Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is the Property editor of the NZ Herald

SkyCity casino play targets high rollers

Company has taken full control in Queenstown.

SkyCity hopes to draw more high rollers to Queenstown Casino. Photo / Stephen Goodenough
SkyCity hopes to draw more high rollers to Queenstown Casino. Photo / Stephen Goodenough

Queenstown Casino has been a spectacular performer for SkyCity Entertainment Group, which this week voted with its feet by leaving Christchurch and taking full control in the south.

Asian tourism is playing a big part in the lake area's good fortunes for the NZX-listed company, which has a market capitalisation of $2.2 billion.

Nigel Morrison, SkyCity chief executive, said Queenstown revenue rose 12 per cent in the year to June 30, "one of the best results since the casino opened" in 2000. He also emphasised its popularity with Asian gamblers.

Michelle Baillie, Queenstown Casino general manger, said that result had been driven by strong gaming revenues and effective cost management.

"We had a strong second half of the year with increased visitation from Asian groups who enjoy coming to Queenstown. This also increased the per customer gaming spend," she said.

Late on Wednesday, SkyCity told the NZX it had sold its half share in the Christchurch Casino to co-owner Skyline Enterprises for $80 million, buying Skyline's 40 per cent share in Queenstown Casino for $5 million.

That gives SkyCity complete control in the south and allows it to leave Christchurch Casino, which has been suffering since the earthquakes.

"We have said for some time that we prefer to be outright owners of the properties we are involved in. Skyline expressed an interest in acquiring Sky-City's 50 per cent stake in Christchurch, which fits with our strategy," Morrison said.

Skyline, whose operations include the gondola businesses in Queenstown and Rotorua, is controlled by Barry Thomas, on the NBR Richlist at $80 million. His family also own Queenstown newspaper Mountain Scene.

Morrison emphasised how Queenstown's success was linked to Asian tourism growth and the purchase meant links could be strengthened.

"This enables SkyCity to build our international VIP business in a major tourism destination, which is already a very popular destination for our overseas VIP guests," he said, referring to the newly expanded Auckland Casino's facilities aimed at the Asian high-rollers.

"Increasingly, our Horizon and Eight VIP customers in Auckland want to visit Queenstown as it is so iconic to New Zealand and has a high international profile," Morrison said this week.

"Having complete ownership will allow us to develop a VIP offering that will better accommodate these high-spending visitors.

That Queenstown link will help SkyCity pull Asian high rollers into Auckland and Australian casinos.

"Queenstown will complement our existing Horizon VIP offerings in Auckland and Darwin, which have already benefited from investment made there over the last two years," he said.

"Our VIP guests generate much-needed export dollars for New Zealand and will bring extra economic activity to the Queenstown region and the country as a whole."

Christchurch had suffered with Morrison saying it "continues to be challenged by a difficult operating environment".

SkyCity also announced this week it would invest $375 million in its Adelaide casino, in a vast upgrade and expansion after negotiating a new deal with the South Australian Government for more pokies and tables.

Ken Matthews, Skyline's chairman, said Christchurch Casino was now a wholly owned subsidiary and the $80 million was being raised via the company's facility with its bank.

"Whilst the prevailing difficulties in Christchurch have been outlined previously to shareholders, your directors consider there is an upside consistent with the rebuild of the inner city in particular and have full confidence that in time the region will regain its former status," he said in a letter to shareholders.

SkyCity shares have shot up this week on NZX, from $3.62 on Tuesday before the New Zealand and Australian announcements, closing yesterday at $3.84.

- NZ Herald

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