Bridging and leveraging

Like her father, Stanley Ho, Pansy Ho is a force behind Macau tourism’s destiny – although she insists she does not call the shots. Raini Hamdi talks to Ho at last month’s PATA Annual Summit and discovers a tireless lady who believes in a bigger, greater Macau and is helping to build bridges towards it

Pansy Ho, managing director, Shun Tak Holdings, Hong Kong

What’s something that people might say about Macau that makes you go, ‘hey, that’s not Macau’?
Lately there hasn’t been too much of that. But from time to time there still is a misconception about the past of Macau, which of course is connected to us, especially before the return of sovereignty (to China) when Macau had not much to lean on and my father (Stanley Ho) had been instrumental in building up its economic fabric. A lot of people had the misconception that in those days the casinos were operating in an illicit manner with a lot of triad infiltration, which simply was not the case.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility?
I don’t feel a sense of responsibility so to speak, but I definitely want to demonstrate and prove that Macau has its own capabilities, that we have something to be proud of.

Where’s Macau at right now?
We now have a good cross-spectrum of products – hotels, transportation means, etc – so visitors have a lot of choices in the basic amenities.

We have in a short time been able to train up a strong and skilled labour force. In the usual travel and hospitality market, you might have the skills and expertise but not on a 24-hour basis, whereas in Macau, down to even F&B and retail, people can cope with that kind of hours. In retail, for example, the best operational hours are not during the day as most gaming customers shop well into the evening, up to midnight. So we have this kind of specialised skills set.

Since the deregulation of casinos, people have also learnt that in tourism, there are different segments and are beginning to come up with innovative concepts and ideas. This will give Macau a strong competitive edge over the other developing markets, which means we can really be at the forefront.

Even us at MGM: last year, we brought in the butterfly pavilion, not just a conservatory but the whole works including an incubation room and so on. The installation was a major success and this year we will repeat that with an aquarium. So it does not always have to be a new building or hardware, but creative events and software.

Nowadays, whether you are a hotel or transport provider, your customer is becoming more sophisticated. The aspirational, emotive travel is not just for culturally-rich destinations. Even Macau has to cater to this and craft experiences for different types of customers.

Is Macau’s customer mix now diversified?
Frankly, no. But we are moving from a strong dependency on high rollers, which is pure gaming. They are such keen gamblers they want to utilise all their time basically on gambling; they might not even go to the restaurants. Now, the migration is starting to the mass gaming floor. That’s also still gaming, but they tend to spend time and money on entertainment, shopping and F&B. We saw a significant growth especially in the first quarter, while the high-roller market is slowly stabilising.

Will the  geographical market mix also start to diversify?
(South) Korea is a success story and we wish to work on more (source markets), such as South-east Asia. We invest in the airport and airline (Air Macau) so I do understand we need to build traffic both ways. Only then will there be equitable mutual interest.

This is where I feel Macau can be that little hub for the smaller, rising airlines from Asian countries to immediately land and work their way into China. It has actually become more difficult for these airlines to do so, as the scene is dominated by the major carriers. So if they desperately want to reach China, what better way than through Macau? We are right there, we are efficient, we still have the capacity and we are trained. If that happens, we can have more foreign arrivals to Macau.

How’s Air Macau (of which she is executive director) doing?
It has turned around and did quite well last year. There is still not enough international routes as it has to focus first on its financial well-being, but it has added quite a number of domestic routes within China, which is also important. That’s one way to build the airline’s credibility. The world is getting to be collaborative so eventually, with that domestic network, we might not have to grow the airline organically but reach out and collaborate with other airlines, so we become the feeder for them to go into China.

In Macau, your company owns or has stakes in all corners – TurboJet, the airport, Air Macau, Macau Tower, One Central (mixed-use residential, serviced apartments and the Mandarin Oriental, Macau) and the Cotai Strip, to name a few. Surely you call the shots?
I don’t! But since I have the outreach and exposure, I can make the best use of my knowledge and insights to try and explain or, like at this forum (PATA Annual Summit), take back the ideas from a few people who have expressed interest to the government. Or we ourselves could collaborate and invest with these partners. Our group is now heavily invested in all spectrums of tourism, so it is in our interest to continue to make the right investments which can contribute to Macau.

It’s not about who is calling the shots as nobody can do everything singlehandedly. It is good when the private and public concerns have common objectives and goals, because both of us simply want to build up Macau’s capabilities and attractiveness and contribute towards repositioning Macau for a sustainable future.

How do you think Macau will look like in 10 years?
We are blessed that there is vision and forward planning by the government to further enhance the connectivity of and integrate the Pearl River Delta, which includes Hong Kong, Macau, Zhuhai, Shenzhen, even reaching out to other parts of the Guangdong province. There would be a comprehensive transport network through bridges, highways and ports. Altogether we are talking about the creation of a mega metropolis with a 100 million population base. That’s a major consumer market and productivity area of China. So we will have a strong capability to attract a lot of visitors from within China and outside.

In 10 years, we will become linked to Hong Kong and the neighbouring Chinese cities and be an even bigger attraction. We need to make sure this works. It is a great concept but there are challenges.

Such as?
To start, there’s still the invisible border – actually not invisible, there is a border. So even with all these road networks and so on, we are still three separate autonomous territories. In the long run, we need to ensure that although everyone needs to uphold and maintain their autonomy in governing their own security, there is a form of practical assimilation and everyone shares and contributes, not compete, so that the infrastructure that has been put in place is not wasted.

What’s an area of investment you’re focusing on?
Linking up everything, so that in future, with this massive transport infrastructure being put in place – roads, bridges, airport and our ferry operation – if you cannot come through by land to Macau, well, land in Shenzhen then use our ferries to shuttle to Macau/Hong Kong or vice versa. Now is the time when we can scale this network to the next level.

Lately, we have started to venture outside Hong Kong and Macau into China (Beijing real estate), but in a selective and specific manner. We’re not a multi-billion market capitalisation company, so we can’t afford to go all over the places, rather, we select cautiously.

You’re building the Jumeirah in Cotai too.
Yes, and we are talking about the possibility of building two or three hotels in that same complex. There is also a good chance we ourselves will start to run our own hotels (TTG Asia e-Daily, May 20, 2013).

As in your own hotel management?
Yes, managing and branding. We’re setting it up now. We have not gone down to the last details; we are beginning to amass
a professional team of people. We would make an announcement soon and may
be (it will be up and running) within a year.

You sit on so many key boards, e.g. as vice chairman of the Macau International Airport board and vice president of the Macao Chamber of Commerce, and are active with tourism associations and forums. What drives you?
People are fascinated with Macau, but are not really embracing it. What I would really like to do is to bring together organisations and people with good ideas in a consistent way, so that this will further the role Macau can play as a bridge for foreign enterprises which want to leapfrog into China.

How do you manage everything?
(Laughs) That’s why I am always busy, always in a rush. It is a good problem to have. Obviously 24 hours are not quite enough, so you have to use your resources in the most effective manner. You don’t do one thing at a time; you try to leverage some of the connections, opportunities, etc, to accomplish more.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, May 31 – June 6, 2013 issue, on page 8. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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