For this year’s ‘jetsetter’ CEO Special, we’ve featured companies and executives from around the world, covering different continents and different verticals within gaming. But in Steve Wolstenholme, Hoiana President & CEO, Gambling Insider is interviewing an individual for whom jetsetting has been a theme his entire career. Growing up in Brighton, England, Wolstenholme dreamed big of “exotic locations.” And throughout his career in the casino sector, he got them – from Toronto to Manila; from the Bahamas to Macau. The exec’s initial aspiration, though, was far from joining a casino or going into gaming. Indeed, at first, Wolstenholme wanted to become a civil engineer.
“After school and college, I landed myself a position in Kent,” he explains. “Maybe a year later, I was walking around the building site in muddy boots and thinking where are these bridges in exotic locations I’m after? I happened to stumble across an advertisement for a croupier position. I knew nothing about casinos... Well, the only thing I ever knew about casinos was possibly the James Bond movie. But I’m walking around on a rainy day with muddy boots on and thinking 'let’s see if I can do something different.' I applied for it – my mother was particularly upset – and my father sort of laughed! I got the job and became a croupier.”
Wolstenholme’s desire for travel was not quite yet satisfied at the casino table, however. While dealing cards, he saw several colleagues travelling around the world – reminding him of his initial dream – and wanted some of that action. Wolstenholme succeeded in applying for a role in Nassau, Bahamas, prompting a key realisation. He reflects: “All of a sudden I realised the casino business was something not only did I enjoy, but something I wanted to build upon.” Progression through the ranks followed over the next decade, as he ultimately became a Gaming Supervisor and Salon Prive Manager; until he felt that, in his own words, he did not necessarily want to live in the Bahamas forever. He duly asked his boss how he could develop further – and a month later was offered the prospect of moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to take on a “very different role” in marketing.
Here, Wolstenholme began on a path that would take him all over North America in the coming years. In 1996, he moved over from Florida to Connecticut. He tells Gambling Insider: “I started working in the marketing department at Sun International and they were opening a new casino in Connecticut. It was an American tribe, Mohegan Sun, which was a joint venture with Sun International at the time. I was hired originally as a shift manager and became Table Games Director before the opening. And then I realised my engineering experience was actually quite handy throughout pre-opening. I could relate to some of the things being discussed and said 'okay, I can possibly leverage what I understand about casinos.'”
I think Macau will reinvent itself. I think the days of crazy $40bn annual gaming revenue are likely behind them, but I think they can become – and will become – very viable businesses. I don’t think it will ever be Vegas, where it’s more non-gaming than gaming, but I certainly think it will change"
MENTORSHIP AND MOVING UP
At this point in his career, Wolstenholme acknowledges he was in a “relatively senior position.” He had gained a good understanding of construction, casino pre-openings and the wider industry. But for many who are able to progress to the next level – an elite tier within an industry – there will often be a mentor figure involved, someone who can guide them, help them develop and identify where to go next. For Wolstenholme, that was William Velardo. Velardo, no longer with us, was the General Manager at Mohegan Sun’s Connecticut property at the time – and the man Wolstenholme turned to with important career questions; those being: How can I improve myself? And what can I do to move up to the next stage?
“He said three things,” Wolstenholme recalls. “Firstly, be prepared to move – so be flexible. Secondly, go back to school. And the third is to make sure whatever you do, you always do it for the right reason. The one thing he advised me to do is read about what you do for a living for one hour a week. He said at the end of the year, you’d have 52 hours of knowledge – and that will put you in the top 10 percentile of people in your industry. Because most people just do a job for a job as opposed to really understanding what they’re doing. He said ‘be diverse about it; you’re in the casino business, but you’ve got a hotel, you’ve got food and beverage. Learn about those things.’ This was something I really remembered.”
Perhaps those words of advice are ringing true to anyone reading this article, with Wolstenholme himself now passing on pearls of wisdom learned over the course of an extensive career. Following Velardo’s advice, the executive spent another two years in Connecticut before being offered a position in Niagara Falls, Canada, initially as the VP of Gaming. Over nine years, he once again moved up to the General Manager role, before applying one of Velardo’s practical lessons and returning to school. At Ivey Business School at Western University, Ontario, the executive completed his MBA, reading “a lot about different parts of the business.” He didn’t want to be pigeonholed merely as “a gaming person with marketing understanding.”
