The Manila Bay entertainment district begins to take shape with the soft opening of City of Dreams Manila
City of Dreams Manila started small with its soft opening on Sunday, 14th December. Just the mass gaming floor opened along with a handful of food and beverage outlets. But the property’s elevated stage at the casino entrance, three international hotel brands and two famous name nightclubs say the first Macau casino operator in the Philippines aims to make a big splash.
“It’s the only casino here that resembles Vegas or Macau,” Manuel Gana, executive vice president and chief financial officer of property co-owner Belle Corporation says, noting the entertainment factor and accent on flashiness and fun. “Quality-wise, it’s on par with Solaire,” the first casino resort in Manila’s bay front Entertainment City casino district that opened in March 2013 and began rolling out its Phase 1-A expansion in November. City of Dreams Manila, “the gateway to Entertainment City,” as it styles itself, occupies 6.2 hectares at the city end of the burgeoning integrated resort cluster, where two more IRs are expected to open by 2018.
The sneak preview attracted an estimated 13,000 people to the resort with the slogan “Where everything is above all else.” Above all else in the center of the main casino floor sits the high wattage Center Stage Bar featuring Philippine crooners, European dancers and lighting panels above that change color and can descend to envelop the stage, which also can rise and descend. The rectangular ground level main gaming floor surrounds Center Stage, with 120 of the 166 table games with minimums ranging from 300 Philippine pesos (US$7) to PHP3,000, and most of the 1,700 gaming machines. The roughly 5,000 square meter gaming floor layout is spacious, orientation is simple and signage is ample.
The casino’s upper level, featuring a 12-table poker area, links to the developing retail mall, DreamWorks indoor theme park and nightclub impresario Michael Van Cleef Ault’s Pangaea and Chaos, all expected to open before Chinese New Year. Also coming soon, the premium-mass Signature Club, an understatedly luxurious members- only space off the main floor, and VIP gaming areas.
Nobu, Hyatt and Crown Towers hotels with a total of around 900 rooms are all due to open by mid-February. The Nobu restaurant, featuring chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s signature dishes, was doing a lively business on opening night. The Nobu Hotel in Manila will be the star-studded group’s first in Asia, after Las Vegas and Riyadh. Hyatt began registering guests during Christmas week.
Melco Crown Entertainment operates the new resort, its first project outside Macau, where it owns the original City of Dreams resort, casino hotel Altira, Mocha Club slot parlors and expects to open Studio City Macau next year. Through a Philippine-listed subsidiary, the company jointly owns City of Dreams Manila with property developer Belle Corporation, part of the SM Group controlled by the family of the Philippines’ richest man, Henry Sy.
In 2012, Melco Crown agreed to team with Belle on the casino side of the planned Belle Grand resort. “If we continued with our plan and built Belle Grand, it would have been five-star but not the unique facility we have now,” Mr Gana says. “No one in SM Group ever operated a casino. That’s what Melco Crown brings to the table.”
In October 2013, Philippine regulator Pagcor revised its formula to determine the number of gaming tables and machines permitted in licensed resorts based on hotel room count and room area, giving credit for lodging quality as well as quantity. The Belle-Melco Crown resort’s allotment jumped from 242 tables and a combined 1,450 slot machines and electronic table games to 374 tables, 1,695 slots and 1,695 e-tables. The change prompted Melco Crown to rebrand the resort as City of Dreams Manila, up the partnership’s combined investment to about $1.3 billion and take over operations.
“Quite simply, City of Dreams brings nearly a decade of Macau gaming know-how to a market that needs more international operators to set up shop in order to raise the profile of Philippines as a gaming destination,” Union Gaming Research Macau Managing Partner Grant Govertsen says. “That said, it isn’t clear that it will have an overnight impact. It’s important to remember that building a VIP business takes time and a lot of elbow grease. Mass market is not a slam dunk either, as other properties—especially Resorts World Manila—have a many year head start on capturing what is a fairly significant pool of local customers.”
