Granted, I was far from the first gaming industry journalist to visit Macau when the Venetian Macao opened in August 2007. I had heard so much about the “capital of gaming” because even 15 years ago, the revenues it achieved far outpaced any other gaming jurisdiction in the world, including Las Vegas. I had a good frame of reference for the opening of the Venetian since I had spent so much time in the Las Vegas version of the same property. But the Macau version just seemed bigger and better—and certainly more crowded. And I was immediately hooked.
As a former dealer, I relished a casino floor comprised largely of baccarat tables, my favorite game to deal. Those pesky slot machines were limited to the margins of the casino floors, and, at that time, weren’t very popular.
I returned to Macau every year until 2017 because I had been a consultant to G2E Asia, helping them set up the conference program at the event. Every year I’d return, there would be a spectacular new property, whether it was an expansion of the Las Vegas Sands footprint, the amazing Galaxy project, which will debut Phase IV in 2023, Melco’s City of Dreams integrated resort with several different fabulous hotel brands and spectacular architecture, the two other U.S. entries, Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts, each of which had familiar, yet Asian-focused properties, and of course the original SJM, Stanley Ho’s family flagship, Lisboa.
I came to look forward to my trips each year, not only for the amazing facilities that were going up but also for the incredible executives who were truly making it the world capital of gaming. Of course it all started with Mr. Ho, but it truly broke out with the vision of Sheldon Adelson, who saw gold in a wet, reedy marsh separating two neighborhoods in Macau. Adelson, along with Bill Weidner, Brad Stone and Rob Goldstein, transformed that marsh in what we know as the Cotai region today, home to almost a dozen integrated resorts, with thousands of hotel rooms, many hectares of meeting space, non-gaming attractions and restaurants that will satisfy any taste bud. I’d start to list the executives in Macau that I was most impressed with but I’m sure I’d leave out someone important, but it’s safe to say that they were some of the most talented and innovative people that I’ve met in my 40-plus years in gaming.
Since I haven’t been back since 2017, it’s almost inconceivable to me that those casino floors that were once packed from morning to night with players wagering side by side and over the shoulders should be sparse and empty. The pandemic has almost been a death knell for the gaming industry in Macau. The companies have poured millions of dollars into the maintenance of their properties and the well-being of their workforce, with little in return. The “zero tolerance” policy of mainland China seems to be insane given how the rest of the world has recovered from the Covid situation. Yes, there are still cases popping up all over the world, but their severity is much diminished, and to sacrifice the gaming industry at that altar seems to be short-sighted.
And then we’ve got the situation with the VIP operators, the junket guys. When I was helping to put together the G2E Asia conference program, we always tried to include a panel of experts to talk about that market, which contributed around 70 percent of gaming revenue in those days. The VIP market was not the players on the main casino floor. They all had special rooms that they had built inside the casinos to host their players in the luxury—and privacy—they desired.
So it wasn’t always easy to get them to participate. But one year we had a panel consisting of some of the most powerful junket operators in town, and someone asked a question about the amount of money gambled on the tables—and beneath them, in the form of illegal bets. There was no hesitation when the operator answered there was 10 to 20 times more money bet under the tables than on them. There was an audible gasp throughout the room, but I saw the fellow panelists all nodding their heads.
With the recent crackdown on these VIP companies, that situation is over. The casino companies are now focusing on what they call the “premium mass,” that is, the good players but not the “whales” of the VIP market. For sure, those whales will return, but it will be under the strict rules of the Chinese government.
So the “good old days” of the “Wild West” Macau are clearly over. When—and if—the Chinese government reopens the borders, satisfied they stamped out every last case of Covid, Macau still won’t be the same. It will no longer be the sole capital of gaming. It will still be a great market, but one that will compete with many great markets in Asia.
I’ll miss the old Macau, but look forward to its bright new future.