The extra study paid off. Leaving Niagara Casinos as the Group Vice President of Operations, Wolstenholme received a call about a position in Macau – more specifically, from Galaxy Entertainment Group. Asia was about to be introduced to Wolstenholme’s journey and leave a lasting impression. He says: “At the time, Macau was in its early stages and I flew over to Hong Kong, met the owners of Galaxy and successfully interviewed for the position of COO. From there, I was really focused on pre-openings. That means operations, pre-opening handover and the early part of operations. That’s what I’ve enjoyed doing.” Two years and four months at Galaxy followed, before a move to Nevada – although this would not be Asia’s last appearance on Wolstenholme’s CV. “I moved back to the States for a while and worked in Northern Nevada,” he continues. “It was a project that was the former Reno Hilton; a 2000-room hotel that was going through some major renovations. I was involved in that and also worked on an exclusive consultancy with MGM Resorts International on government relations in Canada. I was then employed by Okada in the Philippines, before coming over to Vietnam. And that’s the last 35 years of my life.”
A CERTAIN SIMILARITY
Wolstenholme’s initial walkthrough boils a near-four-decade-long career down to just a few hundred words. The Hoiana President & CEO has worked around the globe, overseeing different aspects of casino life – predominantly within the land-based sector. Yet given his exploits as far afield as the Bahamas, the Philippines and Vietnam, Gambling Insider wants to know how Wolstenholme's various casinos compare. He responds: “There’s a certain similarity, if you like, whether you’re working at Mohegan Sun, which was a very large tribal casino, or elsewhere. You have to recognise and put yourself in the shoes of the principal stakeholders: what do they want out of it? Obviously, tribal casinos want to take care of their tribe. When you’re in Asia, very often – Vietnam is a good example – you have to look at it from a government perspective. What does government want out of it other than just taxes and jobs? Taxes and jobs are extremely important.
“The Philippines is very similar. When I was in Nevada, I was working for a smaller company owned by a dynamic business person. I really enjoyed working for him: when you’re working for an individual, it makes things a little bit easier. It’s a little bit more cumbersome when you have a board that you’re reporting to. But it’s also quite dynamic when you report to a board, which is my scenario now. Every jurisdiction has its good points and its challenges. The most important thing we can do in our careers is look for those challenges and actually embrace – as opposed to try and avoid – them. We are what we become through experiences and through gaining wisdom. We get wisdom in life through those experiences: good, bad or indifferent.”
When Gambling Insider asks if Wolstenholme has one favourite above all others, it prompts some soul-searching, of sorts. They are all “quite different” in his initial appraisal: “I’ve liked everywhere I’ve worked. There’s nowhere that I haven’t yet.” The exec has particularly enjoyed working in some of the “more developing jurisdictions,” such as Manila and Vietnam – due to the fact you can “become part of the growth and the way the industry evolves.” Governing bodies in Manila and the Philippines are less conservative than in Vietnam, according to Wolstenholme, and he sees the value in “addressing the social issues associated with gaming.” Viewing things from a governmental perspective, for instance, rather than just an owner’s perspective, presents an executive with a more rounded picture. This concept also applied in Toronto, where Wolstenholme learned volumes about ensuring an operator matches a government’s goals, while at the same time trying to maintain a successful operation.
“A COLOURFUL CHARACTER”
Earlier in our interview, Wolstenholme spoke of his mentor Bill Velardo. But another important executive he came across – and was in fact appointed by – was Kazuo Okada at the Okada Manila. Okada is, at press time, due in court in the Philippines: a headline-creating regular within both industry and mainstream media. So what was it like working for him? “He’s a colourful character,” Wolstenholme opines. “I had a lot of dealings with him and was hired by him. I became President of the Okada Manila and reported to him on a daily basis. He couldn’t speak a word of English. I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. But I certainly became very familiar with a lot of Japanese customs; I’ve done lots of bowing, and things dear and near to his heart.
