Marina Bay Sands is Singapore’s most iconic destination, offering guests the world's largest rooftop infinity pool, award-winning dining, and a wide range of shopping and entertainment options. In this interview, George Tanasijevich discusses the growth of tourism in Singapore, the role that Marina Bay Sands plays in the tourism ecosystem and how it continues to reinvent itself. He also talks about Singapore’s competitive advantages as a MICE tourism destination, and Marina Bay Sands as an ideal integrated resort for MICE events.
Singapore’s government has come up with a future economy report (CFE report) to ensure the country stays ahead of competition. As a foreign investor into the country, how important is it that Singapore continues with this transformation to increase its value proposition?
It is critically important. This is a country that does not have natural resources and so it needs to find different ways to compete. For many years it was financial services or biomedical research. When they identified tourism as an area that they were going to emphasize and use as a means to grow the economy and provide careers and jobs for Singaporeans, I think they put together a very comprehensive plan where the integrated resorts served as sort of an anchor element of that plan but by no means is it the only aspect of it. It's that type of planning that made it a very attractive destination for us to invest. It was clear to us that our industry was of great importance that they saw tremendous upside and the ability to grow it that there was going to be an alignment of interests between our organization and what the government was trying to achieve.
Then when you consider that in the context of Singapore's history since its inception and its reputation as an ethical place to do business, a predictable place to do business, a place that has a track record of economic growth and prosperity, that reduces a lot of the risk that you sometimes associate with investments of our scale or in markets that are newly emphasizing tourism or for the first time introducing casinos and integrated resorts.
We felt very confident that it was a great place to be over the long run. We invested heavily. We're looking for the opportunity to continue reinvesting in Marina Bay Sands and we're quite pleased to be here in Singapore. We like where we're positioned within Southeast Asia and in the midst of the ASEAN nations and so we think the future is quite bright.
In terms of economic impact, the tourism sector is quite significant today in Singapore. There were 17.4 million visitors in 2017 which represents 26 billion dollars’ worth of revenue. What is the potential for Singapore?
Singapore is planning for increased tourism and doing a good job at that. Terminal four recently opened at Changi Airport. In my view, Changi Airport is the greatest airport in the world. Terminal five is already in the planning stages and it's my understanding that it will effectively double the capacity of tourists that can come through Singapore once it is opened and completed. The ability to bring the people in is going to be enhanced. The infrastructure that's in place is constantly evolving and improving here.
We're sitting here at Marina Bay and while we have 2,600 hotel rooms in this building, we drive certainly more people to this market that we can house. There are 5,000 other hotel rooms right in this vicinity here and it's that kind of capacity that's very important for what we're trying to achieve here. The government will stay ahead of the curve and anticipate demand. I believe they’ll make sure that land becomes available to develop additional supply of hotel rooms and other tourism attractions as we go forward.
When we look at the origin of tourists in Singapore, we see that most come from within the region: China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Australia. When we look outside market especially the US, the numbers are relatively low compared to other places and stand at 565,000 US tourists today. Why do you think this number is so low in comparison and what do you foresee the impact of for example Singapore Airlines opening an extra two direct lines to the US this year?
I think that the tourists who come in from around the region are always going to probably outnumber those who come from the US, but the US is a meaningful piece of our business. About 4% of the people who stay in our hotel rooms are from America. That's one quantitative way to look at it but then there's a qualitative way to look at it as well. The MICE business is a very critical element of our business plan here and it takes up a substantial amount of space within our building. It's a signature element of our business model. It's an area that we emphasize unlike anybody else in our industry because of our chairman Sheldon Adelson's involvement in the MICE industry for over 40 years. The way that we're able to tap into the US market and US-based companies to draw MICE events here is very, very important. For that reason alone, the US market is a very important one for us.
Marina Bay Sands was one of the two players to get the license for integrated resorts here in Singapore. Within Las Vegas Sands (LVS), Marina Bay Sands is one of the best performing resorts both in terms of retail and casino. What is the role Marina Bay Sands plays within your global operations but also within the tourism ecosystem in Singapore?
