Betting on China
Inside a new kind of Vegas casino
On a slow, nicotine-hazed midmorning in the Lucky Dragon gaming pit, a suited floorman steps up to a baccarat table and, pink forehead creased with concentration, begins to garble unintelligibly. Seconds later, he stops himself, apparently having thought better of his endeavor. Seated at the table, a middle-aged Asian man in a tan jacket regards him quizzically, one hand hovering over his tower of green $25 chips. Flummoxed, the floorman lurches for the save. “I don’t know if you speak Chinese,” he says, with something like desperate sincerity, “but darn it, I tried!”
It’s an innocuous enough exchange — a white casino employee mangling a Chinese phrase. Yet in today’s Las Vegas, where casinos race to appeal to a zealous, ever-swelling pool of Chinese gamblers, it may as well have a neon metaphor sign hanging over it. The evidence of this push is everywhere you look, from the ubiquitous ads for Chinese cuisine to the sumptuous Lunar New Year lobby decor to the phalanxes of Chinese-speaking tourists at the Bellagio fountains who will surreptitiously elbow you aside for more selfie space. And the newly opened Lucky Dragon represents the clearest indicator yet of this cultural sea change: an entire resort built specifically to lure in Chinese customers.
A decade ago, the land that Lucky Dragon occupies, on the Strip’s unglamorous northern extreme, was slated for development as a condo tower. But then the residential market flatlined, calling for a change in plans. “A lot of casinos were dedicating small portions of their properties to Asian players then,” explains Dave Jacoby, Lucky Dragon’s chief operating officer. “Yet we also saw that this customer was really outperforming other customers.” Indeed, according to Nevada Gaming Control Board statistics, the popularity of baccarat — so dominant among Chinese gamblers that casinos use it as a proxy for all Chinese business — has exploded, surging from $612 million in Strip-area revenue in 2001 to $1.3 billion in 2016; it now earns nearly as much as blackjack, roulette, and craps combined.
“So we decided to build something more targeted,” Jacoby says. “Instead of hiding an Asian buffet and baccarat tables in the back, we brought that environment forward.” The plan, he says, wasn’t to draw customers exclusively from China (one staffer estimates that less than a quarter of resort visitors come from the mainland) but to entice “mid-tier” Chinese players living in California and the West — players who are eager to gamble but who wouldn’t qualify for the perks that Chinese high rollers get at the larger casinos, like Mandarin-speaking dealers.
As Lucky Dragon’s leadership group is eager to point out, every measure has been taken to make the 203-room resort genuinely Chinese, rather than merely Chinese-themed. A feng shui master oversaw construction, dictating everything from the order of concrete pours to the direction the casino’s 1.25-ton glass dragon centerpiece faces. Three-quarters of the service staff speaks at least one Chinese dialect. Unlucky numbers have been painstakingly avoided, and fortune-bringing ones emphasized: The hotel has no fourth floor, for example, while virtually every price on the property ends in $.88.
Most important, according to Lucky Dragon marketing VP Jordan Seager, is the food. “One thing I always remind people,” says Seager, who has worked in China and Taiwan, “is that when you live in China, you eat Chinese food three meals a day, seven days a week. You don’t eat burgers one meal and Mexican the next. So when they’re visiting, they want that.” Thus the resort’s five restaurants are scrupulously authentic, from the dim sum and herbal turtle essence at Pearl Ocean to the braised tiger-shark fin ($338) at the high-end Phoenix. “You can’t get a hamburger on-site here,” says Jacoby.
All told, this obsessive cultural catering makes Lucky Dragon feel, if not quite like a second China, at least meaningfully distinct. Whereas many other Vegas casinos are low-ceilinged caverns, Lucky Dragon’s gaming space is a roomy atrium, albeit one with the inescapable ambience of an ’80s-era suburban mall. (The relentless Chinese soft-rock ballads don’t help.) Likewise, the decision to coat the hotel’s windows in red — the luckiest of colors — gives one the impression of gazing out onto the world through a Mount Doom Instagram filter. But still: different.
Different and, apparently, working. On a Friday night just two months clear of its December opening, Lucky Dragon’s casino hums with quiet efficiency, its modest, ethnically diverse crowd thronging the baccarat and pai gow tables, often chatting with the dealers in Chinese. Near the eight-sided bar, a young Asian man in a backward Yankees cap complains about a nearby casino’s poker players being “all white people,” while upstairs the curtained-off VIP area is desolate save for one older patron impatiently tapping his $100 chips — though the night is young and the VIP area has already proven so profitable that Lucky Dragon plans to expand it.
Closely watching how business ramps up, no doubt, is the Malaysian conglomerate Genting Group, which is plotting a blown-out version of the same concept just down the Strip. Scheduled for a 2019 opening, Resorts World Las Vegas will be a
$4 billion, 3,100-room pleasure park, replete with replica Chinese pavilions, a multistory paper lantern, and even a proposed panda exhibit. The 87-acre site, currently a flat swath of gravel and abandoned steelwork with a direct sightline of debatable auspiciousness to the Trump International Hotel, will reportedly break ground soon.
Meanwhile, gamers from China continue to pour into Vegas: more than 200,000 in 2015 alone, almost twice the figure from 2010. With the first-ever direct China–Las Vegas flight now in service, and with Goldman Sachs predicting that international Chinese tourism will nearly triple by 2025, that pie is fattening every day. It’s not only a pie of customers, but also of investors. Lucky Dragon was financed largely through the federal EB-5 visa program, wherein foreign nationals willing to sink $500,000 into job-creating projects can gain permanent U.S. residency. Jacoby won’t divulge numbers but says only that the program “has been a very important aspect of the funding of our project,” with “most of the investment” coming from China.
Back on the smoky gaming floor, the tan-jacketed recipient of mangled Chinese continues his own unplanned investment as well. After watching the sheepish floorman slink off, he turns to the dealer with a conspiratorial smile. “I win one more time, I’m done,” he says. They laugh: They both know he isn’t going anywhere. And indeed, here comes a cocktail waitress now, in her satiny red dress, already bearing a drink. “So nice to see you again!” she croons, setting it down.