“I think he’s dynamic because he’s a self-made man that has a passion for business and certainly a passion for casinos,” the CEO continues. “He’s had challenges throughout his business operation and some of those challenges have involved his family, which is personal business on his part. One thing for sure is Okada’s name is still there: he was the Founder. Whether he continues running that business at any point in the future is for the courts to decide. But I think, regardless, he can look back and be pretty proud of what he developed there. So I’m an Okada fan but I’m an Okada casino fan. As far as the man himself, he was certainly a visionary. And there are lots of visionaries out there you can look back on and say, well, that Founder at the helm is no longer there – but the business still is.”
"One of the most charming things about Vietnam is exactly that it’s charming. Some people look at alternative places and ask ‘is it safe? Is it not safe?’ I don’t think anyone asks that about Vietnam. More than anything else, there’s a lot of charm here"
HOIANA: THE HERE AND NOW
For all of our discussion of Wolstenholme’s past roles and locations, however, it is Vietnam in which the executive has spent the best part of his last five years. In March of 2018, he joined as Group COO of Hoiana, before taking on the Acting CEO role in April 2019, becoming permanently appointed around a year later, and in March 2021 being named President & CEO. Hoiana CMO Jit Ng featured in the May/June 2022 edition of Gambling Insider magazine, providing a Vietnam Focus within the issue. Inevitably, though, the first topic on Ng’s list was the same as Wolstenholme’s is now: the “rather tiresome” Covid-19 pandemic of recent years. In fact, Wolstenholme points out that the Hoiana Resort opened up in the middle of the pandemic. Like much of the world, Vietnam was in lockdown at the time and it was building a reliance on foreign players living locally at the time – far from the biggest pool of potential players.
And yet situations like this help a business “build character,” according to the CEO, allowing an organisation to look at things more dynamically – and evaluate the direction said company may be taking in the future. An example Wolstenholme is immediately drawn to is Macau’s previous reliance on customers from Mainland China – particularly VIP traffic that was from “an era gone by.” Once China opens up again, of course, Wolstenholme knows there will be ample opportunity to once again attract those wanting to visit “great resorts.” But the likes of South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and indeed Vietnam will be in stronger positions to capitalise than previously. The rate of people flying into Central Vietnam is still at around 30% of what it was in 2019, meaning there is “still a way to go.” Wolstenholme is, nevertheless, proud of operating a “fabulous resort” that has seen “good traction” since opening.
“We’ve got great partners, casinos opening and it’s flourishing,” he beams. “We’ve got four kilometres of beach; even the phase one we’ve just developed is about $1.2bn worth of a $4bn overall investment. One of the most charming things about Vietnam is exactly that it’s charming. Some people look at alternative places and ask ‘is it safe? Is it not safe?’ I don’t think anyone asks that about Vietnam. Vietnam has got great food and I think it’s recognised globally. But I think more than anything else, there’s a lot of charm here. Vietnam in general has got a bright future as far as gaming is concerned. It’s in its early stages, so we want to make sure we’re making the right moves with regards to how gaming is formed in Vietnam. By the same token, we want to work collaboratively with the Government and the authorities to make sure we’re partners in this – and that’s important to us.”
On the gaming side, Hoiana has several tables and slot machines, although Wolstenholme places just as much importance on the resort’s location – and its golf course. Hoiana’s full name is technically Hoiana Resort & Golf, backing up Velardo’s earlier thesis on a casino manager needing to know more than just table games. Hoiana boasts a “top 100 golf course” – a “major asset” that is particularly loved by South Korean visitors. And, as the exec assesses the wider future of Asian gaming, he knows the non-gaming aspects of an integrated resort are something other Asian regions will have to increasingly embrace. Much as Las Vegas keeps reinventing itself, Wolstenholme sees Macau evolving to becoming less reliant on straight gaming revenue.
MACAU, SINGAPORE... VIETNAM?
