Having opened the world’s largest casino at 10,500,000-square-feet (980,000 m2) with the Venetian Macao in 2007, Mark Brown is no stranger to thinking big and executing seemingly fantastic and unbelievable plans. We recently had the opportunity to interview Mark to bring our readers more details on Best Sunshine’s plans for Saipan. The interview begins below.
Best Sunshine International Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong listed Imperial Pacific Holdings Limited (HKEx:1076) is willing to bet as much as US$7.1 billion that the US Pacific island of Saipan will soon have everything it needs to become the ultimate international getaway for VIP gamblers, families seeking year round sunshine, and even couples looking for the ultimate wedding venue.
In March 2014 Best Sunshine locked down a 40 year exclusive gambling concession on Saipan, located in the Common Wealth of Mariana Islands (CNMI). They soft-launched a dealer training center and temporary casino in an upscale shopping center in July, which saw as many as 6,000 visitors a day. In late October Imperial Pacific subsidiary, Excel Earth Limited ended a loan and profit sharing agreement with Macau casino junket Heng Sheng Group, in early November, current President and CEO of Best Sunshine, Mark Brown, resigned his position as COO of Cambodian gaming operator, NagaCorp and later joined Best Sunshine, and on November 27th held an official grand opening for the Beach Road casino.
In a few short months, Best Sunshine Live in Garapan rose to the #4 position in the world for rolling chip volume (an indicator of VIP table play). In their first month of full operations the casino posted US$1.44 billion in rolling chips and by April eclipsed that number with US$3.2 billion. June’s numbers are down according to a July 2 filing with the HKEx.
To win the island’s first-ever casino license, the company was required to commit to at least US$2 billion in investments and offer a minimum of 2,000 hotel rooms. Instead, they upped the ante to US$7.1 billion. Phase I of the development is expected to open before the end of the year with the Grand Mariana offering more than 250 gaming tables. A 14-story hotel featuring 373 opulent hotel rooms and 15 deluxe villas will open soon after. The current, temporary casino offers about 50 tables, and unlike Macau, Saipan has no table cap – Best Sunshine can add as many tables as the market will bear. Upon complete build-out, Best Sunshine is poised to offer two separate tourist destinations in Saipan with thousands of rooms, world-record breaking amenities, and plenty of gambling opportunities.
Interview with Best Sunshine International President and CEO Mark Brown
(LJ) – Lar Jones, World Casino News
(MB) – Mark A. Brown, CEO of Best Sunshine International
LJ: We’ve been covering your company’s activities in Saipan for well over a year now, essentially since we opened our news division in early 2015. Why did you choose Saipan to open a resort casino when no other company had ever been granted a casino license there before?
MB: When I first heard about the story and saw the location of Saipan, I knew this is an opportunity that I could not pass. It is the beauty of the island with the sun, sea and sand that not only has the potential to build a casino, but a genuine destination for a true integrated resort. Saipan is one of the sunniest tropical islands in the western Pacific Ocean, with the Guinness Book of World Records listed Saipan as the most equable climate in the world. We are thrilled to be the sole company which was granted an exclusive 40-year gaming license in Saipan. With only 5-hours of direct flight from countries such as China, Japan and South Korea, it is easily accessible.
What is even better from a business perspective is that Saipan is a US territory which offers visa-upon-arrival up to 45 days for mainland Chinese tourists. Saipan has been ranked fifth on Chinese tourists’ dreamed destination list in a survey conducted by the China Tourism Association. In recent years, we have seen an increasing demand from tourists who seek a holistic experience, not just pure gambling. In Saipan, you can bring your wife and kids to enjoy the beautiful natural beaches, while the adults can spend time having fun in our casinos. Saipan is the true destination where the whole family can have fun.
LJ: Some media reports indicate your temporary casino and training center, Best Sunshine Live at the T Galleria shopping center in Garapan has reached a saturation point. How do you currently attract high value players to Saipan?
MB: Contrary to the recent reports, the temporary casino is not saturated. We are still achieving some of the best rolling chips volume in the world, given the number of VIP gaming tables we are operating. We would like to be as transparent as possible to our stakeholders. This explosive growth will not grow exponentially forever, particularly given the current hotel capacity constraints. We should start seeing real growth once our phase 1 of the project, the Grand Mariana, opens its doors with a planned 250+ tables. By then Saipan will have more than 1,000 hotel rooms in total, when added together with our 300+ rooms. More growth would come when we have more hotel rooms, such as when phases 2 & 3 are ready.
