Macau as MICE rival to Hong Kong?

Macau’s outgoing Chief Executive, Fernando Chui, must have been surprised by the call (assuming it came) from Beijing last night, letting him know that China had offered Macau as an alternative venue to host the APEC meeting of economic ministers. It was obviously a quick decision, as Fox News was reporting on the offer within hours of the announcement by Chile that it could no longer host the November 16-17 event in Santiago.

One has to wonder whether Las Vegas Sands boss Sheldon Adelson was equally quick off the mark, perhaps offering his properties on the Cotai Strip for accommodation and meeting space. He might not care to host the entire APEC gathering – because it likely would require turfing out gambling guests from hotel suites –  but he would certainly appreciate the chance to host the presidents of the United States and China, who were supposed to sign some kind of trade deal on the sidelines of the APEC meeting.

It looks like we will never know, because sources have been quoted as saying that the US president is highly unlikely to do the meeting on Chinese soil. 

That is too bad. Although President Xi Jinping is due in Macau for its 20th anniversary celebrations on December 20 anyway, getting him in Macau on November 16-17, shaking hands with President Donald Trump, would be an incredible publicity stunt for the city.

Macau deserves such an opportunity. It is the Greater Bay Area’s best place to hold a gathering like the APEC meeting: Adelson’s Cotai Strip has 13,000 five-star hotel rooms from seven international brands, all within a short walk of each other via airconditioned bridges. It has dozens of restaurants, including Michelin-starred. It has 1.5 million sq ft of meeting space, run by the MICE king of Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau. It even has something, ahem, to do after hours – and thanks to some clever design, no official’s feet need ever touch a gaming floor when walking from one side of the property to the other.

And here’s the deal-clincher: it would all happen on private property, which could be blocked to protesters. A police escort would only be needed for the presidents’ initial trip to the hotel from the border.

The one weakness Macau has when it comes to holding large-scale events is its arrival experience. Macau’s airport is small and cannot handle many big jets at the same time. It doesn’t have many international connections, especially no long-haul routes across the Pacific. The Hong Kong International Airport is, instead, the gateway of choice. 

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge should make a transit via HKIA to Macau an easy experience. Alas, it remains a work in progress. The HKIA is still building its Intermodal Transport Terminal, due to be finished in 2022. That will allow Macau visitors to avoid passing through immigration three times – twice in Hong Kong, and once in Macau. Moreover, the arrival experience on the Macau side of the bridge leaves much to be desired, with only two shuttle buses available to transfer visitors to one of the ferry terminals, from where they can get resort buses.

None of this isn’t easily fixable, however, with a bit of trained attention. And regardless of whether the APEC meeting gets held in Macau, it is a good time to be wondering about Macau’s potential as a MICE destination. 

To be sure, schadenfreude  is a terrible thing to admit to, but it would be surprising if Sands China’s management team weren’t secretly rubbing their hands with glee to see how the MICE business is being assaulted in Hong Kong at the moment. Every event organizer in Hong Kong should have received a call from a Macau telemarketer by now asking them if they would prefer to hold their events in a nearby city that is free of protests. These telemarketers should be getting all the help they need from the governments in Macau and Beijing. 

Besides big events that require thousands of hotel rooms (mid-week), Macau is a great place for VIP events, too. Imagine what Prada must be thinking now that it has decided to walk away from its prime Causeway Bay location. Would it consider serving its mainland clientele in Macau? It would be dumb not to think seriously about it.

Macau’s incoming Chief Executive, Ho Iat Seng, is big on the mantra of diversification of Macau’s economy. The MICE business is a no-brainer to achieve this. The next step will be his to take; it will be interesting to see what he does.

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