Singapore conducted an extremely competitive bidding process to build an integrated resort in Marina Bay before selecting Las Vegas Sands (LVS) in 2006. Looking back, what lessons are there to be learned from LVS's successful proposal?
It was critical to understand what goals the government wanted to achieve through the introduction of integrated resorts (IRs) and for LVS to design a property that would help to achieve all of those goals. We did a good job of understanding the market in terms of what was already here and what the market needed in order to achieve the tourism and economic goals of the government. We understood what infrastructure and what attractions were missing and what was essential for Singapore’s future in order to be competitive with other markets. We also had a good plan of how we wanted to program the property.
Another essential element of our bid was the selection of Moshe Safdie as our architect. He created a design that was ideal for this particular location and took advantage of the fact that this location is one with 360 degrees of visibility. You have Marina Bay on one side and the gardens on the other side, a perfect opportunity to have iconic architecture on a skyline that could be seen from all around Singapore. He created something that was visually stunning and that was functional. It laid out the different uses and elements in a way that was very good for the customer. We then faced the task of figuring out how to program Moshe’s design with the most exciting and interesting attractions and amenities.
From day one, there was a lot of interest in this process from a media standpoint because it began with a high profile competitive bid. Then, once people saw our design, they got even more excited. As we went through the process of developing relationships with different parties we got very positive feedback. Whether it was retailers or people who could program our theater, museum, or parties we could work with to establish our MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) operation. We were met with very high engagement from those parties that made our lives much easier. As a result, we put together a bid that responded effectively to the government that assured them we were going to help them to achieve all of the goals that they had established for IRs.
Ten years have passed since Marina Bay Sands (MBS) in Singapore opened to the public. From a financial standpoint, it has been the world’s most successful integrated resort. Why has MBS been so successful?
It’s a combination of things. One reason is that we have such strong alignment with the government. We are not left to manage our operations and market Marina Bay Sands or Singapore on our own. Instead we work very closely with the Singapore Tourism Board to promote Singapore as a leisure and business tourism destination. Our interests are aligned in doing that and the government has set up a well-established system to promote Singapore and the integrated resorts. So when we combine our efforts with theirs, it’s very powerful.
We’ve also been successful because we’ve made good decisions from the beginning in terms of what the design should be and how we should program it. But of course, we’ve made mistakes and some things haven’t been optimal. The key is to not sit on mistakes or allow underperforming aspects of the operation to languish, but instead to be proactive and reinvest in the buildings and correct mistakes and replace underperforming elements with stronger ones and continue to monitor your customers’ feedback. The customer speaks to us thousands of times a day through thousands of transactions in the building. We can learn a lot by listening, observing, and asking questions. Because we’ve been successful financially, we’ve been able to constantly reinvest in the building to keep it strong, current, and attractive to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations.
Of all the original goals identified by the government in its decision to support this undertaking, which has MBS been most successful in accomplishing? Which, if any, have been a struggle?
We’ve been successful in achieving all of the original goals set for us by the government. But Singapore, as you know, is never complacent. It is forever raising the bar, which is no problem for us because that is our attitude as well. Even though we’ve substantially accomplished the goal of raising the number of tourists coming to Singapore and increasing the amount they spend, we’re never satisfied. We’re always pushing for more. Of course, none of these goals have been easy. I don’t want to suggest it was a cakewalk, but we have a great team here of over 10,000 employees. We have expertise in all areas of our business and have coordinated in a way where we can push for higher results on a daily basis. So, we keep moving in that direction and I’m glad we have been successful.
But you ask what our greatest struggle has been. Our effort to expand MBS has been one of our most substantial challenges. We’ve been pushing for that opportunity almost since the day we opened, initially looking at a site across the road located by the Gardens by the Bay, which was designated for a boutique hotel. After a few years of negotiation, we were able to come to an agreement with the government to expand MBS on a different parcel of land. It was a long process and we kept approaching it from different angles and proposing different options and finally we reached an agreement. It will add a substantial number of hotel rooms, more exhibition space to support our MICE business, and an arena that will have a capacity of 15,000. That will be a very exciting addition to MBS and Singapore.
Many constituencies in Asian markets oppose the establishment of integrated resorts fearing that they contribute to problem gambling. In your view, how can integrated resorts be part of the solution to this issue? What are the most important lessons from MBS’s unique approach to this issue that others can learn from?
The Singapore experience remains the best illustration of that. People were a bit concerned when it was announced that casinos would be allowed in Singapore. It is unfortunate that the general public often has misperceptions about the risks of casino-style gambling and gambling in general. However, what Singapore has proven is that if you select the right operator, a responsible operator, and you create a system of laws and regulations with broad-based social safeguards, you can actually reduce risks of gambling.
In fact, what you’ve seen in Singapore is that the rate of problem gambling before IRs opened was actually higher than it is today. It seems counter-intuitive that you would introduce a new form of gambling and your rate of problem gambling would go down. But the reason for that is that casino-style gambling is the least risky form of gambling in the sense that it has the strictest laws and regulations. These rules focus on addressing these types of risks and have led to practices and procedures that have been proven to address the issue and effectively mitigate risk as much as possible.
