Sands boss holds all the aces, as outdated TDC is sure to discover
'In addition, we have secured a number of commitments from the largest and most important tradeshow organisers in the world and received dozens of tradeshow expressions of interest for our Venetian Macau convention and meeting facility.'
Las Vegas Sands Corp
First-quarter results statement
LAS VEGAS SANDS CORP is Sheldon Adelson, a pug ugly street-wise mogul from the slums of Boston who has become the new casino king of Macau and is set to send the shivers down the back of our Trade Development Council.
We may have him pegged as a casino operator, but that is not how he rose to prominence in the United States. He made his name as a trade show organiser and was the man directly behind the most successful trade show the world has ever seen, Comdex, the Computer Dealers Exposition.
At its peak in the 1990s, Comdex attracted 2,480 exhibitors and 212,000 attendees to Las Vegas. Mr Adelson then sold Comdex to Softbank of Japan, cashing out at the very top, thus confirming his reputation as a savvy entrepreneur and Softbank's as a loser.
He is a notable risk taker. Having bought the Sands Casino in Las Vegas from the mob (how comfortable would you feel dealing with the mob?), he decided on a trip to Italy one day to tear it all down and rebuild it as a fake Venice with gondoliers in sham Italian accents singing O Solo Mio while ferrying moonstruck geriatrics around, just like the real thing. It was a roaring success. And now he wants to emphasise the trade show and convention business again, this time at the Venetian Macau where a 1.2 million square feet convention centre is going up on Cotai Strip with plans for expansion of that facility to 2.4 million square feet.
His experience in drawing conventions to Las Vegas was the big reason that the Macau government gave him the nod for his casinos and, already last year, he announced that he had booked 20 trade shows for next year when this facility will open. It signals the Cotai Strip's 'emergence as a leading convention and exhibition destination in Asia', he said.
Big talk from a big talker, you may say, and the convention business certainly has its share of stuffed shirts who talk big. But I would think twice about dismissing Mr Adelson offhand if I were a big wheel at the TDC.
Just think of the big draw he offers. Right beside the convention centre will be the biggest casino in Asia.
It works in Las Vegas. It will work just as well in Macau and the TDC has nothing like it to offer in its own exhibition business.
Then there is the matter of space. The waters are plenty shallow around the Cotai Strip. Call in the dredgers and that strip quickly becomes larger, not to mention that it is already linked up with Hengqin Island, just a stone's throw away, where Mr Adelson is already adding to his convention facilities.
The TDC cannot do the same at our own convention and exhibition centre. For one, there is that matter of the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance to take into account. All that the TDC has been able to do is start on a costly project to widen the centre's atrium.
Of course, we now also have an airport exhibition centre but already it has found that exhibitors like to be in town, not miles away at the rump end of town. Attendance at its first two trade shows was, let us say, a little damp.
This might be a problem for Mr Adelson too. The Macau airport is hardly an Asian aviation hub. Nonetheless, there are those casinos and all that space. If this proves a draw, as it is likely to do, then the money will easily be found for the travel infrastructure to support it.
Mr Adelson has proved he can make a big success of conventions without infusions of government money, unlike the TDC, which, despite getting $8 billion of our tax money for construction of its facilities, still needs a special levy on exports to sustain itself.
And why shouldn't we be glad to let Mr Adelson have the business for Macau?
The TDC was set up to promote Hong Kong's merchandise exports but that business has gone across the border and the TDC does not have the expertise to promote the service industries that have replaced it.
The TDC has long passed its sell-by date. All it can really claim to do now is attract tourists to Hong Kong, but at what cost? We fork out billions for tourist infrastructure and what we get is people who fly in on foreign-owned airlines to stay at foreign-owned hotels, buy imported knick-knacks and dine on imported foods.
No one has yet done the definitive study on whether we really come up winners on this trade and I can understand why the tourist lobby may be loathe to see it done. It may tell us that there is such a thing as over-promoting tourism.
So, let the proven expert do what he does best. We would still get a fair share of the visitors to his Macau hotels and, if we try stand up to him, we may just find ourselves rolled over anyway. We wouldn't be the first to whom Mr Adelson has done it.