“After Resorts World Manila and Solaire, City of Dreams brings a third far superior gaming bricks-and-mortar experience relative to the government-owned and -operated Pagcor casinos located in the Metro Manila area,” Macomber International President Dean Macomber says. “Perhaps less obviously, it brings a short-term burst in generic credibility for the Philippine gaming market in general and, in the specific, to the two remaining Manila Bay projects not yet opened. The sustainability of this credibility infusion will be determined by the success of City of Dreams Manila.”
By taking over the project in midstream, Melco Crown had to work with Belle’s basic building structure already in place and perhaps not what Melco Crown would have constructed from scratch. “Being a real estate developer, we don’t think like an integrated resort developer does,” Mr Gana says.
The gold-sheathed structure features a two-story base with six 10-story towers clustered in pairs along its periphery, plus the dome called the Fortune Egg that will house the nightclubs. The roof of the base has hotel swimming pools and will feature dining. Each hotel occupies a pair of towers and has its own lobby at ground level.
“I do like the access,” Tiger Resort Deputy Chief Financial Officer Laurence Hawke says. “It’s easy to drive up to the casino entrance or the hotel entrances and be a few steps from the casino.” Tiger, controlled by Japanese pachinko tycoon Kazuo Okada, is developing the $2 billion Manila Bay Resorts at Entertainment City, aiming for its own soft opening late this year. Mr Hawke also likes the Center Stage Bar as a focal point for the mass floor: “The Philippine market needs some entertainment.”
PAGCOR Vice President for Licensing and Development Francis Hernando says the regulator’s board members making their walk through inspection found the result “pleasantly surprising” given the challenge. “How they could turn that structure into something that relates to the Melco Crown brand is impressive.”
Mr Hernando said the opening details were left to Melco Crown, but the operator had initiated the process to begin casino operations months ago, eyeing a debut date as early as October. “At that point, rather than Pagcor getting caught up in business judgments, we agreed we’d work on a permit valid to open by 31st December,” Mr Hernando explains.
“We’re leaving the sequencing to them” regarding VIP operations, hotels openings and other project elements, he adds. “We’ll give them slack until Chinese New Year.” Melco Crown has said the property’s grand opening will take place ahead of the holiday falling on 19th February this year.
MASSING IN MANILA
Other Manila operators enthusiastically welcome their new rival to town. “The opening of City of Dreams should expand the market. They’ll be bringing in a whole new set of players,” Travellers International Hotel Group Chief of Corporate Planning Patricia May Siy says. A joint venture of Genting Hong Kong and Philippine billionaire Andrew Tan’s Alliance Global Group, Travellers owns Resorts World Manila near Terminal 3 of Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, currently undergoing significant expansion, and has broken ground on Bayshore City Resorts World in Entertainment City, expected to open in late 2018. “The Philippines is gaining ground as an alternative to Macau,” she says.
“The more here, then critical mass sets in, the more business for everyone,” Tiger’s Mr Hawke says.
“We’re good compliments for each other as we all look to grow Entertainment City,” Solaire President and Chief Operating Officer Thomas Arasi says.
“The attractions are very different,” Mr Hernando says of Solaire and City of Dreams Manila, about one kilometer apart along ASEAN Avenue, which public- and private-sector planners hope to develop into Manila’s version of the Vegas Strip. Solaire has a Broadway-style theater but no nightclubs; City of Dreams will have two world-class clubs but no theater. “There seems to be complementation, not duplication,” Mr Hernando observes.
With two resorts plus other attractions in the Manila Bay area, including Mall of Asia, its adjacent 16,000-seat indoor arena and a nearby convention center, it’s time to “weave the elements into a destination,” Mr Hernando says. He expects Pagcor and Entertainment City licensees to begin work on streetscaping based on a Paul Steelman plan for the district, initiate shuttles and make other improvements through their joint council to oversee Entertainment City.
Other landowners in the area are also likely to begin complementary projects in the 120-hectare area, including hotels, retail and housing. “City of Dreams is accelerating interest to develop,” Mr Hernando says.
With a new toll road from the airport directly to Entertainment City due to begin operating by the end of this year, he says, “Everything is there. We don’t need to wait two more years.”
Editor at large Muhammad Cohen also blogs for Forbes on gaming throughout Asia and wrote Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.