and developing skilled talent was a resounding theme at talks by several of Macau’s resort leaders at the G2E Asia conference, rooted in the fact that many of the region’s top hotels hold outstanding service as a key differentiator.
Wilfred Wong, president and executive director of Sands China Limited, says that improving computer literacy among young people is a crucial next step to securing Macau’s leisure and business future.
“We need to do a lot more to attract young people to come to Macau,” said Wong. “Why has Shenzhen been able to grow into the third largest city in China economically? It’s because they offer a lot to the young people, to the smart people. Macau will have to be selective and attract these young people to start their business here.”
Despite a talent shortage, Josephine Lee predicts that Macau will remain competitive as a business events and incentives destination “at least in the short to mid-term,” because it is so well set up for MICE events. “You can stage a big event like this,” she said, referring to G2E, “and stay within five minutes of the hotel. Events aren’t affected by weather and you have very good facilities to run high-tech conferences.”
At G2E, for instance, Reed introduced a number of tech advancements. These include the "wayfinder", a 3D directional sign that allows delegates to key in their desired exhibitor and follow a route to find them.
A new ‘Match Me’ system also helped link guests with show vendors. It polls both visitors about their interests and exhibitors about their strengths, then generates matches prior to the event that can be collected as a print booklet on arrival. Whenever exhibitor information is downloaded, that exhibitor will earn a point that is accumulated on a ‘Hot Hits’ screen at the event, explained Lee, enabling visitors without particular targets in mind to see what’s popular on the day.
Beyond the conference halls, there’s a clear recognition by the senior players in Macau that attracting MICE visitors means working to improve leisure facilities and attractions in a more general sense.
Macau’s key attraction – gambling – is showing no signs of declining in popularity. This month marks the 21st consecutive month of gaming revenue growth, with casinos reporting a 27.6% improvement on revenue over this time last year.
“We should not be shy that we have the gaming sector,” said Wilfred Wong. “We are the only city in China where gaming is allowed, so this is our unique advantage and we should take full advantage of that.”
He acknowledged, however, that gaming needs to be just one segment of Macau’s offer, with “many more services” in the mix. This echoes a key conviction of Lawrence Ho that his hotels should go “beyond gaming”, offering a rounded package that keeps all types of visitors returning.
William Shen, senior vice president and managing director for Korea and Japan at Caesars Entertainment Corp, refers to such offerings as "ancillary", and says they are “a key differentiator” for MICE players to stay ahead of the competition.
Attracting MICE is about “being able to be in the right locations with a quality product and then having the ancillary offer, such as those we offer in Las Vegas with the banquet business, and also entertainment offers to appeal to these convention offers and conference organisers.”
Macau has plenty of interesting "ancillary" plans in the offing that should keep it on the MICE map in the future. The Macao Government Tourism Office is already working with potential investors on maritime products, for example.
Tourism Office Director Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes said she hopes to share “good news” concerning infrastructural concerns around these plans later in the year. “In our master plan we made public last year, one of the strong recommendations was to use the coastal areas much better, creating not just products on the water but along the shoreline," she said.
At Studio City in the City of Dreams, Ho also plans to “dial up entertainment in an insane way”, with new partners and a new stunt show set to open in December. He will also introduce “Asia’s largest VR zone, an adventureland in technology”, as well as a new retail concept.
“We’ll be creating our own shopping environment, running the whole place as a popup and inviting and rotating some of the coolest brands in the world through a 1500 sqm space that we'll be operating ourselves,” says Ho.
Why? Ho’s answer is simple: “Because these days everywhere is starting to look and feel the same.” How Macau will look in another few decades is hard to imagine – but it’s unlikely to resemble anywhere else.