The bold game changer

Macau Business | February 2021

Sheldon Adelson had a vision and delivered. The US tycoon, who passed away last month, leaves behind a legacy of transformation in the city’s gaming and tourism industries, bringing Cotai to life and inaugurating the IR concept in Macau.   

“My idea was to rebuild half or more of the Las Vegas strip, to create the critical mass. I do not mind that other people are coming. I want other people to come because it validates the critical mass nature of the development”. Sheldon Adelson’s opening words in a November 2011 interview with Macau Business shed light into his transformational vision for Macau which began to take shape in May 2004 with the opening of the Sands casino in the Macau Peninsula and more so after the Venetian Macao paved the way for a new era of integrated resorts in the Cotai Strip, a land “nobody wanted before”, as underlined by Adelson in the same interview.  

Macau truly changed the fortunes of Adelson in a way that few or no one could have anticipated when in 2002 Venetian Macao was a managing company of newly awarded gaming concessionaire Galaxy Entertainment first and subsequently a stand-alone sub concession of Galaxy.  Conversely, Macau’s gaming, tourism and entertainment industry also changed beyond recognition in some ways following the investments carried out by Las Vegas Sands in Macau under Sheldon Adelson.  

He built, they came  

Back in the early years of this century, Sheldon Adelson’s press conferences drew crowds of journalists eager to learn about his new projects for the city and his business development plan.  A recurrent question was: “How will you have sufficient demand to meet such a massive increase in terms of supply?”. His answer echoed the whisper in the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build they will come”. And they, the tourists and gamblers came. By the millions, dozen of millions. The first hint of fast-paced transformation could be noticed on May 18, 2004, when dozen of thousands of visitors, mostly from mainland China, flocked to be among the first to enter the first foreign-owned casino in Macau’s post-liberalisation era: Sands Macao, in the peninsula.

However it was with the Venetian Macao in Cotai that the International Resorts (IR) model was introduced, combining gaming with accommodation, fine dining, a large-scale shopping mall, entertainment and the big non-gaming bet MICE industry: Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions, which was partially the raison d’être for bringing Las Vegas Sands to Macau, taking into account the company’s success track record in Nevada. 

“Once Adelson realized the fantastic opportunity that Macau presented to an American-based casino gaming corporation operating integrated resorts he fully committed his company to invest in Macau”, Jorge Costa Oliveira, former Commissioner for Legal Affairs at Macau Gaming Commission  

IR and MICE  

Jorge Costa Oliveira, member of the Macau Gaming Commission for the 2002 international public tender, explains to Macau Business that “Sheldon Adelson realized that his company’s model of articulating MICE with an integrated casino gaming resort had even more potential in Macau”. This was reinforced by studies carried out by the time of the public tender, which “showed there was a significant gap between the offer and the demand of conventions facilities in Southern China”.   

Mr Oliveira, a former Legal Affairs Commissioner of the Macau Gaming Commission, adds that “this was one of the main reasons why Macau’s Tender Commission liked LVS’s project” and “once Adelson realized the fantastic opportunity that Macau presented to an American-based casino gaming corporation operating integrated resorts he fully committed his company to invest in Macau”.  

Niall Murray worked for Sands both in Las Vegas and Macau, being among the first batch of expat managers to open the Macau properties, serving as Vice President for Operations Development. Asked how history will portray Adelson in what concerns Macau’s gaming and tourism industry, Murray notes that his “unique vision for Macau and the Cotai Strip was much larger and far more ambitious than the government, local stakeholders and other IR developers ever imagined or even contemplated”.  Mr Murray points out that Sheldon Adelson “continuously forced his competitors to adapt, evolve and reinvent their IR development plans and operations”. Moreover, “all of the other five concessions are, who they are today, as a result of the pioneering efforts of Sheldon Adelson, who led the way, into swampy ground, and laid the foundation upon which others followed”. 

Melina Leong, who joined the group in 2005 and became Sands China’s Senior Vice President of Public Relations and Community Affairs, underlines that Adelson’s “vision of building integrated resorts at Cotai Strip has not just taken Macau’s gaming industry to world class level but also transformed the landscape of Macau ‘s tourism industry”, while adding that he was also courageous enough to invest significantly into the then small city”. 

“Sheldon Adelson allowed a person that did not want to play in a casino to become a visitor and consumer in an Integrated Resort”, António Ramirez, former Sands China Senior Vice President for Human Resources 

Status quo challenger   

Macau-based lawyer António Ramirez joined Sands China one month after the opening of the group’s first casino in the Macau peninsula. He first served as associate general counsel and then as Senior Vice President for Human Resources and shares the memory of someone “generous and concerned with the people that work with him, especially those who earned less”. 

