Tuesday, April 5, 2005 | 10:59 a.m.
Paul Steelman knew that his work in Macau set new standards for the Chinese market when local officials began using his progress to measure the pace of construction projects.
As in: "Will this project be done at Sands speed?"
"I knew that we had made an impact when I heard that," said Steelman, president and chief executive of the Las Vegas-based Paul Steelman Design Group, the architect of the Sands Macau project.
The Sands Macau was opened last May by Las Vegas Sands Corp., owner and operator of the Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip. The Macau property is the first American-style casino in that market and the Sands is a dramatic departure from anything that exists in the Chinese resort enclave today.
"It stands out among any of the other properties," said Las Vegas Sands spokesman Ron Reese. "It's the first thing you see as you near Macau on the ferry ride from Hong Kong. It has high ceilings and windows that allow you to see outside. It's a visually stunning facility."
Steelman said designing the building on the property on which the casino is situated proved to be a challenge. The six-acre parcel is 1,200 feet long and 300 feet wide and built on piers over a flood plain.
But Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson gave Steelman latitude and the end result was a design that won praise from 98 percent of people questioned in focus groups that evaluated the casino following its opening, an unheard of approval rating.
"We tried to combine Las Vegas excitement and Chinese sensibility," Steelman said in an interview at his Desert Inn Road office.
Steelman combined a "stadium casino" with feng shui and a generous use of horizontal lines, water and rounded shapes. Along the way, Steelman's design offered elements that had never been seen before, in Macau or Las Vegas.
With a 50-foot ceiling, the cavernous building became the first stadium-style casino. It's also the first casino in Macau to have natural lighting. It has the most table games in the market, with close to 300, the most private gaming parlors, with 18, the largest chandelier in the world and the world's largest casino sign -- a 71-footer.
The property has Macau's first Las Vegas-style buffet, a total of 1,600 restaurant seats and a porte-cochere with four lanes.
Steelman said most of the features of the building aren't anything like people in Macau have ever seen -- and it's attracted a new, young demographic. The 18 private salons, he said, are expected to attract Chinese high rollers as the company markets the invitation-only Paiza Club concept it is using at the Venetian to draw premium players to the resort.
While a four-lane porte cochere wouldn't attract much attention in Las Vegas, it's a major breakthrough in Macau where long taxi lines are the norm. Steelman said the one-minute wait for a cab is popular with players and the Sands Macau also has a separate bus entrance that makes the property popular with large groups.
The casino is designed so that a future tower expansion for hotel rooms is possible.
And then, there's the speed of putting the project together. Steelman said after putting a series of proposals together for Adelson, he got the green light to go forward on Sept. 10, 2002. The building opened just over a year and a half later.
The success of the Sands Macau has surpassed expectations -- which were high to begin with.
Last month, the company reported that Sands Macau generated revenue of $171.5 million for the fourth quarter of 2004 compared with $165.7 million for the third quarter.
Cash flow for the first two full quarters of operation was $136.5 million for the property, which was built for $272 million. The torrid results put the property on pace to make a 100 percent cash-flow return in its first year.
Competitors are just as eager to enter the market. Las Vegas Sands was the first to put an American casino in Macau, but Wynn Resorts Ltd. is on track to open a property there in 2006 and MGM Mirage has a partnership with an established Macau company to build.
Analysts are bullish on Macau, although some warn that the outlook isn't crystal clear. UBS gaming analyst Robin Farley, in a note to investors, said the near 50 percent growth rate in gaming revenue in Macau in 2004 was partly driven by comparisons to travel disruptions related to the outbreak of SARS in 2003.
"The strong results were helped by changes in regulations that have made travel from mainland China easier and those changes will be expanded to other cities in China in the months ahead," she wrote.
Early successes in Macau have encouraged Las Vegas Sands to press ahead with its planned development on the city's Cotai Strip. Last month, the company announced it has teamed with seven major hotel chains to develop an area to be anchored by a duplicate of the Las Vegas Venetian.
Four Seasons, Hilton Hotels, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott International, Starwood Hotel and Resorts Worldwide, Dorsett Hotel Group and Regal Hotels International say they're on board with the Cotai project.
Will Steelman have a role in the Cotai plans? The Las Vegas architect smiled and said he couldn't discuss any details about Cotai.
Besides, he's content to enjoy some of the accolades coming out of Sands Macau for now.