The Las Vegas of Asia. That’s the phrase I kept hearing over and over again. After 22 hours of flying, as I wearily made my way through Hong Kong’s Shun Tak Centre to catch the high-speed TurboJET ferry, I started to understand why. Although it was nearly 10 p.m. on a Sunday, the terminal was teeming. Families, hordes of Chinese hipster teenagers, and glued-at-the-hip couples were all hell-bent on getting to one place as fast as possible: Macau.
Made up of a tiny main peninsula on the Chinese mainland and the Taipa and Coloane islands, Macau sat for nearly 500 years as a sleepy, swamp-covered Portuguese outpost. In 1999, Macau became a special administrative region of China, and shortly after, gaming licenses were up for grabs and the rush to build Asia’s massive resort gaming playground began. By 2020, Macau will add 20,000 more new rooms to its current inventory of 24,590. The destination, which spans just 11.5 square miles, is also physically growing to accommodate the vast number of visitors — a bridge linking Macau to Hong Kong and Zhuhai in China’s Guangdong Province will open in 2016 as one of the longest in the world.
But I was in Macau to experience one property specifically — Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, the largest Sheraton in the world and the largest hotel in Macau. As I soon discovered, the property is also one of understated yet attentive luxury, not an easy feat for a hotel that — when 100 new suites are completed later this year — will have 4,000 guest rooms.
‘THE BACK DOOR OF CHINA’
I experienced Sheraton Macao’s particular brand of luxuriousness on the first morning of my five-day fam trip, when I arrived at the hotel’s 18,000-square-foot Shine Spa. Themed around the Chinese zodiac and Feng Shui, the spa asks guests to fill out a survey via iPad to determine their Zodiac sign, mood, and what natural elements they embody (mine are fire and water). The survey recommended I indulge in the signature candle massage, a heavenly, 90-minute, Swedish-style treatment that melted my jetlagged muscles into butter.
Following a light lunch by the pool — there are three total, all overlooking the Las Vegas Boulevard–esque Cotai Strip — I took a moment to wander through the Shoppes Cotai Central, a mall with more than 100 luxury stores with brands such as Burberry and Bottega Veneta. At the neighboring Venetian Macao and Four Seasons Hotel Macao, Cotai Strip, both of which are connected to Sheraton Macao via comfortably air-conditioned pedestrian tunnels, hundreds more duty-free luxury shops draw so many people that the stores close at midnight on weekends.
Although it’s easy to feel lost in Sheraton Macao’s two-tower footprint, it can also feel quite intimate at times, which is exactly how our dinner felt tucked inside one of the hotel’s six ballrooms on our second evening. Over a six-course menu of native delicacies such as golden suckling pig, wasabi-infused jellyfish, and homemade cashew-nut cookies, we watched Chinese cultural performances and chatted with members of the hotel’s sales team and the Macau Government Tourist Office about the hotel’s and destination’s many assets.
Sheraton Macao is a wow property — which may come as a surprise to U.S.-based meeting planners who know and love Sheraton’s mid-range properties at home. In addition to its vast inventory of rooms, plethora of amenities that includes two casinos, and more than 152,000 square feet of meeting and event space (with access to an additional 55,000 square feet within Sands Cotai Central), the Sheraton Macao is also banking on Macau’s cultural charm and growing inventory of casinos, shopping, and attractions to bring in groups. To add to the allure, Macau offers visa-free entry to more than 70 countries, proximity to 3 billion people within a five-hour flight, ample airlift via Hong Kong International Airport and its own Macau International Airport, and easy transfers via ferry, which can be privately chartered for groups.
“One of our biggest assets is the fact that Macau is a small country, so logistically it is very simple to operate a group,” said Sally Ann Klap, Sheraton Macao’s director of sales. “[Another] big reason groups come to Macau is because we are at the back door of China and in the middle of the Asia-Pacific, so it’s very easy to attract clients.”
ON THE COTAI STRIP
Self-contained corporate groups make up the bulk of Sheraton Macao’s U.S.-based meetings business, according to Klap, but the neighboring Venetian Macao, Conrad Macao, Holiday Inn Macao Cotai Central, and Four Seasons Hotel Macao, Cotai Strip, can partner with Sheraton Macao to offer a multi-property package for larger groups. For example, 8,700 people attended Tupperware Brands’ Asia-Pacific “Celebrate Success, Dream It — Do It!” conference, spread out over the Cotai Strip’s five hotels for three days last February.
Although groups don’t even need to leave Sheraton Macao’s labyrinth of shops, pools, and gaming for after-hours fun, plenty of experiences new and old are just a quick taxi ride away. Our first stop was perhaps the city’s most photographed site, the Ruins of St. Paul’s Church, a 17th-century remnant of Portuguese rule. Guided by DOC DMC Macau, we spent an entire afternoon roaming the markets and cultural sites of Macau’s 3.8-square-mile Historic Centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing more than 20 ancient monuments and squares. With still-standing colonial relics, signs written in Portuguese, and plenty of Macanese cuisine — a fusion of Chinese and Portuguese cooking — to be found, Macau’s historical roots are still very much part of its present.
In fact, Macanese- and Portuguese-style cuisine is so popular with visitors that the Sheraton Macao has made it one of the mainstays of its market-style Feast restaurant, a pu-pu platter of live-action stations and Asian buffets. And with 20 total restaurants, dining at Sheraton Macao is hardly an afterthought. Even a simple breakfast at the Club Lounge served an array of dishes, from congee to pork buns to made-to-order omelettes. For me, the culinary highlight came on our last evening, at Xin — an Asian hot-pot-style restaurant. For those not familiar, it works like this: Choose a flavored broth; fill your plate from the restaurant’s pristine buffet of vegetables, seafood, meats, sauces, and noodles; and cook it all up in your very own hot pot back at the table.
On our last day, after a private morning tai chi lesson, one of the hotel’s most popular team-building options, we departed for one of Macau’s most famous landmarks, Macau Tower, to walk the plank — a six-foot-wide plank 764 feet in the air, that is. Long lines form every day to bungee jump off A.J. Hackett’s Skywalk X, but we chose the tamer route of a simple stroll around the rail-less skywalk. Strapped into harnesses, we felt exhilarated, and delighted in the fact that our safety system doubled as a mini zipline. After spending an hour or so whizzing around the tower’s platform, we took a few extra minutes to stare into the skyscraper-studded Macau skyline, knowing full well that it may look completely different in just a few months.