By  on August 31, 2007

MACAU — With fireworks, showgirls, feng shui masters and enthusiastic crowds, the Las Vegas Sands Corp. officially opened the $2.4 billion Venetian Macau, the first step in the development of the Cotai Strip. The mammoth complex includes a 3,000-room, suite-only hotel, a 15,000-seat arena, more than 1 million square feet of convention and exhibition space and 968,000 square feet of retail space.

The Baroque-themed shopping mall is modeled on Venice's best-known piazzas and is known as The Grand Canal Shoppes. Comprising 350 stores, it has three canals (complete with singing gondoliers) and fully costumed street performers, and is twice the size of its sister mall in Las Vegas.

For the resort's first day of business earlier this week, not everything was open, but many casualwear and accessories brands bowed, including CK Jeans, Guess, Levi's, Replay, Hogan and Coach. Still, it was the watchmakers and jewelers who were out in force with new shops by Piaget, Chopard, Franck Muller, Omega, Mikimoto and Tiffany & Co. A host of Italian names, among them Zydo, Artini, Enzo, Butani and Roberto Coin, also opened their doors.

Damiani scored a coveted spot in the grand foyer next to the casino floor, which was swarming with gamblers on opening night. "Venetian is a global brand and they are good at what they do," said Winny Yip, Damiani's brand manager for Hong Kong and Macau. "We went to Vegas and they told us what they'd do for retailers and we're excited mostly because Macau is different from Hong Kong in that there are a lot more Mainland Chinese customers," she said.

Yip estimated first-year sales for the 800-square-foot store at 20 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $2.6 million. "That's conservative. It's very doable," she said.

In the meantime, other retailers are readying their stores, including many luxury brands, notably Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Hermès, Gucci, Tod's, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Fendi, Burberry and dozens more. The mall is easily the biggest shopping center in Macao.

For Sands chairman and chief executive Sheldon Adelson, adding shopping and performance venues is part of the plan to make Macau a major tourist destination. "This is the first of 14 hotels on the Cotai Strip. We will make Macau the destination that the government wanted when they asked us to join in. But this is the first inning of a very long ball game," he said.Adelson added that another part of creating a destination is bringing world-class entertainment to the city. "Macau has been known for casinos only for a long time," said Adelson. "My dream was to bring live entertainment to Asia. We don't mean or want to impose Western-style entertainment; we want to synergize Asia and the West," he said.

This plan was evident by the roster of opening-night performers, including Taiwanese pop star Zhang Hui-mei, Mandarin singer-songwriter David Tao, Cantopop singer Alan Tam, a troop from Cirque du Soleil, opera stars from La Fenice in Venice and Diana Ross.

Such performers will have plenty of room to strut their stuff at the Venetian, as will trade show exhibitors. The complex has more than 1 million square feet of flexible space for meetings and exhibitions — twice that of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which is currently expanding from 528,000 square feet to 968,000 square feet. As of opening day, there were 44 shows booked for the Venetian's new halls.

"They've already got my business," said Michael Duck, senior vice president of CMP Asia, which organizes a roster of fairs in the region including the Asia Pacific Leather Fair, Cosmoprof and the HK Jewellery and Watch Fair. Duck said the company will stage a new show, The Macau Jewellery & Watch Show, at the Venetian Jan. 10 to 13.

While analysts in Hong Kong speculate the Venetian will hurt both tourism and the trade show business in that city, Duck said it's far too soon to predict the future. "Macau's potential is very good, but it's too early to ascertain its position. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither was Las Vegas," said Duck.

He pointed out that Hong Kong still has many advantages, including infrastructure, ease of doing business and the free movement of capital. "[But the Venetian] is bringing a new paradigm to the industry, which is interesting. It will help bring a professionalism to the region that's needed — in everything from service to building maintenance," he said.

For now, Venetian Macao can boast it houses the world's second-largest building, is the world's largest casino by floor space and number of tables, and has issued a wake-up call to those doing business in the Pearl River Delta region. As William P. Weidner, president of Las Vegas Sands Corp., noted, "This is the beginning of a new era for Macau."

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