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April 24, 2014

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Kats in Macau: Manny Pacquiao a hit in China; Alicia Keys opens fight weekend with Rounds 1 and 2

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Chris Farina/Top Rank

Manny Pacquiao arrives with Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach at the Venetian Macao in Macau, China, on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, for his upcoming fight against former world champion Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios.

The Streets of Macau

The Wynn Macau and Encore towers, looking fairly familiar. Launch slideshow »

Pacquiao vs. Rios at Venetian Macau

Manny Pacquiao takes a break as he is interviewed after his Launch slideshow »

Pacquiao vs. Rios: Macau

Teams battled and tempers flared at a workout today when the camps of Team Rios and Team Pacquiao crossed paths during training sessions Wednesday at The Venetian Macao Resort, Nov. 19, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Galaxy Macau

The marquee of the Galaxy Macau Resort Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Launch slideshow »

MACAU — The Kats Report Bureau at this writing is the Media Center at the Venetian Macau, where the visiting members of the media from around the world have been duly impressed by the hotel’s accommodations.

And by “accommodations,” I refer of course to the thrice-daily media spread put out by the Venetian’s F&B team.

This is the undisputed heavyweight champ of media spreads. Resorts in Macau are tirelessly attempting to top the amenities in Las Vegas, and they have figured out how to effectively court the press, one entree at a time.

I’ve been hitting the streets effectively hear over the past couple of days, even as the Cotai Strip and Macau peninsula “across the bridge” are a wholly pedestrian experience. On Thursday, I took a winding, somewhat nauseating trip into the peninsula side of the city, stopping for tours of Wynn Macau and neighboring Encore (which mirrored, sometimes literally, their sister properties in Vegasville), MGM Macau (a “boutique” at about 600 rooms) and cut into the antiquated resort that was opened by Stanley Ho in 1970, Casino Lisboa. This would be Macau’s version of Binion’s, or maybe Flamingo Las Vegas, a classic casino that predates today’s explosive resort growth in the region.

After entering Casino Lisboa, where the columned, circular design reminds so much of the old Sands Hotel, I walked blithely into the Crystal Palace casino. The room was crammed with what I took to be Macanese gamblers and those from mainland China, and I felt sufficiently uncomfortable. Not in any sort of threatened way, but there is a very odd sensation that washes over a person entering one of these intense Macau gambling rooms who is so obviously not part of the culture. Two security officers quickly approached me, not to enact security, but just to look at me and giggle. I had already taken some photos that were likely not authorized, so I embraced the protocol of the culture: I smiled, bowed and moonwalked outta there.

In the past 48 hours, I also have hit City of Dreams (the three-resort behemoth of Crown Towers, Hard Rock Hotel and Grand Hyatt Macau) and sat with former Planet Hollywood chief Mike Mecca at Galaxy Macau, a breathtaking resort just to the south of the Venetian (as is City of Dreams). In this spree, I’ve come away with a veritable buffet of material to impart from this fascinating city.

As we pick over that menu, a rake of the Cotai Strip scene is merited as we write once more 16 hours in the future:

• Every so often, you run into a person who is not so big, yet is enormous. Pacquiao is that sort of man. A couple of nights ago, he showed up at the “Grand Arrivals” for “The Clash in Cotai” fight card at Venetian Macau, and he was nearly swallowed up by the mass of humanity in the hotel lobby.

Physically, Pacquiao is kid-sized, just 5-feet-6 and should weigh about 147 pounds for the bout against Rios. But he is a one-man conglomerate who has earned more than $200 million in the ring over the course of his pro career. Pacquiao is now being asked to carry boxing into an entirely new era in Asia with the first major bout to be held in the region since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier staged the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1974. Pacquiao is to serve as the chief catalyst, with support from Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming, from China, to bring boxing to a chuck of the planet populated by well more than a billion people.

