ASIA BEAT: Pride and prejudice in Macau
I visited a local Japanese restaurant in 2007 with my family. The restaurant was located at the northern side of the Macau peninsula. It was a small but warm place to dine, nothing spectacular, much like a neighborhood eating place in Macau but slightly more classy. Just when I was sharing my usual office stories with my wife I noticed a family of three sitting near to our table: an elderly woman, a young man in his 20s and a girl in her early teens. Something about the man caught my attention. I know it is bad to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, but, frankly, he was talking quite loudly. As a keen researcher I just could not help it (especially when it concerned the gaming industry in Macau).
The man was describing to the older woman (his mum) and his sister his job at one of the casinos. He spoke with passion and pride. He mentioned how much he was paid. His mother listened quietly and carefully. Her facial expression revealed mostly happiness about her son’s achievement, but also showed some doubt at times. She seemed to doubt whether her son was telling her the truth (it was too good to be true) and whether her decision to let him work in a casino had been wise. Her late husband would never have allowed their only son to work in such a “morally dirty” environment.
“Morally dirty” is not a nice way to describe Macau’s casino industry. However, many Macanese parents would absolutely have agreed with this description before the gaming liberalization.
Back to the family in the Japanese restaurant. The young man had just received his first salary, a sum that eclipsed that of his dad many times over. Today was a special treat from him to his family. This was a “luxurious” restaurant, not an ordinary Chinese eating place near home. It represented a sign of achievement and something to be proud of.
For boom time Macau, 2007 was a good year. It was the year The Venetian Macao started operations, the promise of a new direction for Macau. Ordinary Macanese were getting a taste of what prosperity really meant and were inspired by what to expect for the future.
Then, in late 2007, I conducted a one-month course for a group of local casino managers. I got a sense that the mood was slightly different. While a sense of pride in one’s achievements was still present, animosity toward their jobs and toward the casino operators seemed to be much greater. Just as visitors to Macau had grown more demanding and sophisticated since liberalization, the employees themselves appeared to demand more and looked for greater job satisfaction. To some of those in my class there was little pride in working for the “soulless” casinos and their insensitive management. Prejudice, you think? There were frequent complaints about poor management decisions, a less-than-perfect work culture and disinterested staff at various levels. As a consequence, job satisfaction dipped, and there was a lack of pride toward one’s job and one’s company - essential components of employee retention.
By the end of 2008 the fear of job loss was amplified within the industry. Rumors spread like wildfire and much speculation was about. As the Macanese witnessed a gradual drop in visitation from mainland China (their biggest customer) they feared that the growth of the industry was slowly grinding to a stop. That would mean jobs and prosperity no more. Resentment toward the casino operators grew. This was not what liberalization had promised. But who was to be blamed? It was perhaps the fault of some operators, who were perceived to be overly ambitious with their plans and who had failed to foresee the political and economic problems. Prejudice against the foreigners? Yes, as they are an easy target in a market downturn. But the community also believed the Macau government was incompetent and had failed to anticipate the growing demands of an enlarged casino industry.
Now, in 2009, things have to change for Macau’s six casino concessionaires. With increasing competition in a slower-growth market, added efforts to further strengthen internal marketing badly need to kick in. This should be a year to repent and recoup some of the losses made in the past few years, losses represented by the lack of confidence toward management and the decisions management made. In this environment, many things need to and can be done, but regaining employees’ confidence and trust must be among the first. Without confidence and trust there will be no pride but only prejudice.
Building a successful casino starts from within. How can a casino promote good service to its customers before its staff is ready for it? Extrinsic and intrinsic needs have to be met. Appropriate alignment of the corporate culture, before any changes in strategy, is paramount. Although it takes time this process is an essential aspect of a sustainable casino business model.
Highly motivated employees, proud of their jobs and their companies, will stand the test of time and ensure the long-term survivability of the casino operators in Macau.