One element of that is building an awareness of what problem gambling is and what the telltale signs of it are. We’ve helped publicize what you should do if you or a friend or family member is experiencing it, along with what resources you can reach out to for support and for help. So what happens is when IRs and casino-style gambling comes into the new market that has other forms of gambling, you see an opportunity to educate the public, to put in place rules and regulations that provide protections that are not present in other forms of gambling. As a result, it actually puts pressure on these other forms of gambling to adopt these safe practices and procedures and as a result, as seen in Singapore, the rate of problem gambling actually falls.
We face the challenge in every new market that we go to that people think casinos will increase the problem. But if you can showcase the Singapore example, they have a better understanding of how it will mitigate the risks and how you can structure your laws and regulations and how is it you run a process to pick the right operator so you have someone who is aligned with the government on these topics, and then you work together to make sure you protect people who might be vulnerable. It’s not the easiest concept to educate governments and public on, because it takes a fair amount of attention and understanding. We view it as a process in every market to explain that. In that sense IRs and casino-style gambling can be part of the solution as opposed to a contributor to the problem.
The hotel portion of MBS has enjoyed 95-99% occupancy rate since its opening, but since March 23rd, Singapore has closed its borders to tourists. In the short term, how has Marina Bay Sands responded to this challenge in addition to the other restrictions imposed by the government to control the spread of Covid-19?
Our initial response, of course, was to close from April to July. However, during that period we didn’t lay off any of our staff—in fact we still haven’t. But during the closure there were certain categories of employees that continued to work, such as the facilities staff and security staff. Our executive team was working from home, so even though we were closed there were certain aspects of our business that we had to continue to manage and operate.
The first step to reopening occurred in late May when for two months we accepted and housed some of the people who were subject to the stay-home notices for 14-day quarantine, which typically consisted of returning Singaporeans or permanent residents who were coming home after the rule was put into effect. So, we were one of the hotels that housed those people and it was a good way to ease back into operations under a new environment that required different practices and procedures, such as contactless check-in, amongst other things.
Then later in July we re-opened the hotel and started that process very slowly. We didn’t open 100% of all rooms for sale, it was about 50% and we kept bumping that number up. Again, we were easing into it and making sure we had practices in place that were effective and that would provide our customers with safety and comfort. Because foreign tourists are not able to come in now, the new business we’ve been doing is staycations, where residents of Singapore including citizens, permanent residents, and people with employment passes can stay on the property.
For our other facilities, we are continually looking at new kinds of technology to help us in different ways. One example is with our MICE operation; we’ve introduced a hybrid broadcast studio which is going to allow MICE events to take place where it’s a split between virtual and in-person activities. It’s basically like a television studio that can be used for MICE events. You might have seen the news that the government is going to start to allow us to have larger and larger groups of MICE delegates come in for events, but it will be a slow ramp-up so that the whole business doesn’t have to essentially shut down.
Do you see Covid-19 as a having a long-term impact on IRs and the global tourism market?
In terms of Covid, obviously this is a challenging time and we have to be very active and creative to find new ways to make sure we address all the issues. But ultimately, I’m quite optimistic that we will get things under control. Everyone talks about a new normal, there will be some new practices in place, but I do believe people will return to traveling for both business and leisure again. Overall, I think there will be some good that comes out of this.
For example, there will be a higher standard on hygiene and cleanliness. That is not to suggest this wasn’t a top priority of ours or others in our industry pre-pandemic, but it has heightened our attention to these matters, and we’ll use new practices, procedures, and technology that will lift standards and that will be good for everybody.
I believe that the global tourism industry will just continue to grow once we have been through this phase. There’s probably going to be pent-up demand for both business and leisure travel. I also think that as there is greater awareness from internet usage about different places in the world, more people in our region will just want to get out and explore more and see different things. Especially considering how travel is increasingly affordable on a relative basis. I think in the long run, the industry is going to continue to grow and travel will re-emerge as an essential part of daily life.
LVS announced its withdrawal from attempting to build a new integrated resort in Japan in May of this year. What led LVS to making that decision?
It was no single reason; it was really a combination of factors. Anytime that we’re looking at a new market and facing a substantial investment opportunity we have a rigorous process that we go through to evaluate the risk and estimate the return for our investors. Although we’ve been enthusiastic about Japan, and I’ve personally been travelling there representing the company for over a decade, ultimately the deal that was shaping up looked to be pretty challenging and very expensive. We ultimately decided that it wasn’t the right opportunity for LVS.
It doesn’t mean that we’ve lost interest in Japan and we’re hopeful that there may be possibly some adjustments to the investment parameters that take into account concerns of investors so that it might become a possibility for the future. I have no indication whether that will happen but, in the meantime, we’ll continue to follow developments in Japan and hope that maybe someday we’ll find the opportunity that fits our parameters and expectations.
Are there any key lessons from the experience in Japan that the industry might carry through as it looks towards other markets in Asia?
Governments considering the introduction of IRs should study the process of many countries such as Singapore to determine what approach will work best for them. Singapore had a very different approach than Japan did, and they can compare and contrast these different approaches to learn things. Ultimately, if IRs get built in Japan, different countries will be able to evaluate the product that is created and assess the performance of different IRs and different markets and then draw their own conclusions about how they should structure the opportunity if they are inclined to open IRs in their own markets.
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