“In the past, in the ‘80s, ‘70s or whatever, it was perceived that casinos always made money,” Wolstenholme muses. “That was the understanding: you open a casino, you make money. Now, it’s very different – and I think it became different around 2008 when we had a global recession. All of a sudden, it wasn’t about just opening a casino. To make money now, it has to be done correctly; there are business decisions to be made, strategic decisions to be made, and I think Macau will reinvent itself. I think the days of crazy $40bn annual gaming revenue are likely behind them, but I think they can become – and will become – very viable businesses. I don’t think it will ever be Vegas, where it’s more non-gaming than gaming, but I certainly think it will change.”
As for neighbouring nations, a natural discussion point is Singapore, a high-growing region that boasts one of the world’s finest properties in the Marina Bay Sands. Here, Wolstenholme admires the way the “fabulous jurisdiction” has simultaneously opened up to gaming while managing gaming’s social implications. The handful of licences the country has given out “makes sense” for a population of around 5.5 million and that may mean, in the view of the Hoiana CEO, Singapore does not grow as rapidly in the foreseeable future. The Philippines, meanwhile, needs to be more “disciplined” from a regulatory standpoint. But Wolstenholme can definitely see that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation is very open to ensuring gaming “flourishes.”
So where does Vietnam, closer to home for the Hoiana team, fit into this beautiful Asian tapestry? Around 75 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, there is the Grand Ho Tram Strip casino, which opened in 2013. It has never been “overly successful” in Wolstenholme’s eyes, although it is producing “great numbers” at the moment. More broadly, growing Vietnam’s gaming scene is a “slow, calculated process” but one that is seeing a greater understanding of the dynamics of gaming. Indeed, Wolstenholme is confident that, combined with attributes such as culture, food and ease of access, Vietnam’s attractiveness as a destination will only grow. The Government is actively taking measures to increase the country’s tourist appeal, too; UK visitors can now fly over for up to 15 days without a Visa. There is call for similar measures when it comes to Australia, the US and China but Wolstenholme appreciates this “takes time.” Overall, the exec is confident Vietnam competes “very favourably” in the hospitality and gaming sectors – even if this is from more of a “boutique standpoint” than the likes of Macau, Singapore and the Philippines.
"The one thing Velardo advised me to do is read about what you do for a living for one hour a week. He said at the end of the year, you’d have 52 hours of knowledge – and that will put you in the top 10 percentile of people in your industry"
THE RECIPE FOR A GOOD BUSINESS
While the boardroom is naturally at the heart of a CEO’s career, Gambling Insider finishes our interview by asking Wolstenholme about life outside the workplace. Light & Wonder Gaming CEO Siobhan Lane, whose interview you can read on pages 40-45, dedicates her time to a seat on the board for Global Gaming Women. For Wolstenholme, voluntary work has been a significant part of his life since 2005. He explains: “My father passed away a few years ago and was in a hospice. I didn’t really know what a hospice was, but I was pretty enamoured by the care he was given at this hospice. I was living in Canada at the time and, when I left the UK after visiting him, I wanted to be involved. There wasn’t a hospice in the Niagara Falls region and I started to get involved in a capital campaign to build one. Since that point, I think involving myself in community initiatives has been important to me – especially when you’re in countries such as Vietnam or the Philippines. You look around and feel that not only do you have an obligation but a responsibility to at least give back. I was also involved in The Children’s Cabinet in Reno and some charities that are more involved in conservation, healthcare, but particularly children.”
Of course, Wolstenholme is adamant any charity work must be sincere: “If you’re doing it but not sincere about it, you just shouldn’t do it.” But he adds that there are “not enough years in life to know everything.” As such, a good leader must rely on other people. That means allowing time for other activities, be they R & R, philanthropy or spending time with family. “If you micromanage your business, you’re going to fail because you have to rely on other people,” he states.” “You’re always there to deal with situations. But there are other priorities in life. Charities and philanthropic initiatives are very important to me. And family is important to everyone, right? So I hate to use the word ‘balance’ – it sounds like a cliché – and work is something we’ve got to focus on. But we’ve got to recognise the best leaders don’t necessarily feel that they need to micromanage every situation. You create an environment where people have the autonomy and responsibility to make decisions – and you are dealing with the problems or the times people might make mistakes. I believe that’s the recipe for a good business.”