Cui Li Jie and Imperial Pacific International should have celebrated a banner 2017. The company finally swapped its temporary casino in a shopping mall for permanent digs in a beachfront tower in the heart of Saipan’s central tourist district. Chinese high rollers, Imperial Pacific’s bread and butter, have come roaring back across the region after a two year retreat, and some of their favorites destinations beyond Macau, such as South Korea and Australia’s Crown Resorts were largely off limits for political reasons. Yet, since the start of 2017, Imperial Pacific’s shares have declined 33%, and Cui, once a so-called barefoot doctor in mainland China who owns 63% of the company, fell off Forbes Asia’s list of Hong Kong’s 50 Richest , although she’s still a billionaire.
Despite opening the new building, Imperial Pacific faces several big challenges. After more than two years of casino operations, it still hasn’t proven that VIP gambling can make money in Saipan, a U.S. Pacific territory in the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands, close to Guam and about five hours from any major population center. Imperial Pacific also still hasn’t secured funding to finish its $600 million beachfront hotel.
Mark Brown, who rose from dealer to president of Trump Casinos then opened Venetian Macao for Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands, got permission from local authorities for the temporary casino. Brown turned heads by releasing monthly VIP roll tallies showing Saipan’s little casino in the mall was taking more high roller bets than Venetian Macao . Those numbers attracted top investment banks to Saipan to kick the tires, and Brown nearly closed financing for the hotel. Lenders balked at the last minute, and Brown – first of IPI’s three CEOs during 2017 – got bounced upstairs to an amorphous chairman title then left IPI altogether in January.
Cui, who held no formal position with IPI beyond majority shareholder, was appointed to the board of directors in May. Cui’s son, former Macau junket executive Ji Xiaobo, his annual $1 million plus bonuses contract as project director extended through 2020, is acknowledged mastermind of the venture that, according to its most recent financial report, holds $100 million more in outstanding player debt than it booked in revenue.
To continue construction of the hotel, Cui lent IPI $150 million last year. Designed by leading casino architect Paul Steelman, Imperial Palace was originally planned to have 340 guest rooms including beachfront villas, more than 20 food and beverage outlets, 200 gaming tables and 350 slot machines in Garapan, the tourism heart of Saipan.
The hotel’s casino area opened nearly six months behind schedule in July and currently has 76 gaming tables and 235 slot machines on its mass gaming floor, plus two VIP rooms. IPI no longer releases monthly roll figures. The company has also opened a Chinese restaurant and two bars, but no guest rooms so far.
CNMI officials have extended IPI’s deadline for completing the hotel to August, and company officials said recently they expect to have 250 rooms finished by then. Imperial Palace is just phase one of IPI’s bold $7.3 billion master plan to create a mini version of the Las Vegas Strip on the island.
Cui Lijie apparently still believes. During January, she bought an additional 119 million IPI shares.
Source: European Gaming News