Thunderbird spreads its wings

Angel Sueiro

Thunderbird Resorts & Casinos is undergoing a multi-million dollar expansion as it seeks to attract more foreign travellers to its two regional Philippine resorts.

The company is operated by Magnum Leisure, which bought the Philippine assets from Panama-based Thunderbird Resorts for $26.5 million in 2013.

Up until now the two properties have focused on the local market. Thunderbird opened its resort in Binangonan, Rizal 14 years ago and a Santorini, Greece-styled property in Poro Point, La Union a decade ago.

Rizal province has a population of just under 3 million and lies about 16 km to the east of the capital Manila, while La Union is about 273 km north of the capital and a population of just 786,653.

When it started out, the company was accused of being overly ambitious for attempting to build such a large-scale resort. Most developments of any size have been centered in Manila, or on the better-known tourist islands, such as Cebu.

“At that time when we were looking for markets to expand operations, we found that in the case of both Rizal and La Union, there was a huge underserved market, which made the possibility of putting up new properties in these areas very exciting,” says chief operating officer Angel Sueiro.

“We were (in La Union) thinking, how will we be able to make money here? How can we make this place different? The first idea was very obvious, I cannot make what everybody else is doing then the location of the place. I remember being there at sunset and dreaming that the sunset will reflect on the white walls that we’ll build and the place is over a cliff – that’s what would make the place different. It was as simple as that.

Marketing focus

Sueiro attributes Thunderbird’s success on a combination of factors – aggressive marketing strategies, a beautiful property, and a focus on customer service.

“We start with doing research on customer profiles and market demographics. We study the individual preferences of the actual players in order to understand their needs and maximize their long-term value. At the same time, we explore demographics in the 30 – 60 minutes distance to discover and create new players. Execution is different depending on the target groups…from the usual raffles, tournaments, shows, points promotions, bingos, etc. to customized marketing packages for individual or specific group players.”

“Something we feel very proud is that we have a lot of repeat visitors. We’ve built a lot of loyalty.”

Sueiro and his team have now begun an aggressive marketing plan to tap new foreign markets. Recently, Thunderbird sent a team of executives on a trade mission to China and were surprised at the response. “They came back with 400 business cards and we are communicating with them on a bi-weekly basis. I know working on this would take a lot of time. We have to study our market well to be able to offer them the best experience.”

After China, Sueiro says the company plans to focus on Korea. “So far we are focusing on the China market but in October, we’ll also do a business mission to Korea, as we already have a lot of Korean nationals coming to the property. We hope that the reception would be similar to how it was with China.”

“In terms of facilities, right now in Rizal we have the hotel, the restaurants, the spa, and we’re just next to a very nice golf course. In the case of La Union, we have the Santorini look, the hotel, we are starting to build more villas, we’re expanding the event center, we have 6 dining outlets, we’re near the beach, and a really nice 9-hole golf course. The two properties have similarities but also have their unique traits, like one is in the mountains and one is by the beach.”

Grand plans

The current expansion phase will almost double the capacity of the resorts. In Poro Point there are 93 units and the company is adding another 96. Rizal has 41 rooms and is also being expanded.

The event center in La Union will be three times the size of the existing facility and will be the biggest in La Union. The clubhouse and casino are also being upgraded.

“Right now there’s construction everywhere you go, we are opening a beach club, we’ve brought in consultants from Ibiza, we are also opening a pool for the beach club. All those will be completed at the last quarter of the year. In Rizal, it’s the same, we’re adding more rooms to the hotel, we’re also renovating the casino to be a really high-standard casino, a new event center, pool renovation.”

He adds, “In terms of technology, we are maximizing the potential of the CMS and its integration with other customer information systems in the properties (we are in conversations with Microsoft in this regard), improving surveillance prevention systems, table revenue management…the main focus is to improve our capacity to collect and use guest data.”

The Philippines will see another multi-billion dollar property open in Manila’s Entertainment City by the end of this year, taking the number of integrated resorts there to four, but Sueiro says Thunderbird can still compete.

“When I have conversations with my team, I tell them, ‘They are the heavyweights and we are in a different category but in our category I want to be the Manny Pacquiao – the middle weight, the lightweight, but the world champion, so that’s what we want to be. There’s competition, yes, they are a threat, we cannot compete in terms of size but we can compete in terms of customer loyalty.”

Moving forward, Sueiro is excited to see their expansion plans completed, and says that they are also continuously scouting new locations but they also want to be sensitive to what the market wants. “Our intention is always on growing, but it just doesn’t depend on us, it’s more about how the market reacts. We still see a lot of opportunities to do more things.”