WHAT’S BROUGHT THE HIGH ROLLERS BACK TO MACAU?

Batman rides, water slides and scale models of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower – it was attractions like these that were supposed to represent the future of Macau. Gone was the city’s past as a destination reliant on high-rolling gamblers, in its place an image of nirvana for middle-class tourists who came for the fun and the spectacle – then lingered to bet a few bucks.

That was the vision of government officials, casino operators, financial analysts and tourism experts when Macau’s overreliance on high-rolling gamblers – “VIP players” in casino speak – hit the seemingly unsurmountable stumbling blocks of a slowing Chinese economy and a crackdown on corruption by Chinese President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ). The city endured a two-year slump from June 2014, during which time it rethought its target audience, adding 8,200 new guest rooms and HK$100 billion of hospitality hardware in Cotai, most of it – like the half-scale Eiffel Tower and theme-park style attractions – aimed squarely at the mass market.

  

The Parisian Macao’s half-scale Eiffel Tower. File photo

Yet, while that investment has undoubtedly helped, it is revenue from another source that is doing most to drive the city’s recovery – that of returning VIP gamblers.

June marked Macau’s 11th straight month of rising gross gaming revenue (GGR), following 26 months of year-on-year declines. The rebound has been dramatic and dynamic, so much so that analysts called June’s 26 per cent rise to HK$19.4 billion a disappointment. Over those 11 months of recovery, GGR has risen 13 per cent to HK$217 billion, but since the start of this year, VIP revenue has grown faster and the trend is accelerating. In this year’s first quarter, government figures show VIP revenue – from high rollers in private rooms, often playing on credit provided by the casino or junket promoters – grew 17 per cent, double the rate for mass market revenue from the main casino floor. A second-quarter breakdown from Macau’s casino regulator will be issued later this month.

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Dealers wait for customers inside Melco Crown Entertainment’s City of Dreams in Macau. Photo: Reuters

Most analysts contend official numbers overstate VIP revenue and rely on other sources including casino operators. But even Union Gaming’s managing director in Macau, Grant Govertsen, long a cheerleader for Macau’s mass-market future, concedes that VIP revenue is now growing faster. Rather than a “mass led” recovery, Govertsen now calls it “mass anchored”.

JP Morgan analysts DS Kim and Sean Zhuang estimate VIP revenue growth overtook mass market in the second quarter (28 per cent vs 17 per cent; 42 per cent vs 14 per cent in June) for the first time since the third quarter of 2011. For the six months through June, JP Morgan estimates VIP revenue has grown 19 per cent, compared with 16 per cent for mass. It upgraded full-year growth forecasts to 17 per cent for VIP and 13 per cent for mass.

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Investment bank Sanford Bernstein credits robust VIP growth to China’s economic improvement, a “recovered” junket system – following multiple high-profile thefts in the hundreds of millions dollars since 2014, plus widespread consolidation as debt collections plummeted – strong liquidity to finance lending to players and a moderating anti-corruption campaign.

Visitors use smartphones to photograph a light show at the Galaxy Macau casino and hotel. Photo: Bloomberg

The arrest of Australian casino operator Crown Resorts employees in China last October – 19 were convicted last month – has also boosted Macau’s VIP sector. Many casino firms reportedly shut their mainland marketing operations after the arrests, making them more reliant on Macau junket promoters to deliver VIPs. Wynn Palace, opened last August, further revived VIP interest.

However, the city’s nod to the mass market is also helping. Melco Resorts’ Studio City and Sands China’s Parisian, which both took literally the government’s directive to make Macau a centre for tourism, are both proving popular. Studio City has a Hollywood theme, multi-stage magic show, the world’s highest figure-of-eight observation wheel and more.

Riffing off the Venetian, the Parisian reproduces more than a dozen City of Light landmarks. Steve Wynn said Wynn Palace aimed simply to be “the most beautiful hotel in the world”, and tourists would have to come see it. There is also some crossover – Wynn Palace might be tempting the tourists, but it has also proven very popular with VIP gamers.

Cable cars at Wynn Palace in Macau. Casino operators in the city have turned their attention to attracting mass market customers rather than high rolling gamblers. Photo: Reuters

David Bonnet of gaming and real estate adviser Delta State Holdings sees “significant recovery underway, primarily driven by incremental visitation due to the Wynn Palace and Parisian Macao openings. Revenue gains consistent with a long-term sustainable recovery [are] due to increased competition but are also helped by a revenue shift from VIP to mass casino business and therefore increased gross profit.”

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Indeed, VIP profit margins are one-third or less than those of mass market play.

Casinos won’t make up the difference on volume: at this year’s growth rates, VIP revenue will barely reach half of what it was in 2013. Macau’s future remains its transition to mass market.

“This shift in the market should continue over the coming years, driven by incremental capacity expansion [new hotels, casinos, retail, and entertainment offerings] and transportation improvements in and around Macau, with increasing visitation and greater penetration of China,” said Sanford Bernstein analysts Vitaly Umansky, Zhen Gong and Yang Xie in a report on Macau titled Ascent of the Masses.

Increased overnight stays, up 14 per cent this year according to the latest Macau government figures, illustrate growing tourist appeal.

But new guests are most likely to come from the high end of the market. Unlike Las Vegas, Macau is still searching for its formula to open mass market wallets outside the casino.

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