Las Vegas Sands is the only integrated resorts and casino company that has a presence in the three largest markets in the world which would be Las Vegas, Macau, and Singapore. The importance of Singapore to our company as piece of the global footprint can't be under-estimated. It’s critical to so many aspects of our business.
Certainly, Singapore was already known as a top destination for global MICE events before Marina Bay Sands opened but the Singapore government, again in its forward-thinking approach, recognized that the most attractive space to both tradeshow or event organizers and delegates who attend the events is MICE space that sits in an integrated resort. That's because of the convenience factor where you have everything situated under one roof. You don't have to jump on shuttle buses to get from your hotel to an exhibition hall somewhere on the other side of the city; you have unique venue spaces to hold special events outside of the MICE facility but within Marina Bay Sands.
A strong MICE industry helps enhance the reputation of the market as a place to do business. There are natural synergies from what's happening within our MICE facility and what is happening in the office towers around us. There's a real alignment of interest as I’ve mentioned before in terms of what we do for a living and what Singapore is trying to achieve.
Singapore and its integrated resorts are facing increased international competition to attract MICE tourism. How do you work to stay ahead of the curve?
A lot of the competition came as a result of the success of Singapore. It created a remarkable framework to attract major investment for the development of integrated resorts and put together a set of rules that govern the operation of the casino that was protective of social concerns but then also facilitated commercial and operational needs of ours. It worked for everyone. The architectural style of Marina Bay Sands was a first in our industry. We demonstrated the power of architectural design to serve as a draw for tourism and also as a means to attract the worldwide global attention from the media. As a result of this, Marina Bay Sands has served to become the strongest line on our corporate resume.
We feel that because of our unique business model that has an equal focus on leisure tourism and business tourism, combined with the strength of our balance sheet and the strength of our executive management team, we're able to go in and create something that is right for a particular market. That's the value add that we bring into any market. It's what you've seen here, it's been what has contributed to the growth to get beyond 17 million tourists here.
Marina Bay Sands has a variety of offerings ranging in activities from retail, to hotel, to casino, to restaurants, to the museum etc. What is the experience you want to create for your customers?
We want to offer a menu of activities that is so broad that nobody can experience them all in a single trip. With around 9 million square feet of space here, I think we’ve accomplished that. Over time, the building is always in a state of change. It's because we've recognized a trend in terms of what our customers are looking for and the experiences that they desire.
You'll see the restaurant line up changing. You'll see the tenants that we have in the mall sometimes changing. You'll see many tenants taking on bigger spaces than they originally signed up for because they see an opportunity to grow their business and maybe move from a standard-size shop to a flagship size store. We also are constantly looking all across the building and trying to identify areas that maybe aren't as productive as they could be and either come up with a way to improve them or replace them with another use.
With a building that has been open eight years and on an annual basis has had a hotel occupancy ranging from probably 95% to 99% across 2,600 rooms, it means your rooms are getting used every day. The need to reinvest in it, to keep it fresh, to keep it new is constantly there. We're always looking for opportunities to make sure that we're continuing to upgrade and increase the positive experiences that people have here.
On a personal note, the Marina Bay Sands combines your dedication to both Singapore and the Las Vegas Sand Group. What does MBS represent to you personally, and how would you like it to evolve?
I first came to Singapore to work for CapitaLand which is a government-linked real estate development company. It's a great organization with great people. It was a really wonderful place for me to be introduced to this market and to learn about Singapore, to understand how the place works and how the private sector and the government work like hand in glove to pursue mutual goals. From that experience, I think I was able to assist Las Vegas Sands in helping to create a plan for Marina Bay Sands that was going to be responsive to the needs, the demands, the requirements of the Singapore Tourism Board and the broader Singapore government.
We've put together something that is obviously a beautiful piece of architecture that now serves as a symbol of Singapore not just in terms of tourism but in terms of its forward-thinking approach and its innovative and resilient mindset. It probably stands alongside the Merlion as the symbols of Singapore and many of the marketing materials for both government and tourism and also the private sector as well. We're proud to occupy that position within this market.
From a personal standpoint, it's been gratifying to be able to do something for Singapore. A country that I love and that I call my home.