LJ: What more will Best Sunshine build in Saipan, and can you share target dates for the upcoming casinos, hotels, and resort amenities?
MB: We plan to build the entire project in Saipan in several phases. It is natural that a project of such scale will be built in different phases as Rome was not built in one day. We have already achieved some very good progress since we were first granted with the exclusive casino license in 2014. In such a short time frame we have opened a temporary training facility to provide training to local casino staff in 2015, and within a couple of months’ time we have already achieved an incredible rolling chip volume with a relatively small number of gaming tables we operate in our temporary casino. We are happy to say that we are already the fourth biggest VIP gaming hub in the world, ranked just after Macau, Las Vegas and Singapore. The first phase of our project, the Grand Mariana, will open its doors of the casino towards the end of this year. We have also planned 300+ rooms and luxury villas, with 250+ tables, 400+ slots and never-been-to-Asia Michelin star dining experience to Saipan. We will bring in many new restaurants, bars, nightclub and a beach club. To leverage this even further, we will not only shape Saipan into a world-class luxurious tourism destination, but will also be a premium wedding destination for the years to come.
LJ: Last month a lower cost Korean carrier began direct flights from Incheon to Saipan International Airport using Boeing 737 aircraft. Do you anticipate more Asian carriers offering dedicated service to the island, and what other potentials do you see for Saipan becoming an international tourism hot-spot?
MB: Indeed, we are very happy to see more flight operators chose Saipan to start a new route. Recently not only does Jin Air, but Philippines Airlines, HK Airlines, HK Express etc have announced new direct routes to land in Saipan. HK Airlines will have direct flights beginning [this] week. In addition, HK Express announced that operating a route to Saipan was based on a survey of their customers on places where they would like to go. Saipan is on the top of their list. I am sure that the towering mountains that surround this beautiful photogenic island, and the coral reefs and the pristine beaches will make the experience of any visitor memorable. There is something for every member of the family: indulge in sunbathing, dive into the blue waters to find Nemo or to enjoy a thrill on our baccarat tables with impeccable services offered by our well-trained staff. It is not a surprise that Saipan is known as the best kept secret in America. We welcome international visitors from all over the world to come, see and experience.
LJ: The CNMI does enjoy a reputation as an idyllic and hospitable get-away destination with the vast majority of visitors coming from Japan, South Korea, and China. How can Saipan be attractive to gaming patrons, especially Chinese gamblers? Macau is much closer, and the new Russian gambling zone near Vladivostok has relaxed visa requirements for many foreign gamblers. Is sunshine and fresh air enough to attract visitors to your casinos?
MB: We welcome competition as long as they are not an exact copy of our integrated resort. Each jurisdiction you mentioned has its own appeal: Macau is a metropolitan gaming city, Vladivostok has a Siberian climate while Saipan offers a natural package of sun, sea and sand with equable weather all year round. Chinese visitors have already exceeded Korean / Japanese visitors in terms of numbers in recent months, and we are expecting this trend to continue. Our casinos in Saipan offer not only the familiar games our patrons are used to in Macau, it is also a US territory which offers a feeling of safety for them. Given lower taxes here in Saipan than in Macau, we could offer a competitive rolling chip program to junkets and competitive rebates to our gaming patrons, which they would otherwise not be offered elsewhere. In addition to the two private planes, we have five yachts and a villa, our VIPs are ferried everywhere to take part in unforgettable excursion experiences such as sunset dinners, cruises and fishing in the crystal clear waters. No other locations in the world could offer these unique experiences that Saipan’s nature could offer locally.
LJ: Most of our readers are familiar with Beijing’s crackdown on junket operations in Macau, as well as the closure of the Tinian Dynasty Casino on one of Saipan’s sister islands – ultimately due to lax reporting and other AML violations. What has your company done to be sure you will remain in compliance with laws under the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act?
MB: We have just hired a very experienced Chief Compliance Officer. His name is Vic Choi. Vic has over 30 years of experience in compliance management and previously worked as the Head of Compliance in HSBC China. Vic is fully responsible for ensuring proper AML and other compliance issues in Imperial Pacific. We also have a strong profile of high level board of directors. These people have a wealth of experience in regulatory compliance and should help to enhance our compliance and corporate governance framework. For example, we have invited Judge Eugene Sullivan, who is a retired federal judge from Washington DC, R. James Woolsey, Director of Central Intelligence under President Bill Clinton, Edward Rendell, David Paterson and Louis Freeh etc, all of them are very experienced to form part of our Board of Directors.
