Sister act

The Venetian & The Palazzo in Las Vegas hope to leverage on the brand equity of its iconic sister properties in Asia to bring more Asian guests to its doors. Rippee tells Raini Hamdi about it.

What was the impact of the US economic downturn robert-rippeeon Las Vegas, and is business back fully?
Las Vegas felt it more than any other US city. It’s not difficult to understand – real estate in Las Vegas, for example, was severely impacted by the US economic downturn. What you see today, and what’s happening in many other destinations in the US, is a gradual recovery. We’ve been feeling that since end-2011 up to today. Certainly we’re seeing a lot of visitors now and some growth in occupancy – stronger during the peak season and weaker during the slow season.
People are spending more, so the shops are busy again and you read a lot about how the economy is improving, how people are buying houses again, how cars are selling again. Consumers are spending more on durable goods and discretionary items like travel.

Can Vegas absorb more new supply in the future, including the entry of Malaysian Genting Group’s first destination resort on the strip*?
Supply has been pretty static in the last couple of years, but there is certainly some change on the horizon. But, by Las Vegas’ standards, it’s a small percentage change. Las Vegas is probably the only destination in the world where a 3,000-room hotel is kind of small to average (laughs). Can the market absorb new suppy? If the conditions continue to improve, it’s fair to say it can. A new development always helps a destination in general, because it raises awareness that things are happening there.
*Genting has acquired from Boyd Gaming Corp a 35-hectare parcel at the Echelon site along the Las Vegas Strip on which it will build a “transformational new development”. Resorts World Las Vegas will have 3,500 rooms in the first phase, 16,258m2 of total gaming space across several gaming floors, several luxury dining and retail outlets, and convention space.

Is there an influx of emerging markets in greater numbers, Asia for instance, that will enable Las Vegas absorb more new supply?
Asia is particularly big for us because of the footprint we already have in Macau and Singapore. Those are two brands (The Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel and Marina Bay Sands Singapore) that are highly regarded and their success bodes well for us in terms of our brand presence in Asia. We benefit from that. When you travel somewhere you are not completely familiar with, you naturally gravitate towards brands that you are comfortable with. That is true for anyone, not just Asians.

Have you seen a significant shift in Asian numbers since the opening of the two resorts?
I was not here when Marina Bay Sands opened so I can’t say but I do know that Asian guests have always been an important part and, going forward, we want to make the market an even larger percentage of our business. We’re doing a number of things here in Las Vegas to deepen our relationship with the Asian market and to leverage the power of Marina Bay Sands and the Venetian in Singapore and Macau, so that we can capitalise on some of their strong equity.

Such as?
We’re building a better marketing infrastructure, to start with. We now have a dedicated Asian leisure sales team and have hired a new director of Asia-leisure sales, Elizabeth Hanson, based in Las Vegas – she’s in Beijing right now (at the time of interview) – whereas before Asia was part of our overall leisure sales. Elizabeth is Chinese and has lived in Las Vegas for seven years. With people in place who contextually understand the social and cultural nuances of a market, and understand the product well, we are better able to adjust the experience to match the expectations. Having a dedicated Asian sales team will also deepen our relationship with wholesalers in the market.

Which Asian markets are you particularly eyeing?

We know from Elizabeth, and from industry projections, that it’s China, Japan and (South) Korea. So much of it is a function of visa waiver* and the projected numbers of travellers. So we look at what a 10 per cent rise in inbound Chinese arrivals would look like – that’s more growth probably than from the state of Florida (laughs).
*Procedures to schedule appointments, pay visa application fees and deliver passports free to home or office have been streamlined and implemented in China and Hong Kong. Asian countries such as Taiwan and Singapore are included in a Visa Waiver Programme.

What’s the percentage of Asian guests at Venetian/Palazzo?

Of leisure guests, it’s relatively small and our goal is for it to be a major part of our leisure mix which, right now, is overwhelmingly the US/Canada. Las Vegas has always been that way.

The number of inbound Chinese to Las Vegas is a little over a million currently and the goal is to grow that by 10 per cent a year. So we look at what our fair share of that should be. We want visitors who like the luxury or high-end, or they like the brand because they are familiar with it from Macau or Singapore. We think we will do quite well beccause we have a product that is high-end, appealing and has a strong reputation behind it.

Marina Bay Sands is truly an iconic building – that’s one of the things our guests love about us, i.e., the experience we offer is iconic, innovative and world-class. So if they have been to Marina Bay Sands but not to Las Vegas, they perceive that when they come here it is going to be of equal calibre to Singapore.

Does Marina Bay Sands put pressure on the product here?
No, because we’re first. This is where it all began; we developed the iconic destination resort concept – the high level of service, the huge variety of experiences under one roof, etc – and it became the template for new-generation (Las Vegas Sands developments). Now they (the newer sisters) improve on things, sure, but nonetheless, a visitor coming here is going to find an equally high-calibre experience – beautiful suites, retail stores, great restaurants, an impeccably clean building, great service – as the swift and friendly check-in you experienced.

We have a lot of talented people on the operations side who focus on the importance of the guest in the things they deliver everyday. How do you create an impact in even small ways? We pay attention to small details.

How important is hotel operations to the owners versus gaming?
It’s huge. Brands today are not what marketing creates but what operations deliver. You form your impression of the brand by the experience you have when you go there, especially in resorts like these, which are very experiential places. They are not just hotels where you go and sleep overnight. You come for all the experiences that are being offered to you.

But how do you overcome the sameness on the strip?
By trying to understand what’s interesting to guests, and trying to be unique and different. Sometimes you experiment – it could be a restaurant concept, giving a chef a chance to open a new restaurant, a new show that has not been here yet. This company never copies, we innovate. The universal traveller to Las Vegas wants something new and interesting although he also understands that some things are just classic and still in style.

Isn’t there still the misconception of Vegas as being just gaming?
Yes, but at the same time in our connected world, where everyone has a smartphone and access to information, it is easy to understand that that is not true. There are certain types of resorts that are still heavily committed to gaming but we offer such a diverse array of experiences that a traveller who does not like gaming is going to have a fantastic time. Like the Australian couple I met while riding in the elevator. They have been coming here every year since we opened. Coming from Australia, I thought naturally one key reason was they liked gaming. But the gentleman said: “We don’t gamble at all. We love the restaurants, the shows and you’re always bringing something new. And we love the experience and the staff here because they remember us.”

So that’s an example of a couple that’s completely engaged to this brand.

On the other hand, there are those who love casinos and the fact that we have one of the most modern casinos in the nicest environment, with the newest electronic games you won’t find anywhere else on the strip, is a plus for us to attract those who want gaming.

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