Upping their game: Themed entertainment venues are expanding for visitors

Overlooking Manila Bay, Entertainment City is the Philippines’ greatest gamble to compete with the casino complexes of Macau and Singapore. Unlike most capital cities in East Asia, gambling is legal in Manila and has been since the 1970s, and unlike the casinos of Singapore and Vietnam, there are no restrictions on domestic tourists entering Philippine casinos. More than a dozen standalone and hotel casinos are still sprinkled along a central stretch of the capital’s Roxas Blvd and its vicinity; however, as most of Metro Manila’s commercial activities moved to Makati in the 1960s and then, in the ensuing years, to other satellite cities, Manila’s leisure attractions lost some of their lustre, especially for foreign visitors. A number of new developments are set to change this.

Entertainment Upgrade

The Entertainment City project, with close to $6bn in associated private investment, is expected to totally overhaul current perceptions of Manila and the bayside. Encompassing 8 sq km of government-reclaimed land designated as a special economic zone, Entertainment City is located on the southern end of Roxas Blvd, at the beginning of the Manila-Cavite Expressway.

The resorts at the site are being built and operated by the winners of four 30-year licences awarded by the government’s gaming regulator, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation. The first three licensees were obliged to invest at least $1bn to build their respective facilities, although all appear to be spending more. The original three were Resorts World; Solaire Resort & Casino, a subsidiary of the Philippine logistics group, International Container Terminal Services Incorporated; and City of Dreams Manila, a joint venture between Hong Kong’s Melco Crown Resorts and local SM Group’s Belle Corporation. The fourth licensee, Manila Bay Resorts, backed by Japan’s Universal Entertainment, was required to invest $1.5bn, but its founder and president, Kazuo Okada, has pledged at least $2bn for the development.

Lofty Goals

Officially opened in March 2013, Solaire Resort & Casino set the luxury bar high. The $1.2bn complex houses two 17-storey, five-star hotels; a convention centre; meeting rooms; and a gaming area. The first hotel, the Bay Tower, has 500 rooms, while the Sky Tower, which opened in November 2014, brought the total room count to 800. Encircling it is Manila’s largest ballroom and a 1740-seat performing arts theatre. The theatre has staged travelling productions of musicals such as “Chicago” and “Les Misérables”, as well as concerts by Air Supply and Michael Bolton. The resort also hosted the World Poker Tour in 2014 and 2015. In recognition of the high volume of Chinese tourists that are expected to attend the resort, Solaire also hosts Northern Chinese and Cantonese restaurants.

Throughout the venue are many modern artworks from the private collection of Enrique Razon, Bloomberry’s chairman and the resort’s principal investor. Razon is perhaps better known for managing ports around the world, but is intent on expanding into integrated resorts. Unlike its rivals in the Philippines, Bloomberry does not have a co-investor with long experience in the gaming world, so Razon chose Thomas Arasi, former CEO of the Manila Bay Sands, to oversee the gaming side of the business as Solaire’s president and chief operating officer.

Another Theme

Opening 1 km away from Solaire in February 2015, City of Dreams takes its non-gaming attractions in a different direction. At an interactive theme park built in collaboration with DreamWorks Animation studio, children can explore Shrek’s swamp, practice martial arts with Kung Fu Panda, and learn about principles of flight in the “How to Train Your Dragon” attraction.

City of Dreams’ local partner, Belle Corporation, is controlled by the family of retail magnate Henry Sy, which has leveraged its experience to include 60,000 sq metres of shopping space as part of the development. In place of a Broadway-styled theatre, like that at Solaire, adult entertainment at the City of Dreams largely takes place in two internationally branded nightclubs, Pangaea and Chaos, operated by the events planning group of Michael Ault.

The City of Dreams includes three hotels – a Nobu Hotel, a Hyatt and a Crown Tower – with a total of about 900 rooms. The Nobu Hotel is only the third in the world and the first in Asia. The site also hosts a Nobu restaurant, one of 33 around the world overseen by chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.

City of Dreams made a greater play for local customers upon launch than Solaire did, which meant that it did not have to significantly reorient its marketing strategy when Chinese visitor numbers began tapering off in mid-2015 due to slowing growth in China. Melco Crown, which operates the City of Dreams Macau and three other casino properties in Macau, is responsible for the Manila gaming operations. These include 374 tables, 1695 slot machines and 1695 electronic table games.

Coming Attraction

The next resort to open at Entertainment City will be Manila Bay Resorts, which is owned by former gaming machine maker, Kazuo Okada. While there have been many delays, the resort’s first phase is scheduled to launch in December 2016. Many details have not yet been confirmed; however, it is anticipated that the site will host 500 gaming tables, 3000 slot machines, music clubs, an artificial beach, and an emphasis on “wellness”. The hotels, which will have 1000 rooms in two towers, are in the hands of Philippines partner Antonio Conjuanco, who controls All Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Expectations for the resort’s restaurant offerings are high, as Okada has historically taken food very seriously. In Hong Kong both his namesake Japanese restaurant and his Shanghai-themed restaurant, Yu Lei, have won Michelin stars. Overall, the new resort is expected to employ more than 5000 people.

Even less is known about the particulars of the fourth and final resort to open at Entertainment City, although construction is under way. Set to open by 2019, Resorts World Westside City will have double the gaming space of its sister property near the Manila airport. It will also have four or five hotels, a 1500-seat opera house and residential towers. Starting at 16 ha, later phases will expand the site to a total of 32 ha and 1500 rooms in six or seven hotels.

Other Key Attractions

In addition to the large-scale resorts at Entertainment City, Resorts World Manila was opened in 2009 opposite terminal three of Manila’s airport in Newport City. The site boasts a total of 60,000 sq metres of gaming space and retail shops, as well as four hotels, a cineplex, conference space and a 1500-seat performing arts theatre. Resorts World Manila employs 5000 staff, and between 19,000 and 20,000 visitors pass through the complex each day, while the hotels typically record 90% occupancy, according to Owen Camayo, director of communications for Resorts World.

Due to layovers at the airport, Resorts World finds itself with an captive guest market. Visitors arriving from overseas frequently stay a night at Resorts World while awaiting a flight to a domestic airport the following day. Furthermore, the three-storey convention centre is convenient for business meetings whether attendees are flying in from overseas or elsewhere in the Philippines. In 2015 the five-star Marriott Manila at the site added a ballroom, which the company claims is the largest in the country.

When a walkway is completed from terminal three in 2016, access to the casino complex will become even more convenient. This should help Resorts World continue to compete with the newer developments in Entertainment City, which are up to an hour away from the airport. However, as Manila continues to develop as a gaming destination in its own right, more visitors are likely to make their way to Entertainment City, bypassing the offerings near the airport.