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Game changer

Wilfred Wong, President Of Sands China, is a man with a plan.
Saturday, October 15, 2016 - 05:50

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“I’m the sort of person who wants to make an impact in whatever I do.”

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Fireworks light up the night at the opening of Sands China's Parisian Macau in September.

The seconds are ticking down, and the crowd is growing, both in size and in restlessness. It's a humid Tuesday evening in Macau, and they're all waiting for the clock to strike 8.18pm. That's the precise moment on Sept 13 that the Parisian - the latest integrated resort to join the former Portuguese colony's glittering Cotai Strip skyline - officially opens for business. That time was chosen because the numbers sound like the Chinese words for fortune and prosperity, which is exactly what Las Vegas Sands (LVS), the global resort developer, hopes will come in droves for its US$2.9 billion investment.

The property's crown jewel is a half-scale replica of the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris. After a massive fireworks display brings the imposing 37-storey structure to life, the hordes of people stream in once the resort's doors are thrust open.

"I'm the sort of person who wants to make an impact in whatever I do."

Such throngs are a common sight in Macau whenever there's a new mega-development in town. The buzz this time is no different. The crowds already have their smartphones and cameras at the ready once they step into the main lobby.

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The intricate decor is a visual feast, to say the least. A circle of giant classical columns surrounds a fountain populated by gilded statues. The many shopping "boulevards" that are spread across the Parisian are designed in classical French style and are named after famous streets in Paris such as Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and Champs Elysées. Many people, unsurprisingly, make a beeline for the casino on the first floor, fingers crossed that Lady Luck will be on their side as they try their hand at the slot machines or gaming tables.

The morning after the festivities, I'm sitting in the spacious office of Wilfred Wong, the 64-year-old president of Sands China. He has understandably had a late night hosting VIPs and celebrities at a dinner to celebrate the opening, yet he begins our interview on the dot looking none the worse for wear.

"This is a masterpiece that took us five years to construct, but it's worth the wait. This completes our Cotai Strip development, which was envisioned by (LVS chairman and CEO) Sheldon Adelson in 2002. This whole area was a swamp, and look what it's become now," he says proudly.

Influential leader

Mr Wong is still a few weeks shy of celebrating his first anniversary at Sands China, having only taken over the top post in November last year. His appointment was notable as it broke from a tradition of LVS typically having non-Chinese executives helm its Macau operations.

He's widely regarded as an influential Beijing insider due to his perceived close connections and strong relationship with the Chinese government. The Harvard University graduate is a veteran of the National People's Congress, China's top lawmaking body, having served for 15 years as an elected member from 1997 to 2012. He's also held senior positions at various companies in property development and construction, including Henderson China Holdings, Shui On Group and K Wah International Holdings.

Before signing on the dotted line at Sands China, he was the chairman and CEO of Hong Kong-listed Hsin Chong Construction Group. According to Hsin Chong's corporate website, the group has been involved in the construction of every property in Macau that was built by LVS and its units, including the Parisian.

During the nearly hour-long chat at the Venetian, the largest resort in Macau that's run by Sands China, Mr Wong doesn't talk all that much about casinos and gambling, even though he's now one of the most prominent people in the world's biggest gaming market.

He does, however, make the point that just 5 per cent of the Parisian's total gross floor area (GFA) is dedicated to gaming. That's just a shade higher than LVS's other mega-project in Asia, the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, where the casino forms less than 3 per cent of total GFA.

He explains that it's all part of the integrated resort concept, where the focus is increasingly on the non-gaming aspects that will entice more families and business travellers to visit on a more regular basis.

The Parisian, for instance, has the Eiffel Tower and its observation deck, nearly 3,000 hotel rooms, a shopping mall with about 170 brands, restaurants, convention facilities, and a water theme park.

Sands China's other properties in Macau are the Venetian, Sands Macao, the Plaza, and Sands Cotai Central. The latter, which opened in 2012, is a complex of four top hotel brands - St Regis, Conrad, Sheraton Grand, and Holiday Inn.

Mr Wong admits that the competition for tourist and corporate dollars in Macau is fierce. New developments are regularly coming on stream at a time when Macau appears ready to emerge from its recent slump.

Gross gaming revenue rose 7.4 per cent to 18.4 billion patacas (S$3.2 billion) in September this year, according to Macau's Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau. That followed a 1.1 per cent increase in August, snapping a 26-month decline.

Macau, the only place in China where casinos are legal, is busy transforming itself into a family-friendly tourist destination after Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the city to diversify its economy from gambling in late-2014.

Just 2 km away from the Parisian is another mega-resort, the US$4.2 billion, 1,700-room floral-themed Wynn Palace that American tycoon Steve Wynn opened in August.

