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Sands Macao - A revolution in hospitality industry
Sands Style / Interviews & Features

Sands Macao - A revolution in hospitality industry

When Sands Macao opened in 2004, it revolutionised an entire industry. How did it become one of the most compelling success stories in the hospitality industry? By Anna Cummins

Macao is a city of transformation. There have been few periods in its history as deeply transformative as the five years from 1999 – when Macao fully returned to China – to 2004, when Sands Macao opened its doors to the enormous crowds waiting outside.

The arrival of Sands Macao marked the beginning of a presence in the city that has turned into a fruitful 15-year relationship between Sands China and the local community, greatly expanding the amenities available to Macao people, helping Macao diversify its attractions to millions of visitors, and growing into a company that now employs around 30,000 team members. Sands China’s properties have all made their own unique contribution along the way, but it was Sands Macao that first brought the legendary Las Vegas Sands name to China.

The introduction of a new era began in 2001, when the SAR’s new leaders decided to open up the region to international corporations and investors. When the news reached Sheldon Adelson, CEO and chairman of Las Vegas Sands, he knew that it was a golden opportunity to transform the face of the city forever.

“I heard that there was a monopoly in Macao and that the monopoly was about to end,” he recalled in an interview with Sands Style in 2017. “My staff were knowledgeable about what was happening in the industry and, as I explored further and read industry trade publications and other news, I could see that Macao was considered a top-notch market.

“When I came here [Macao] to talk to some people, I saw an opportunity to create the Las Vegas of Asia,” he said. “My experience in the convention business was an important part of what we thought we could do for Macao, and the more we talked about it, the clearer that vision became.”

Adelson saw an opportunity to create the Las Vegas of Asia in Macao

When the company broke ground to develop Sands Macao, there were no foreign-owned resort or entertainment complexes in the territory. That all changed with the opening of Sands Macao on May 18, 2004.

Adelson recalls: “Ultimately, our goals were the same as Macao’s in that we thought we could help turn Macao into a business and leisure destination I did that in Las Vegas and, of course, I had experience in the convention business. So I was just the right guy for that.” This was no ordinary construction project. This was a pioneering plan that required a deep level of confidence from Sands Corp in its ability to step into a new culture and redefine a hotel and entertainment industry that had remained mostly unchanged in its outlook for a generation – there was no precedent.

Just two years after Sands was granted its concession in May 2002, the city celebrated the grand opening of Sands Macao in May 2004. Construction was completed in a staggering 14 months — a pace that later came to be reverentially referred to as “Sands speed” — and expectation was rampant.

On the day itself, a vast crowd formed several hours before the scheduled opening, and the doors were thrown open early. Some 40,000 people arrived that day to take in the lofty Paul Steelmandesigned interiors housing A plethera of entertainment options including two fantastic restaurants. This lineup that includes eateries such as Copa Steakhouse and Golden Court, showcases the best international cuisine Macao has to offer.

A giant chandelier is the centrepiece of the lobby

This was phase 1 of Sands Macao – a 1 million-sq-ft entertainment complex with restaurants and bars including a Las Vegas-style buffet; a spa and 54 VIP hotel suites. Guests were greeted by attentive servers, huge windows (the hotel at Sands was the first in Macao to incorporate natural lighting), colourful carpets and those iconic, Vegas-style lush green table felts. A four-lane porte-cochère and separate bus entrance cut the usual long taxi queues to around a minute.

Rather than maintain a wholly American approach to the aesthetic, Steelman incorporated Chinese elements, while servers in traditional attire poured Chinese tea to guests.

In pushing the envelope with its design, Sands Macao was a departure from everything Macao had ever seen – and it broke the mould in other ways. It was the first in Macao to use “stadiumstyle” design, with 65-ft ceilings and a peripheral vantage point that allowed onlookers to soak in the atmosphere of the activity below, augmented by a six-storey chandelier.

The introduction of the Individual Visit Scheme in 2003 had seen numbers of visitors to Macao from mainland China begin to surge, and demand for Sands Macao’s facilities increased at a dizzying rate.

The entertainment complex completed an expansion in 2006 from 165,000 sq ft to over 229,000 sq ft, spread out over three floors.

In late 2007, a new hotel tower opened, where the current all-suite room count is 289. The deluxe 645-sq-ft suites, appointed with king- or double-king-sized beds, offer a separate dining space, living and bedroom area and suitably lavish trimmings, from marble bathrooms with jacuzzi and rain shower to plasma TVs.

In late 2007, a new hotel tower opened

Guests can lounge by the outdoor heated swimming pool on the sixth floor, or visit the tranquil spa and salon offering beauty, hair and wellness treatments by experienced therapists. The Shoppes at Sands Macao is a 30,000 sq-ft duty-free luxury shopping experience starring 150 marquee brands, from jewellery to fragrance and fashion.

Another integral pillar of the Vegas-style resort experience is dining, and the gargantuan 888 Buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, is the Elvis-sized crown on Sands’ achievements in this area.

Meanwhile, Golden Court does contemporary Cantonese and live seafood in elegant surroundings, while upscale Copa Steakhouse serves some of the city’s best prime beef steak, cooked to sizzling perfection in its boisterous open kitchen. Between these options, the Moonlight Noodle House, 888 Food Court and other branded fast-food concessions, you know you won’t go hungry while staying here.

Avant-garde art, extravagant productions and pioneering architecture, as borne out by all subsequent properties in the Sands China portfolio, are now de rigueur. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Las Vegas has started celebrating Lunar New Year every winter.

Sands Macao’s subsequent sister resorts have been an unmitigated success. There’s The Venetian Macao, which pioneered the Cotai strip after its opening in 2007; The Parisian Macao; The Plaza Macao and Sands Cotai Central. In 2017, the company announced it would make a US$2.2 billion investment renovating and rebranding Sands Cotai Central as The Londoner, a Londonthemed resort boasting more rooms than The Venetian and Parisian combined. The investment will also cover refurbishment of the Four Seasons Tower Suites Macao and St. Regis Tower Suites Macao.

Sands Macao also provides a great dining experience with the 888 Buffet

Plans are continuing, but The Londoner is set to feature replicas of London landmarks such as Elizabeth Tower, Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace, and is slated for a 2020 opening.

“The three most visited sites in Macao are the Saint Paul’s Ruins, then The Venetian and The Parisian,” noted Sands China president Wilfred Wong at a presentation to the British Business Association of Macao in 2018. Given that The Parisian had opened less than two years earlier, this is astounding – and the popularity of its themed resorts is an encouraging sign for Sands China.

It’s clear that, in 21st-century Macao, a resort has to offer something different from what has gone before. It’s what is driving Macao’s development as a never-ending succession of superlatives: each new attraction is the biggest, the boldest, the brightest and the best. Adelson has made this mantra his life’s work.

“What I have always wanted to do is challenge the status quo,” he told Sands Style in 2017. “Not only challenge it but change it because, from an entrepreneurial viewpoint, you don’t want to start a business and compete head-to-head on the same conditions as everybody else. You want to try to do something different. And that’s what I have always done; tried something different.”