hen Lawrence Ho partnered with Australian billionaire and casino operator James Packer in 2004, he started a journey that would consolidate after Crown started accumulating debt from ill-timed investments. At that moment in 2004, Ho had the chance to buy up Packer’s shares, and rename the business Melco Resorts.
Currently, Ho is looking for new ways to introduce more technology and digital savvy into the operations of a casino. As proof of this, he plans to unveil a new virtual butler system (named Melvis) that will help guests book tickets and plan trips, even before arriving at a Melco property within the next two years.
The break with the traditional mores of his industry animates Ho. “I like new ideas. The gaming business is dominated by very traditional thinking. I understood that we need certain expertise and experiences but, at the same time, we wanted to try new things. Our industry tends to be very old … as a young company, we are trying to change that,” he said.
In the past, Ho’s desire for newness and extravagance has led to consternation among his more conservative board members. The creation of the House of Dancing Water, crafted by Franco Dragone meant a U$D 300 million investment amidst global financial crisis. "I had board members asking me, ‘are you insane?’,” Ho says.
For Ho, such shows are part of a new era in Asian casinos – as much focused on entertainment and technology as gaming tables and slot machines.
Ho explains his main ambition is to build a global business. In 2012, Melco entered into a partnership with a subsidiary of SM Investments to create City of Dreams Manila. Ho now estimates that the Philippines operation is worth about 15 per cent of earnings to Melco International. City of Dreams Manila, a billion-dollar investment in 2012, is now regarded by the company as their base in Southeast Asia.
In June, Melco International announced it had bought a controlling stake in a casino project in Cyprus – the company has received a 30-year licence for an integrated resort in Limassol, Cyprus’ capital, as well as 15 years of exclusivity. Ho says the Cyprus project also means an opportunity to engage tourists from the Middle East, as well as Europeans and Russians.
But it is Japan where Ho is setting his eyes next. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new mandate, Ho is confident that legislation around integrated resorts will be pushed forward in the next calendar year. “Once the implementation bill is passed, that is when the beauty contest – the bidding – will start,” he said. "An emphasis on entertainment and modernity is what will be the winning hand when it comes to getting those coveted first concessions to run casinos in Japan," Ho said.
“We’ve been waiting a very long time,” he said. “To have the opportunity to build something ultra cool and ultra modern, but also pay tribute to the rich history.” Beyond casinos, Ho sees tourism in Japan as a largely untapped market. He is incredulous at the fact that, as recently as 2000, there were only a few million tourists a year in Japan. That figure has climbed to more than 20 million a year, but Ho reckons this number will keep rising.
With this aim in mind, he is already thinking of working with Japanese architects to create architectural marvels that celebrate Japanese history and modernity. “That’s the beauty of Japan – the technology is there and I can go wild in Japan,” he said.
However, his plans of expansion do not exclude Macau. In 2018, Melco’s new building, Morpheus, an 800-room hotel with facilities, will open at the City of Dreams in Macau. Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, Morpheus will boast modernistic looks "contrasting sharply with its surroundings." Ho said.
“We’ve always looked at ourselves as an entertainment company … unlike some of our competitors that are very focused on the casino business,” he said. “Ours is more focused on getting to the younger crowd.”