Meanwhile, the US$3 billion MGM Cotai is expected to open in the second quarter of 2017. The Grand Lisboa Palace, a US$3.9 billion casino by SJM Holdings, the company started by the originator of gaming in Macau, Stanley Ho, is due to open in 2018.

"Everyone is competing against the others. So how do we stay ahead? That's what I'm thinking about all the time. What we need to do on a more regular basis is to look at the tastes and preferences of our customers. The figures show that the overwhelming majority of them are from China, so we need to do everything we can to appeal to that market," says Dr Wong.

Last month, a report by the China Tourism Academy showed that Chinese visitors to Macau increased by 17 per cent in 2015. Dr Wong expects the numbers to go up this year and next because of the new integrated resorts.

"Our Chinese visitors mostly come from the Guangdong area. There are 100 million people in that region and the neighbouring areas. They come to Macau three, four, five times or more every year. Why? Initially it was for gaming, now they come mainly for entertainment, to enjoy themselves," he says.

There is a huge appetite for entertainment in Macau, Dr Wong adds. Think concerts, reality shows, musicals, boxing fights. That's why the Sands China team brought in "The Voice of China", one of China's most popular reality TV shows, to film a concert at the Venetian Theatre. The same venue was similarly sold out when Korean boy band group Big Bang and Hong Kong singer Ronald Cheng came to town.

The first resident show at the Parisian is "Thriller Live", a concert to celebrate the life and music of the late Michael Jackson. The resort's theatre has been packed each night ever since the show made its debut on Sept 30.

"In show business, you've got to stay close to the market and give people what they want to see. It's not about what show is available. We surveyed people in China and Hong Kong, and Michael Jackson came up tops for all the age categories. We did think about the Beatles musical, but the younger generation may not know much about them. How about Carole King or Elvis Presley? Sure, they are good shows but you will need to do a lot of promotion to get people to come," he says.

Affordable luxury

It is the emerging middle class in China, the world's second largest economy, that Mr Wong has his eyes on, and with good reason. "This is becoming a very big segment in the Chinese consumer market. They aspire to the better things in life and quality of life. They travel more frequently to all over the world.

"They know what's good, what is luxury. But ultimately, they are the middle class. They are not the super rich. They probably can't buy a watch that costs half-a-million Hong Kong dollars, but they can get one that's HK$50,000. That's how we are positioning the Parisian, to cater to this group of people. We can offer them that 'affordable luxury' experience, and no, you don't have to spend much to have a great time at our properties," he says.

Affordable luxury. It's not a oxymoron in his view. Take a walk around the Parisian and few will deny that it looks and feels like a five-star establishment or even better, but Sands China stops short of marketing it as such.

"We want to create the type of experience such that people feel it's high-end, it's a luxurious destination. If you look at the price points that we have, for the shops, restaurants, hotels, it's not cheap but it's affordable. You feel luxury all over, but it's affordable to many. We don't overcharge, in fact we undercharge!" he says with a laugh.

With so much going on around him, Mr Wong admits there's rarely a dull moment in his life these days. Not when he's in charge of the largest private sector company in Macau with some 30,000 employees on the payroll.

And not when he continues to wear many other hats, including one as chairman of a high-level committee that decides on salary adjustments for Hong Kong's 160,000 civil servants every year.

"(At Hsin Chong), I had a staff strength of 10,000. Here at Sands China it's three times that. It's this idea of being the largest enterprise in Macau, that what we do really matters," he says.

"From the moment I step into my office until the time I go home, I also have to deal with one problem after another. But that's what I'm here for. Others can say they can't solve a problem and they'll put it up to the management, but when it comes to me, who do I go to? The buck stops here," he adds with a laugh, pointing to himself.

"If we run our house in order, that makes our staff happy, and that means 30,000 families are happy. It's a heavy responsibility, and that keeps me excited. I'm the sort of person who wants to make an impact in whatever I do."


WILFRED WONG

President, Sands China

Born 1952 in Hong Kong

Education

Bachelor's degree, University of Hong Kong

Master in Public Administration, Harvard University, US

Post-graduate programme, Oxford University, UK

Career highlights

Member, Hong Kong Basic Law Consultative Committee

Member, Preliminary Working Committee & Preparatory Committee to establish Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

Member, National People's Congress of People's Republic of China

Chairman, Hong Kong Arts Development Council

Deputy Chairman, Hong Kong Film Development Council

Chairman, Asian Film Awards Academy

Chairman, Standing Commission on Civil Service Salaries and Conditions of Service, Hong Kong

Chairman & CEO, Hsin Chong Construction Group

President, Sands China

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