The first casino in Manila’s Entertainment City rises with an elegant extension, as it aims to shine globally
When Solaire Resort & Casino opened its first phase in March 2013, observers proclaimed it set a new standard for the Philippine market. With its Phase 1A Sky Tower that opened in late November, “Solaire raised the bar again. They definitely outdid Phase I with Phase 1A,” says Francis Hernando, vice president for Licensing and Development of the country’s gaming regulator, Pagcor.
“The Sky Tower elevates Solaire yet another step higher into the very top tier of world-class integrated resorts, and is a tremendous game changer in providing best-in-class guest experience,” Solaire President and Chief Operating Officer Thomas Arasi says. After joining Solaire in October 2013, Mr Arasi reportedly ordered key changes to Sky Tower as part of revamping the resort’s strategy and positioning. Despite that, Sky Tower arrived “on track and on spec,” parent company Bloomberry Chairman and Chief Executive Enrique Razon Jr said just ahead of the new wing’s 21st November ribbon cutting.
Solaire opened as the first property in Pagcor’s Entertainment City integrated resort district with a 488-room hotel tower and 18,500 square-meter (200,000 square foot) gaming area, plus a grand ballroom and about a half-dozen food and beverage options. Sky Tower advances Solaire toward becoming a full-fledged integrated resort with additional rooms, VIP gaming, F&B options, meeting rooms, and a theater, all packaged around a spectacular lobby. The $1.2 billion property, currently averaging 14,000 daily visitors, will roll out more non-gaming attractions throughout this year. Non-gaming revenue accounted for about 3.5% of Solaire’s third quarter overall revenue of 22.3 billion Philippine pesos (US$531 million). “The non-gaming side has performed well, noting, however, that much of our non-gaming is pretty much being sopped up and consumed by the gaming side. … So it’s really been supporting the gaming business,” Mr Arasi says. “Once we build out everything in the Sky Tower, we’ll be able to solidly grow our non-gaming business.”
Sky Tower’s two-story-high lobby atrium makes an immediate splash with a twin waterfall highlighting a tropical garden with palm trees and other greenery. Natural light pours in through the central skylight. Oasis Garden Café serves as the atrium’s striking centerpiece. Sheathed in light wood loosely woven to resemble a bird’s nest, Oasis is an inviting patisserie by day and a stylish piano lounge once the sun goes down.
With views of the lobby and Manila Bay, Waterside Restobar advances the gastro-bar concept, serving meals and snacks with Mediterranean and Latin accents from its ensemble of show kitchens. Waterside’s next step will be alfresco dining, including tapas at sunset.
Like the rest of Solaire, the lobby features original modern artwork, many pieces from the private collection of Mr Razon, a billionaire thanks to his global ports business. A massive abstract canvas by Philippine artist Gen Cab on the wall facing Sky Tower’s reception area has been valued at US$1 million.
Sky Tower brings Solaire’s key count to 800. “We’re fairly bigsized now, but I would strongly suggest we feel more intimate than most other places like us do,” Mr Arasi says. “It’s how we’re designed. It’s a more intimate design. It’s different venues within the overall envelope.” Some credit is also due Solaire’s 5,600 employees, whom Mr Arasi calls “the best team members I’ve ever worked with.”
Suites in Sky Tower range from 124 square meters to a whopping 936 square meters. Interiors by Solaire Director for Interior Design Samantha Drummond mix the hotel’s signature orange with earth tones and basic black to luxurious effect. In most suites, the separate sitting area with views of the bay has a sectional sofa, easy chair with ottoman, artworks and a high boy concealing the minibar. The effect is elegant and sophisticated, yet homey and comfortable. Some suites are entered via recessed vestibules off the hallway and can be combined, not via the traditional connecting doors inside rooms, but by closing off the vestibule area from the hallway.
Sky Tower expands Solaire’s VIP gaming with 66 tables in 10 bright and airy private gaming suites, “the most gorgeous gaming salons ever to see a deck of cards,” Mr Arasi contends. The new suites, on Sky Tower’s second level and linked to the original Bay Tower VIP area, bring its VIP table count to 180. Bay Tower has larger gaming suites, nine of them housing Solaire’s fixed junkets. Sky Tower’s smaller suites cater to direct VIPs and casual junkets as well as players who want private rooms. Direct VIP buy-ins begin at HK$300,000. Solaire takes bets in both Hong Kong dollars and Philippines pesos. Minimum bets on the VIP area’s open floor begin at HK$2,000 with a HK$1.5 million maximum.
