Socialites and showbiz stars joined business tycoons Tuesday for the opening of the MGM Grand Macau, the latest Las Vegas-backed casino to crowd into the tiny Chinese gambling enclave, hoping to lure China's growing middle class.
The $1.25 billion MGM Grand is a joint venture between Las Vegas casino operator MGM Mirage and Pansy Ho, former socialite and the daughter of Macau's former casino kingpin, Stanley Ho.
It is jockeying for high rollers with dozens of casinos already stationed in Macau, the only place in China where gambling is legal and which last year raked in more gaming revenue than the Las Vegas Strip.
"It's an exciting night for all of us. We at MGM like to do things in a grand way and we're going to be in Macau for many decades to come," Terry Lanni, CEO of MGM Mirage said, addressing hundreds of people packed in a cavernous European style plaza for the opening ceremony.
The high-profile guest list included Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, top Macau government officials, as well as local celebrities and tycoons, including Stanley Ho, a spokeswoman said.
As an orchestra played at the base of a fairytale European castle in the plaza, waitresses in black suits with Chinese collars served glasses of Veuve Cliquot champagne to sequin dressed socialites in fox furs.
Stanley Ho ran the casino business in Macau for 40 years until 2001 — two years after the Portuguese colony returned to Chinese rule — when the government broke up his monopoly and handed out gaming concessions to foreign interests.
American Sheldon Adelson was the first to enter the territory, opening the Sands Macau in 2004, and then this August the $2.4 billion Venetian, a Las Vegas style mega casino-resort complete with Italian gondolas punting down indoor canals.
Pansy Ho said the 600-room MGM Grand will target the wealthiest gamblers, called "VIP customers" in the business, who are interested in high-end shopping and entertainment as well as gambling.
Lanni said the joint partnership between MGM Mirage and Pansy Ho was already scouting out other opportunities in Macau and had located a spot on the Cotai strip, a piece of reclaimed land that has already drawn the likes of the mass-market Venetian. "We can't wait to develop that property and we will be having very significant discussions with the Macau government about that," he said.
Ho described the MGM Grand — an eclectic mix of European architecture, Chinese minimalism and art deco — as a "style icon" that would offer a new art and lifestyle experience to visitors.
The hotel will link to a luxury apartment block and a shopping center still under development. Phase two of the hotel complex will include space for a convention center, theater and circus.
Ho has dismissed concerns that the casino was squeezing into a corner of Macau's main island that was already packed with luxury gambling resorts, including some run by her family.
"These few casinos will actually work in conjunction to present a really formidable proposition to all VIP customers that this should be the center of the high-rolling gaming experience," she said in Macau last week during a preview tour of the hotel.
The 35-story MGM Grand boasts a huge atrium with a glass ceiling that's 20 foot high (6.5 meters high) and is modeled on the central train station in Lisbon, a nod to the territory's Portuguese heritage. Abstract hand-blown glass sculptures by U.S. artist Dale Chihuly are scattered around the plush marble lobby, while a life-sized Salvador Dali statue of a girl skipping rope sits on the lawn outside.
The hotel also offers 400 gambling tables, 800 slot machines and 16 private gaming rooms, comparable to its closest rivals, U.S. tycoon Steve Wynn's casino and the Crown Macau.
Both the $1.1 billion Wynn and the Crown Macau, a joint venture between Australia's Publishing & Broadcasting Ltd. and Hong Kong-based Melco International Development Ltd., run by Pansy's brother, Lawrence Ho, have positioned themselves as high-end casinos.
The Grand is MGM's first entry into Asia. While the jury is still out on whether Asian gamblers respond to the same type of non-casino entertainment as those in Las Vegas, it was expected to be a successful launch, said Jonathan Galaviz, a partner at Globalysis Ltd., a Las Vegas-based consultancy.
"MGM Mirage has an excellent Asian consumer base that patronizes their integrated resorts in Las Vegas, their new Macau property should benefit from these pre-existing customer relationships," he said.
However, analysts warned that Macau was reaching "opening fatigue."
"We're not seeing the big jump in gaming revenues with every new opening that we saw with the early casinos," Rob Hart, an analyst with Hong Kong-based Morgan Stanley said.
But, with 100 million people just next door in China's wealthiest region of Guangdong, and with average salaries of 1 billion people in mainland China on the increase, Hart said there was still huge growth potential for Macau's gaming industry.
Outside the MGM Grand, mainland construction worker Liu Jun looked up at the hotels retro beige facade with a mixture of pride and longing. The Shaanxi native said he had been part of the team that had built the hotel but had very little money to go inside and gamble, having already lost "thousands" in another casino earlier. "We heard that every mainland Chinese who came here tonight would receive 1,000 yuan (U.S. $130)," he said. The rumor couldnt be confirmed.
Others outside were more curious than hard-core gamblers.
"I live in Macau. Im interested in what it looks like inside. Im not really interested in gambling," said Chen Mei Kun, who was among hundreds of others who had lined up for hours to be first into the casino when the doors opened to the public.