As for his legacy to the city’s economic development and tourism industry, Mr Ramirez notes that History will “remember Mr. Adelson as the pioneer and visionary of the Cotai Strip in Macau, and he was the father of the Cotai Strip”, while highlighting his ability to “look at a business and see what others did not see”.  

Bringing to Macau the IR concept is seen as a key component of his contribution to the city, as adding the convention business to the gaming industry resulted in a profound change.    

“This concept also enabled a much more significant development in  ​​hotels, restaurants, entertainment, and shopping centers”, António Ramirez underscores while highlighting that “Sheldon Adelson allowed a person that did not want to play in a casino to become a visitor and consumer in an Integrated Resort”.  

The successful transformation spurred by Sands China’s opening of the IR in Cotai was also a factor in persuading other jurisdictions in the region, starting by Singapore, where Las Vegas Sands opened the mega-resort Marina Bay Sands. “The Convention business model also draws the attention of governments worldwide to allow gaming in their countries”, Mr Ramirez points out.  

 Sheldon Adelson was an epitome of game changer. In an interview with CNN, when asked to describe his business matrix, he med it crystal clear:  “You have to challenge the status quo, you have to change the status quo, and if you change it in any business, success will follow you like a shadow”. In Macau he did challenge the pre-existing dominance of Stanley Ho’s empire and once telling the local gambling tycoon to “get out of the kitchen if he can’t stand the heat”. 

Industry praise  

Industry leaders expressed condolences to the family of Adelson and highlighted his role for the development of Macau, starting by those who worked directly under him such as Sands China CEO Wilfred Wong for whom his “investment in Macao has both literally and figuratively changed the landscape of our city, and his firm belief in philanthropy will continue to have a lasting impact in Macau”.  

He was praised as a “passionate entrepreneur who contributed so much to the advancement of the tourism, gaming and entertainment industry”, by Galaxy Entertainment Chairman Liu Che Woo. Gaming operator SJM referred to Adelson as “An influential figure in the gaming, leisure and convention businesses and our respected competitor”, who drove the development of Sands China in Macau”.  

For Co-chairperson and Executive Director of MGM China Pansy Ho, Adelson was a “true visionary” who ”had no doubt a tremendous impact on the industry”.  

His former business rival both in Las Vegas and Macau, founder of Wynn Resorts Steve Wynn noted that “he was not afraid to go all-in and take his position based upon his opinion without looking over his shoulder or second-guessing himself”.  

The Macau SAR Government also expressed his condolences to his family and stated that “the leadership of the late Mr Adelson has promoted the development of Sands China in Macau”. 

Adelson’s eye for the detail  

 “During the early days after Sands Macao opened, I learnt that one night, a very senior executive received a call direct from Mr Adelson at 2am. Mr Adelson was going through the numbers and noticed that the income at table A is not in par with table B, though they were just side-by-side.  Thus, he called and wanted to know the distance between the back of the chair of table A and the back of the chair of table B.  He wanted to ensure that all patrons could walk around comfortably and can easily place bets. I find it amazing that such a busy billionaire would be so into the details and how he thinks differently”.  

Melina Leong, former Senior Vice President of Public Relations and Community Affairs at Sands China  

“Sheldon was enjoying lunch at a restaurant on the banks of the Grand Canal at The Venetian. He was listening to the beautiful singing of the gondoliers, looking at the smiling faces of passengers and on-lookers. Suddenly, Sheldon called for the manager of the gondola ride. When the manager arrived, Sheldon had a stop watch in his hand and a hand-drawn map of the Grand canal with Gondola routes and timings sketched on it. Sheldon said: “The way you have this Godola ride set up, is not providing the ultimate guest experience and is loosing us money.” At that time Gondoliers sang throughout the ride, necessitating one long ride at a time, to avoid a battle of the voices and noise cross-over between Gondoliers. Sheldon proceeded to explain that if the Gondolier was to sing only at the turn-around point, and engage in polite conversation with passengers on the out-going and return sections, we could comfortably triple the number of rides and revenue. Sheldon observation, attention to detail and improved process was implemented and the Gondola Ride at the Grand Canal Shoppes became one of the most successful rides of its kind in the industry” 

Niall Murray, former  Vice President of Operations development at Venetian Macau