New roll of the dice for the casino industry

Across Asia, casino operators are rethinking their operating models, with ramifications for Singapore's casino market

Asia's casino industry has gone through two years of turmoil, exacerbated by slowing global growth and a massive crackdown on corruption in China that is drying up the regular supply of high rollers.

In Macau, casino gross revenues have tumbled from more than US$45 billion (S$62 billion) in 2013 to US$29 billion last year. Any hopes of a respite were dashed with Macau chief executive Fernando Chui's bearish forecast of US$25 billion revenue for 2016.

Until recently, the Macau gambling enclave had thrived on an uninhibited inflow of funds from China. Junket operators ushered in high rollers in droves, offering them ready credit to wager at the tables. But now, a continuing spate of high-profile arrests has forced Chinese government officials with punting penchants to dive for cover.

The casino industry's unfolding dismal business climate is reminiscent of what transpired some 60 years ago on the other side of the Pacific in Las Vegas. Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and the rest of the mafioso were driven out of the casino business that began a clean-up leading to today's more wholesome, family-inclusive Vegas Strip.

Like in Vegas before, the exodus of the old guard presents new opportunities for the reinvention of an industry in Asia that is long due for a makeover after a false start 10 years ago.

Then, the furore over the integrated resort concept proved to be, for most, more cosmetic than substance, with the same ubiquitous business model and clientele beneath.

Casino gross revenues in Macau have tumbled from more than US$45 billion (S$62 billion) in 2013 to US$29 billion last year. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

It is likely that when the dust settles on the industry's current dire circumstances, the sceptre will be relinquished by Macau and passed on to a city in another country, in all likelihood Japan.

Japan has the advantage of hindsight in witnessing the events unfolding in Macau/Asia over the past few years.

It will be more dominant because the country is largely middle class, with a large population of 127 million, good infrastructure and connectivity, and is geographically closer to China which is still the source of many casino customers.

The industry is likely to undergo a metamorphosis, so that frequenting casinos will change from being a seedy and taboo pastime associated with the roguish set to become a more widely acceptable form of entertainment which will take its place in mainstream popular culture in Asia.

Singapore is a case in point - the market is naturally gravitating towards this new equilibrium, as evidenced by the different performances of its two integrated resorts.

Marina Bay Sands (MBS) has risen to become the most profitable casino in the world, while the other has tracked the decline in Macau. MBS rode the tide through recalibrating its business model to focus on the growing Asian middle class and new wealth, and weaning off over-dependence on Chinese high rollers.

Asian casino companies have found it hard to shed their ingrained business practices and have so far managed only a weak parody of the management style of their American counterparts.

Thus, while analysts lauded the Singapore casino market as a success which other jurisdictions should emulate, the term "Singapore casino market" is a misnomer because the market is a duopoly of only two companies with very polarised operating models and business performance.

I think it will not be surprising if the Singapore Government moots a third integrated resort, as the Asian casino market advances towards the new normal.

Japan, meanwhile, can count itself lucky that the Diet did not pass its casino legislation when it was first tabled in 2014. The delay put paid to plans for Japan to have its first integrated resort ready in time for the 2020 Olympics. It has proven to be a blessing in disguise, allowing Japan to be a bystander to the industry's turbulence of the last 24 months.

This new direction for the industry may tip the scales for gaming legislation to be debated in the Japan Diet later this year, and perhaps finally be passed early next year. Japan lawmakers can reformulate their draft gaming legislation to address market dynamics and be at the vanguard of a new dawn for a more benign Asian casino industry.

One changed dynamic is that attention will shift towards the growing affluent Chinese middle class and the nouveau riche with legitimate and growing disposable incomes, away from those with more dubious sources of funds with their inherent risk of money laundering.

A few casinos in Asia have buffered the market downswing by nurturing the middle-class customer segment, which they classify as the premium mass market. White-collar professionals are less prone to social problems associated with casino gambling, compared to the more financially vulnerable working class.

The demise of the traditional Macau-style VIP rooms and their associated unsavoury elements also significantly reduces the risks of money laundering and triad-related vice activities.

Thus, while naysayers in the industry bemoan the stiff hand of the Chinese government that has slowed growth, it may catalyse the development of a more sustainable future in the long haul.

The emergence of more entertainment-focused casino resorts can thrust the industry into the mainstream leisure sphere in Asia, and widen its appeal to a larger audience.

Asian casino operators might just finally learn from the Americans, who deliver a casino product in the spirit of good, clean fun. Many of the new multibillion-dollar Asian resorts do offer a plethora of entertainment options; however, the entertainment is delineated from casino gaming, whereas in Las Vegas, the casino is integral to the entertainment mix.

This new order may be the spark needed to remove the final vestiges of inhibition and resistance of governments which have agonised for many years over permitting casinos within their borders.

If so, it will herald a new wave of integrated resorts, first with Japan, closely followed by Taiwan and Thailand. The ever intuitive Singapore Government will act proactively to tinker its integrated resort (IR) model to counter the new resurgence in competition, perhaps with a third IR, to maintain and consolidate its market share.

  • The writer is senior vice-president at Hard Rock International.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'New roll of the dice for the casino industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe