Coming to a casino near you, big, fat whales.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon - SHY Ventures
Sunday, 29th May 2005
Yeoh Siew Hoon goes whale-spotting at the Jones Lang LaSalle conference in Singapore,

I am not a gambler. When I say that, I mean that while I have the occasional flutter at the tables or at the horse races – more for fun than for fortune, I do not actively seek out casinos when I travel.

I personally do not see the point of feeding money into poker machines or sitting at a table for hours, just to give my money away to someone else whose sole purpose in life is to part me from my hard-earned bucks.

However, being Chinese, I fear the love of gaming runs in my genes. My father was a gambler, much to the chagrin of my mother, so I do understand what gaming fever is all about.

Which is why I am watching what's going on in Asia with great interest. While gaming has always been around us, it has never been so openly (read officially) embraced as it is now, let alone talked about so openly as it was during the Jones Lang LaSalle Hotel Investment Conference in Singapore last week.

A panel discussion titled "Casinos in Asia", featuring four big hitters from the casino world, covered topics which fascinated me, especially the bit about whale-spotting and whale-incubating.

This bit came about when Allan Tan, chief executive officer, Reef Hotel Casino and executive director, Casinos Austria, expressed the opinion that he felt the top end of the market – which Singapore wants to go after – was over-rated. "It is a thin and finite market," he said.

William Wiedner, president and chief operating officer, Las Vegas Sands, Corp however disagreed. According to him, there are 200-500 whales in the world – a "whale", I learnt, is someone with the potential to wager up to US$1 million at the table and usually does.

Sands, he said, has been whale-spotting in Macau. "In our 100-plus VIP rooms in Macau, we can recognise about 20 percent of people play to that level.

"I think we are under-estimating the potential of the Chinese economy. There are 260,000 millionaires in China– there is a huge incubation potential for worldwide gaming."

I must say that I have never seen China from that perspective. I always saw it as a land that ate more shark's fins than it should and not as a whale-incubator.

Beyond the discussion about whales, it was also clear that it is still open season as far as the bidding process for the two Integrated Resorts for Singapore was concerned.

Currently, 12 bidders are left in the race for the two IRs – one on Marina Bayfront and the other on Sentosa island.

When Wiedner was asked why Sands was going in on its own, he said, "The day is not over. We are still open to local partners. We did not select a local partner because we weren't sure how things would play up."

Tan meanwhile said that while Casinos Austria was not involved at the moment, "we would love to be in Singapore".

"The day's not over, the bid process is not over."

But who will win in the end? Was anyone prepared to take a bet?

Wiedner said it would boil down to these questions, he said. Who can do it? Who can operate it? Who can make it work?

"That number is very small," he said. Only three or four of the bidders have built anything of the scope and size and they are all in Las Vegas, he added.

On the sidelines of the conference, meanwhile, I did my own whale-spotting – in journalism-speak, these are people with the potential to create waves or news.

I saw two friends from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, listening intently to the casino discussion.

And guess who I saw having a chat with Weidner after the panel discussion? Kwek Leng Beng, chairman of Hong Leong Group.

I am not sure what I should read into those two sightings but there's one thing I know.

I had a whale of a time, spotting them.

The SHY Report
A regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry by one of
Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, Yeoh Siew Hoon.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her company's mission is "Content, Communication, Connection".

She is a writer, speaker, facilitator, trainer and events producer. She is also an author, having published "Around Asia In 1 Hr: Tales of Condoms, Chillies & Curries". Her motto is ‘free to do, and be'.

Contacts: Tel: 65-63424934, Mobile: 65-96801460

Check out Siew Hoon's new website, www.shy-connection.com, which features a newly-launched e-zine with a difference.
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