The House of Dancing Water | Photo by Emil Photography

Can Macau Casinos Sustain Las Vegas-Style Entertainment?

Entertainment executive John Raczka shares an insider's perspective.

The biggest show in Macau looks a lot like something you might find in Las Vegas. Running at least five nights a week at Melco Crown Entertainment’s City of Dreams resort on the Cotai Strip, The House of Dancing Water features a massive ensemble of actors, dancers, acrobats, gymnasts, divers and swimmers performing on an evolving stage with a pool that holds 3.7 million gallons of water.  

If it sounds a lot like O by Cirque du Soleil at Bellagio or Le Reve at Wynn, that would be accurate—to an extent. “The physical presentation is larger than either of those two shows,” says John Raczka, who helped launch the initial marketing campaign for The House of Dancing Water back in 2010. Aside from the aquatic-based concept, all three shows have something else in common: They were created by Italian director Franco Dragone.

Photo by Grischa Rüschendorf/rupho.com

John Raczka

“He’s really a master in this genre,” says Raczka, who spent more than seven years in the Chinese territory as vice president of entertainment development and operations for Melco Crown Entertainment. “Franco was quite prudent in creating a fantastical storyline of west meets east versus the typical Western-told stories of east meets west, with a female Chinese lead character that struck a chord with Macau’s Asian-centric audience.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the plot was accompanied by dazzling effects that include an elaborate shipwreck scene and a time travel sequence supporting motocross mid-air flips just feet away from the audience. Yet a casino show can’t survive in Macau on spectacle alone. The House of Dancing Water opened after the launch of Zaia, a Cirque production at The Venetian Macao that struggled and lasted less than four years. “The story of Zaia was not localized in any significant way,” Raczka says. “It could have played in Indianapolis versus Macau indifferently from a cultural tie-in perspective. Plus, I think flying polar bears are still a bit too esoteric for Macau—it isn’t L.A. where obscurity could be viewed as creative eye candy.”

Raczka’s background offers a surround sound perspective of the entertainment industry at large. The UCLA grad’s early career was spent in television and film, doing marketing and licensing for Hanna-Barbera Productions, Turner Broadcasting and Sony Pictures Entertainment. He migrated from linear to interactive entertainment (“back then, we called it new media”) with PC games and the internet when he was recruited to head up content for British Telecom. While across the pond, Raczka produced a watershed poker tournament, The London Open, held in an 18th-century listed building on the River Thames, which Bravo TV coined The Wimbledon of Poker. Relocating to Asia, he developed entertainment ecosystems for City of Dreams and Studio City in Macau, as well as the City of Dreams sister property in Manila.

Under the leadership of CEO Lawrence Ho, the resorts came to usher in a number of western-influenced attractions. Family-friendly offerings included the Batman Dark Flight and DreamPlay, a hands-on Family Entertainment Center based on DreamWorks Animation characters.

A Las Vegas influence was seen in live events as well. Raczka developed Splash at the Hard Rock Hotel (recently rebranded as The Countdown Hotel within the City of Dreams complex), which he launched with a MTV primetime special aired across Asia, breaking ground by featuring international headlining DJs poolside in Macau. “The younger Asian demos are quite savvy,” Raczka says. “And they enjoy consuming different takes on Western culture.” He also organized the first Mixed Martial Arts tournaments televised from Macau with LegendFC, although unlike Las Vegas, sports betting is kept outside of the big resorts.

Photo by Kenneth Lim

LegendFC 6, Fight 6

Melco Crown turned to Franco Dragone for another production: Taboo, a nightclub cabaret revue that featured strap acts, pole dancing and other familiar routines. However, it didn’t have the scale or staying power of The House of Dancing Water, raising questions at the time about the future for any other long-term residencies.

After burning through local customers from Macau, Hong Kong and the Guangdong Province, Raczka says marketing a show to the rest of Asia is financially challenging with notoriously expensive media costs. “If you launch a big stage production in Las Vegas, Chicago or New York, you get national word-of-mouth marketing support,” he adds. “You don’t have that same reach and dynamic to play off of in Macau in terms of word-of-mouth going across all of China, let alone Taiwan, Korea or Japan.”

The Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which runs The Venetian Macao, bounced back from the Zaia underperformance with The Monkey King at Sands Cotai Central, a production that makes a point to borrow its story from traditional Chinese folklore. And later this year, MGM Resorts International will expand its presence with MGM Cotai, a new property expected to have its own ambitious entertainment lineup, although nothing official has been announced.

Is the competition good for Macau? Or will the shows fight over the same customer base that’s willing to skip some extra time on the casino floor in favor of a fancy stage production. “Nobody really knows how many resident shows can sell out five or six nights a week while running simultaneously,” Raczka says. 

Macau is quickly entering uncharted entertainment territory—with millions of dollars at stake.

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