But how serious an effort is this still-budding dalliance between Top Rank Boxing and Macau, specifically Cotai Arena and Venetian Macau? Over the past four years, Pacquiao has fought in a variety of cities and venues (including MGM Grand Garden Arena and Cowboys Stadium), and he says this fight is a crucial test to see how a major resort in Macau stages a major fight.

“I cannot say right now until after the fight, but it does have the potential to become a big boxing place, like Las Vegas,” Pacquiao said after a workout Tuesday afternoon. “The country, Macau, is so close to mainland China, with a population of 1.3 billion people. That is a lot of people, a lot, so it depends on how they promote the fight here and how much the fans respond.”

Would he return to Macau?

“Yes, I’m looking forward to fighting again here,” he said. “And, also in Vegas, you know? But here, in Macau, is good for me because it’s not far away from my country.”

The fight has been gauged as a crucial moment in Pacquiao’s career, being that he was knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez in his most recent fight. But even if he loses, Pacquiao would likely remain a marketable fighter — especially in Macau. As Rios’ trainer, Robert Garcia, said earlier today, “Even if he loses, he can fight for a long time. He has a lot of fans.”

Especially around here.

• Alicia Keys is playing two shows at Venetian Theater on Friday and Saturday nights (the latter the evening before the fight, Macau time). Keys is among the biggest stars to play the beautiful, blue-hued room that was once the home of Cirque du Soleil’s “Zaia,” which closed in February 2012 because of lackluster ticket sales.

Keys was originally booked for a single night and, predictably, sold out the 2,000-seat venue pretty swiftly. The hotel has paid an enormous amount (checking what I am hearing is a multimillion-dollar outlay) to bring a star of Keys' magnitude to the property. The show will not turn a profit based on ticket sales but is going to serve as an invaluable marketing tool and will result in some higher gaming revenue. The Venetian Macau stands to make $155 million over the fight weekend; resorts in Las Vegas do well to pull in that kind of money in a month.

• Over the next five years or so, the peninsula of Macau and the Cotai Strip is to add about 15,000 rooms to the 30,000 that are already filled to beyond 90-percent capacity. By 2015, Galaxy Entertainment will complete the second phase of its already dizzying Galaxy Macau property (adding the world’s largest J.W. Marriott resort and the Ritz-Carlton’s first all-suite hotel). That expansion would double the fortress’s Cotai Strip footprint to 1 million square meters, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island, or it seems as I peer down from my 33rd-floor window at the Venetian. Wynn Diamond (compared favorably to Bellagio) and a new MGM Resorts hotel are planned, too.

It sounds fantastic, but one concern: Who is going to work at these places? The Macanese government has enforced policies that give locals priorities for job opportunities in the booming resort industry. Casino operators have to prove — through documentation — that they have exhausted the search for employees in Macau before looking outside the region.

The dilemma can be outlined statistically: Macau has 2 percent unemployment among 570,000 residents, meaning 7,000 residents are classified as unemployed. But tens of thousands of new employees (some published reports estimate the number to be 100,000 within the next five years) will be needed to staff some of the most refined and lavish resorts in the world. In Macau, companies that hire international workers also are required to employ a certain number of local staff, and that quota varies based on the number of management and non-management positions. Obviously, a serious shortfall of manpower is in the offing if the government doesn’t act swiftly to allow more international workers into the country.

This budding crisis has created a genuine, and counterproductive, undercurrent in the Macau tourism industry. One resort official said this week that the laws have created a Macanese workforce suffering from “spoiled-children syndrome,” where employees are not particularly motivated to work hard (or at all, in some cases) because they know they will be snapped up by another company thirsty for Macau residents to help fill the government quota. They say if you spend enough time around these resorts, you can spot one of the spoiled children pretty easily. They stand out, and it is a problem, and not just at the lower levels.

Talk to high-level resort executives who do business in Vegas, and, in nearly every instance, those professionals started at a relatively low level and ascended up the ranks. They know the business. In Macau, that pattern is not yet established, and that’s why the highest-ranking officials in this exploding Asian resort destination were educated and trained in the United States.

Follow Kats in Macau on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, find coverage at this link and follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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