When Kerry Packer’s Crown Casino recently refurbished its 36th floor to expand its private gaming rooms for lucrative high roller clients, some say it was a tacit recognition of a new threat brewing in Asia.
The casino on the north-facing banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River knocked out two massive suites in a bid to give its Asian high rollers more of what they want: anonymity.
Apart from private jets, salubrious surroundings and a prized golf course, privacy is one of the big selling points for Crown as it lures the world’s biggest gamblers.
It’s also a bulwark against what is expected to be a challenge from a raft of new Asian casinos that may provide new high class facilities to big time Asian punters – close to home.
The challenge has begun in the former Portuguese colony of Macau – which has issued new licences – and is expected to follow in Taiwan where the government has flagged more casinos.
Macau’s casinos are not starting from scratch to win the high roller business. Despite poor security and low-grade facilities, Macau’s existing 11 casinos – all operated by 80-year-old billionaire and ballroom dancer, Stanley Ho – have 30 per cent of the international commission business.
That compares with just 11 per cent at Crown.
Plush Las Vegas-style casinos and better security will see Macau’s share only get bigger.
Worse for Crown, Steve Wynn – the legendary US Togel Hari Ini casino billionaire – has won one of the new 25-year licences to operate an unlimited number of Macau casinos which end Ho’s 40-year monopoly.
Wynn is famous for building Mirage Resorts casino empire, started in 1972 and sold to MGM Grand for $US6.7billion two years ago.
His Wynn Resorts has pledged to build an 800 room hotel/convention centre – and casino – in Macau.
The other winner – apart from Ho who maintains his existing licence – was Wynn’s fellow Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands will spend $US1billion ($1.8billion) developing a 500-room hotel and casino complete with a replica Venetian street and Grand Canal modelled on his successful Las Vegas Venetian resort.
To make their vast operations pay, Wynn and Adelson are certain to chase some of the world’s high rollers, some of whom gamble $1million on the flip of a single card.
The threat is clear. In 1996, for example, Perth’s Burswood casino had $19billion of turnover from commission players – the high rollers who are paid a percentage of what they bet to lure them in. Then Crown and Star City in Sydney opened and last year Burswood’s international commission business turned over just $6billion.
“Most of that turnover shifted to Melbourne,” says Jenny Owen, the top-ranked Salomon Smith Barney tourism and leisure analyst. “The player base is very mobile.”
The starkest illustration of the volatility of the high roller business was Star City’s decision to quit.
Meanwhile, Burswood’s international commission business revenues – the measure of what the casino wins rather than what the punters bet – have slumped to $54.5million, from $238million five years ago.
Macau’s new casinos will be located in the heart of Asia, where most of the commission gamblers live.
Experts fear that will eat into Crown’s lucrative international high roller business and increase earnings volatility with the impact flowing onto Crown’s parent, Kerry Packer’s Publishing and Broadcasting.
In 2002, Crown’s high roller turnover was around $23.8billion a year, down on 2001’s levels by $800million, but still making up two thirds of Australia’s high roller business.
“Their mainstream Melbourne business is not going to grow any more than single digits at the most. This [high rollers] is their icing on the cake,” one analyst said.
Tony Waters, a gaming analyst at CCZ Equities, also picks Crown as the most threatened by the new Macau licences.
“If anyone is going to be hit by it, it’s probably more likely to be Crown than anyone else because of their premium business,” he says.
Aside from the threat to the high rollers, Crown’s grind operation – the low level punters who crowd the public gaming floors each night – is also facing challenges.
Top of the list is a recent ban on smoking and restrictions on bank-note acceptors from January 1.
The smoking ban – introduced on Crown’s main floor – does not apply to high roller areas.
Peter Yates, PBL’s chief executive, speaks of the regulatory changes as a “cloud on the horizon”.
CSFB is more precise – it expects the initial impact from smoking bans to likely be significant, hurting turnover by between 5 and 10 per cent. But it adds that the impact will be short-lived – at around three to six months.
CSFB is forecasting 2003 earnings from Crown – assuming the same win-basis as last year – to be steady.
On the flip side of the debate, CCZ’s Waters says the threat from Macau “could be blown out of proportion”.
“At the top end of the business there’s probably only 100 to 150 big fish worldwide. Why do these big fish come down here to play? It gives them anonymity from a security and regulatory environment. They usually come down with a few hangers on and it’s a bit of a holiday get away as well,” he says.
Gary O’Neil, Crown’s spokesman, agrees.
“We see it as an opportunity. Early indications are it will be positive rather than negative” he said. “It will probably grow the market rather than shrink it. We have a substantial office in Hong Kong and they’re reporting to us that the early signs are it [Macau] will expand the market.”
O’Neil also cites Crown’s reputation for anonymity as a major defence.
“The feedback we get from Chinese visitors is that Melbourne and Crown are seen as a safe and secure destination,” he said.
O’Neil says Crown always expected an expansion of Macau’s gaming industry after integration with China.
But other Crown insiders say the company is in fact casting a wary eye over developments in Macau.
The new licence holders there are expected to open temporary facilities soon while developing their fully fledged casinos.
“It will only be when the new permanent casino facilities open that I believe there will be a potential impact on Australian casino operations,” one person close to Crown’s operations says.
“The degree to which this happens will be determined by the quality of the new facilities, the level of service offered and the safety of the environment.”
Still, “this is probably three to five years away and there is no doubt that Macau has a lot of work to do to overcome its poor perception” with regards to service and safety.
PBL investors are also concerned.
“On balance it is a risk,” says one major fund manager. “These guys [Wynn and Adelson] are spending big building their casinos. They will want gamblers to visit – and not just new ones.”
One issue concerning Australia’s casino operators, including Crown, is the speed of visa processing in Asia.
Industry players say the Australian government offices are simply not equipped to handle the number of applications in an efficient manner.
That could play into the hands of Macau given its location.
High rollers are used to getting their own way – quickly – and slow visa processing is a hassle that could be avoided by the gamblers simply by going to Macau.
CCZ’s Waters says the other Australian casinos are less likely to be affected by Macau: “Jupiter’s has a smart strategy targeting a second-tier type junket player and targeting China. It gives them lower bets but more turnover and reduces volatility.”
At the moment industry players say demand from mainland China and Hong Kong means there is enough business for Asian casino operators to make good returns without focussing on the high-end of the business.
But as newer casinos open, they are expected to increasingly focus on niches.
Industry players note that Macau already offers high roller facilities, including high commissions, high table limits and generous credit facilities.
There are also casinos in Malaysia, Cambodia and Philippines and some operating on ships cruising in Asia – but facilities are lacking, particularly when it comes to privacy.
Asian high rollers often don’t wish to be identified. They like to enjoy their gambling away from the prying eyes of the media, fellow businessmen and often intrusive governments and regulators.
Crown, itself, has private lifts linking suites to discrete gaming rooms.
It is these facilities and privacy that have Crown not panicking – yet.
“The new casinos in Macau are not, in my opinion, a significant issue to Australian casino operations at this time,” the Crown insider said. “I would be much more concerned if legal casinos were introduced into Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore or Thailand where no such facilities currently exist.”