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Chris Jones

Vegas Casinos Cash In on Chinese New Year

27 January 2006

LAS VEGAS -- Sunday marks the start of Year 4704 on the Chinese calendar, a 12-month period known as the Year of the Dog.

And like Pavlov's fabled pooch, Las Vegas casino operators are salivating to play host to scores of Asian gamblers who'll celebrate the holiday over $150,000 hands of baccarat.

When it comes to padding a casino's bottom line, Chinese New Year is as close to a sure thing as exists in the gaming realm.

New millionaires are created regularly in China, where gambling is always a popular pastime. This also is their culture's preferred time to travel.

Placing those elements together explains why Chinese New Year is a critical period for building relationships that drive businesses years into the future, Las Vegas gaming executives said.

"I can't explain (it), but there's obviously something empirically fascinating to people in the Asian culture as far as gambling," said Terry Lanni, chairman of MGM Mirage. "They're big risk-takers in their businesses ... and they do the same in gaming."

Such traits, Lanni said, make wealthy Asians "the quintessential player" for casinos interested in high-end play.

Aggressive wooing of Asian gamblers has been a staple at Caesars Palace for decades.

Wynn Resorts, whose Wynn Las Vegas soon will welcome a sister venue in Macau, is also a big player, as is MGM Mirage, whose Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand and The Mirage each benefits from Far Eastern clientele.

Asian gamblers are also critical for Las Vegas Sands Corp., the first Las Vegas company to expand into Asia through a pair of casino projects in Macau, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.

"Macau is like a farm for us. We bring in a lot of new players, unknown players. We get to know them and then try to bring them over to Las Vegas," said Larry Chiu, a Hong Kong native who's The Venetian's executive vice president of international marketing.

Calculating the number of Asian players in town this week is as easy as counting bricks in the Great Wall; casinos aren't willing to tip their hands, and many players enjoy their anonymity.

The best measure typically is baccarat play. Gamblers in Nevada wagered $751 million on the game in February 2005, up more than 177 percent from February 2004.

Frank Streshley, senior research analyst with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, credited the month's success to Chinese New Year as well as high-rolling football fans in town for Super Bowl-themed events.

Earning Asian money isn't always easy, however, because players often casino-hop, Lanni said. Once they've gambled enough at a resort to earn complimentary air fare, they'll move elsewhere to qualify for complimentary hotel stays or other perks.

"Many people will go to our parties, The Venetian's party, Wynn's parties and Caesars' party," Lanni explained. "Our goal, and we're not always successful, is to make sure those visits stay within the MGM Mirage family."

This week's events will connect casinos on opposite ends of the Pacific Rim.

Chiu's company, then privately held, opened Sands Macau in May 2004. The 1 million-square-foot casino project, which cost about $240 million, was heralded as the first "Las Vegas-style" casino in a market long monopolized by Chinese gaming tycoon Stanley Ho.

Las Vegas Sands also is developing The Venetian Macau, a $1.8 billion project anchoring the Cotai Strip, a seaside development that will include hotels from Marriott International and Four Seasons, among others.

For the first time, The Venetian this week will send Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson's personal Boeing 767 to Hong Kong to pick up nearly 50 Asian players. They'll fly here for a VIP party Saturday evening.

Half of those players are new customers developed through Sands Macau.

"They'll feel like Sands (Macau) is taking care of them, The Venetian is taking care of them," Chiu said. "Sister properties."

MGM Mirage prefers smaller jets when ferrying its high rollers across the Pacific.

"We've found in many instances that very high net-worth people don't like to fly with other people of high net worth," Lanni said. "It makes them feel a little less important.

"Rarely can you put those people together because their egos don't adjust well."

Regardless of how they get here, Lanni said MGM Mirage will offer its best to Asian guests this week, from suites at MGM Grand's Mansion to special meals and Cirque du Soleil shows.

Personal attention is critical, so the company -- like its peers -- employs sales representatives in mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong specifically to meet Asian players' year-round needs.

MGM Mirage also will open the nearly $1 billion MGM Grand Macau late next year.

"There are a lot of millionaires being created in China," Lanni said. "We should all be seeking that business, and I think there's enough to go around."

Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner spent this week preparing for future Chinese New Year events from Paris, where he's meeting with chef Guy Savoy to discuss a restaurant opening at Caesars Palace in May. Even while in Europe, he had Asian high rollers at the top of his mind.

"We know our high-end Asian customers prefer two types of food: authentic Asian cuisine and haute French cuisine," Selesner wrote via e-mail Thursday. "Chef Savoy gives us a unique new tool in which to draw these particular guests."

Caesars is renovating or adding suites aimed at Asian clientele, Selesner said.

"Most of the overseas players we invite to our Chinese New Year's parties make several trips a year to Las Vegas," he said. "Clearly a successful Chinese New Year event builds loyalty and translates into future trips."

Chiu has been with The Venetian since it opened in 1999. The resort developed a strong following in Asia over time, especially after Sands Macau was announced.

"In the last four years, I think we've grown our Asian market by 100 percent," Chiu said. "The numbers speak for themselves.

"There are more people coming over, more high-end players. ... We're talking about $1 million players, $2 million, $3 million players."

That's where Tonie Roberts enters the fray. An England-born U.S. citizen who speaks six languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, Roberts manages The Venetian's Paiza Club, an exclusive 36th-floor amenity designed to keep Asian guests beyond comfortable while an ocean away from home.

"It's a hotel within a hotel," Roberts said, citing private check-in services to a 24-hour buffet that changes every 45 minutes. Even Chinese newspapers are delivered on the day they're published.

The venue's private gaming salon is accessible by private elevator from The Venetian's Chairman Suites, 6,000- to 8,000-square-foot palaces open only to premium players.

"They're used to the finest, and we want to give them that," Roberts said. "We don't tell the guests no."

Sands Macau also boasts a Paiza Club, so its presence here gives guests a touch of home. And at no time is that touch more critical than Chinese New Year.

"It's the highest level of celebration the Chinese have," Roberts said. "They'll close their factories for a month around this time because its a time to celebrate and savor."

All the way to the bank.