Player pampering enrichments extend to exclusive F&B for VIPs only. Macallan Whisky and Cigar Bar, named for the premium Scotch whiskey brand, has a clean, elegant look and full drink service, featuring whiskey tasting menus. The separate cigar divan—Mr Arasi admits to enjoying an occasional cheroot—has a clubby feel, and offers Cuban as well as Philippine smokes. House of Zhou features northern Chinese cuisine, a counterpoint to Solaire’s original Cantonese restaurant, Red Lantern.
The VIP enhancements are the latest step in a revamp of Solaire’s gaming business that began when Mr Arasi came on board, replacing Global Gaming Asset Management. (Bloomberry and GGAM remain in arbitration over termination of their five-year management contract.) The resort has added hundreds of gaming machines— including 223 linked to the Sky Tower opening—and about two dozen tables to its main gaming floor, bringing the overall mass table count to 384. Off the main floor, the premium mass Solaire Club for toplevel Solaire Rewards Club members has 30 tables, half of them baccarat. Blackjack, its cousin pontoon and roulette are also popular in the market, more similar to the table mix in Singapore than Macau.
Mr Arasi worked in the Singapore market as CEO at Marina Bay Sands and thinks that experience has helped him at Solaire. “Here, like in Singapore, you had to define your niche and tap into the opportunity that is unique in the circumstances of that particular market,” he says. “In Singapore, we had to very quickly excel in a pan-Asian marketing strategy. We could not enjoy one gigantic market providing most of what we needed. We had to have a pan-Asian marketing and execution effort. It’s the same here in the Philippines. Now I think that’s a very good thing because it allows us to be more diverse in terms of the origins of business.”
Another similarity was the need to look past the short term for a “balanced, long-term sustainable business model,” the veteran hospitality executive says. “That means having a nice balance between table games and slot machines, having a nice balance between mass gaming and VIP gaming, and having a nice balance between international business and building a foundation from domestic business. So slots and tables, mass and VIP, international and domestic, that was required in Singapore and is an opportunity here and, actually, is a pretty virtuous circle here. If you can have synergy and strength in each of those areas, between tables and slots, between international and domestic, between VIP and mass, that’s a great way to build a profitable, valuable business.”
Another common challenge was introducing the “new-fangled, much, much larger integrated resort” model to the Philippines. “It’s somewhat opening a new market,” Mr Arasi says. “Harkening back to lessons learned from Singapore and being sensitized how to approach that, and how to balance all of the factors that go into its success was very helpful.”
The Theater at Solaire spotlights the property’s move toward becoming a true IR. Built Broadway-style with a relatively narrow footprint, the 1,760-seat theater has a balcony and orchestra pit, plus a theater bar in its lobby. The backstage area opens directly to a loading dock, making it easier to move in large sets. Its Meyer Sound state of the art Constellation acoustic system is just the third installed in Asia, following installations in Macau and Singapore. Broadway musical “Chicago” inaugurated the theater with a three week run from early December. The upcoming performance menu includes a mix of Philippine, regional and international shows, and Solaire has a full-time theater director to keep the stage lit.
For MICE, Sky Tower adds The Forum, a 2,000 square meter flexible meeting space, divisible into separate rooms and linked to the resort’s main ballroom, the largest in Manila with a capacity of up to 1,200. Meetings can be a profitable niche business for Solaire, Bloomberry director of investor relations Leo Venezuela believes. “There aren’t a lot of good meeting facilities in Manila,” he points out. Other attractions will open later this year, including 10,000 square meters of luxury retail, a destination spa, karaoke bar and nightclub.
Mr Arasi says that’s all just the first course. “Where it becomes transformational for the non-gaming business is when Phase 2 comes in,” he says. Preliminary plans for Phase 2 call for “a lot more of what we currently have,” including hotel rooms, casino space, entertainment and retail. A decision on whether to proceed with Phase 2 from Mr Razon and the Bloomberry board of directors, where Mr Arasi holds a seat, could come as soon as the completion of the Sky Tower.
“What the Bay Tower and the Sky Tower have done is given us an incredible property that is of global luxury standard, and we’re in there, we’re in that global top echelon,” Mr Arasi says. “Phase 2 enhances that top echelon position of what’s already open, [and] it actually gives us more global scale. It gives us a lot more of everything again, so we just have a lot more facilities and supply to offer, so we can really scale up, and we can leverage the brand we will have built, we can leverage our position, our marketing presence, our loyalty programs, our goodwill, our management expertise, and of course our site.”
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.