FROM BUST TO BOOM

Lebanon 2018 | TOURISM & ENTERTAINMENT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Roland Khoury, CEO of Casino du Liban, on renewing concession every 30 years, turning a loss-making casino into a profitable business, and prospects for online and sports betting.

Roland Khoury

Can you give us some background on the casino and recent developments that have affected its operations?

In Lebanon, the casino is a place where many gather to eat and enjoy a broad selection of entertainment, in addition to gambling. Our main revenue stream, though, is gambling, and all the departments are designed to serve gambling. Even when we host large events, we do it with the intention of maximizing our gambling revenues. We want to bring people to the gaming rooms. Casinos in Lebanon face many problems at the moment. Casino du Liban has a concession for 30 years, and we are the only ones allowed to operate gambling houses in the country. With only eight years left in our concession, it is difficult to find new investors. New investment takes two or three years to get off the ground. The second problem we are facing is the high tax rate from the government; the government takes 50% of the company's revenue. The number of employees at the casino is another problem; it is currently too high, and salaries are also high. It is an inefficient operation. Furthermore, the government is not enforcing the closure of small, illegal gambling operations, which eats into our legitimate business.

What do you expect to occur in eight years when your concession expires?

After the election, we plan to apply for another concession for 30 years. Our primary goal at the moment is to lobby for this concession. We also want to pay less taxes. This is a Catch-22 in that although we pay high taxes, we are essentially then guaranteed to the government approval for another 30-year concession. Beyond that, we also employ 1,200 people, so we are a major source of employment.

Are you currently operating at a profit?

When I was appointed CEO of the casino, the losses were upward of USD6 million per year. We finished 2017 with a USD3 million surplus. This turnaround came into effect only after six months; we made a huge investment in the gaming rooms to buy new games, enticing many high rollers. In order to attract them to the casino, we pay for their travel and accommodation at the hotel. We also host large events for VIPs, bringing people from all over the region. We like to host top entertainment acts from around the region as well, and this draws people to our casino. Lebanon is a great place for tourism, and people like to come here and gamble.

How much of your business is from foreigners?

In terms of the number of customers, foreigners account for approximately 20%. In terms of revenue, foreigners make up close to 35% of our total revenue. Many of our high rollers are foreign visitors. We look to increase this group of visitors and have created a new department specifically for this.

What new projects have you initiated?

We are renovating our main restaurant and are planning many additional investments. However, we are waiting for the new concession before we jump into these projects. We could receive the concession in as little as six months. We are renovating a number of theaters, restaurants, and halls currently. In terms of large-scale investment, we are proposing creating a big new room for gambling. We also plan to start hosting an Texas hold 'em tournament. Moreover, we are keen to get into online betting and sports betting. We hope to develop an infrastructure similar to the sports betting infrastructure in places like Las Vegas.

What are your targets for this fiscal year?

We hope to record USD10 million in profits this year. Even if we do not receive the new concession in the next six months, we will create a new area for bingo, which is a popular game in Lebanon for all age groups.