LJ: Compared to the operating environment in Macau, what are Imperial Pacific’s advantages in operating a casino in Saipan?
MB: Our numbers have already surpassed the numbers of Macau, with no rooms. Currently our biggest constraint is not having enough rooms on the island of Saipan. Although we are in a disadvantaged position without enough hotel rooms we still achieved incredible numbers. As opposed to Macau, there are no table caps in Saipan. We can allocate as many tables as we like according to our business needs. In Macau there are 6 gaming operators whereas Imperial Pacific is the exclusive license holder in Saipan. We are happy with the professionalism of the Commonwealth Casino Commission (CCC), and their open-mindedness to make reference to the Macau gaming model into Saipan. The tax we pay here is much lower than in Macau. In May I was travelling with the CCC to visit Macau on an observation trip to learn from the successes there. On top of that, there is no smoking ban in Saipan compared to Macau. Saipan also has a supportive visitor policy such as visa-upon-arrival for Chinese tourists. This gives you a brief idea on how much more potential for growth we will have for the years to come.
LJ: With your extensive experience in the Macau market, including your time as President of Sands Macau, Four Seasons Macau, and heading up the largest casino project in history with Venetian Macao, what are your views on the current downturn in Macau? Do you see it as an opportunity for Saipan?
MB: I truly believe that the current situation in Macau is temporary, given that demand for gaming and entertainment in Asia is still there. People are constantly looking for new places for a holistic experience, which is why Saipan could fit exactly into the picture. If you go to Macau, it’s a gaming mecca within a metropolitan city. In Saipan, we are not only building on top of the experience we have gained in Macau, we are going to build something greater and better, with reputed nature and local culture that support the gifted Saipan in terms of what Saipan has to offer to tourists. In Saipan we have a history and many interesting stories that could be told. I have no doubt that we are well-positioned to capture the growing Asian gaming market share.
LJ: Last year, while COO of NagaCorp, the company opened an office in Macau to help establish their junket network expansion plans, you also oversaw NagaCorp’s initial expansion into the Primorye Integrated Entertainment Zone near Vladivostok. Do you see the nascent Russian gambling zones as direct competitors for your target market?
MB: Yes, indeed, I was the COO of NagaWorld when they were planning for the Vladivostok project. The offerings of Saipan are very different to that of Vladivostok. Saipan was gifted with natural beauty of sun, sea and sand. Our Grand Mariana will be in operations way earlier than Naga’s Russian project so there should not be any direct competition. Vladivostok has a Siberian climate, whereas Saipan has a tropical climate all year round. I believe that we have a broader base of target customers, which is why I don’t see them directly competing with Imperial Pacific’s gaming operations in Saipan.
LJ: How do you see the development outlook for Saipan?
MB: Brilliant! From the moment I boarded the private jet and was shown this Island, I fell in love with this place. Then I was asked to become the CEO of this Group. I looked at the operating environment from a business perspective, I can see so much potential on this Island. Imperial Pacific will not just bring in casinos, but we are bringing in a lot of world-class tourism and leisure facilities, as well as an upscale turn to the economy of the local community. For example, we will bring in never-been-to-Asia Michelin starred chefs, and in Phases 2 and onward, we will build one of the largest water parks in the world in Saipan. There are private entrepreneurs who have already openly expressed that they would like to invest alongside wherever Imperial Pacific is going to invest in Saipan. We are not only building a casino in Saipan, but we are building the next world-class tourism destination. We are building a travel paradise! Imperial Pacific works with the local people, the local government and local businesses. We are supporting the growth of the community and strive to put them in a glamourous spot as a preferred holiday destination. Together, we will make Saipan amazing!
LJ: What is your outlook on the Asian gaming industry overall?
MB: I am still optimistic about the outlook of the Asian gaming industry. Although some temporary downturns have been seen in Macau, ever since our temporary casino has opened, we can see tremendous growth in our temporary casino in Saipan. Now, the only thing that could stop us from growing quickly is the capacity to hold more guests. We already achieved amazing figures with no rooms. Think about this, when we have more rooms, we are going to be greater than ever. The first phase of real growth will come when our Grand Mariana opens. I truly believe that the demand for gaming and entertainment will only grow as the middle class and wealthy class in Asia grow when more of them will be looking for a holistic destination to spend a quality, relaxing and fun time. I think Imperial Pacific is opening at the perfect time to capture the next wave of growth!