Back to School: The Changing Face of Casino Education

The gaming industry is filled with stories of rank-and-file workers who rose to become the biggest names in the business. But as the industry expands-and becomes more corporate-future leaders may need to log more class time.

Bill Harrah was a college dropout who worked at the family pool hall. Steve Wynn was an English major who ran a bingo parlor to pay off his father’s gambling debts. Merv Griffin was a game show mogul who started as a band singer; his biggest hit was 1950’s “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.”

All of them made fortunes in the casino industry without degrees in the field—because when they started, there was no such thing as a gaming degree.

That’s all changed. The biggest casino companies are now global corporations that are as stringently regulated as financial institutions. They generate billions in annual revenues, pay billions in taxes, and sometimes employ hundreds of thousands of people in jurisdictions around the world. As the business becomes more businesslike—as Wall Street increasingly intersects with the Strip—casino gaming has become part of the curriculum.

Old School, Updated

Five generations ago, Bo Bernhard’s great-great grandfather moved from Texas to Nevada to join the casino industry. He eventually worked his way up to floor manager. But he would not likely make the grade in the industry of today—not with just a fourth-grade education.

“Casino resorts are the most complex and most expensive buildings on the earth in the private sector; they are the most complex to operate on the planet,” says Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For that reason, he says, on-the-job training “increasingly needs to be supplemented by an educational base.”

Founded in 1993 as part of the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration—yes, that Bill Harrah—IGI combines theory with practice, classroom work with hands-on experience. In order to earn a degree, every student must log 1,000 hours on a casino floor.

“It’s not a bookish, ivory-tower approach,” says Bernhard. “Our staunch belief is that real-world education complements the education we provide in the classroom. As a result, I’m very confident that you could hire a UNLV kid and on day one, he’ll know what he’s doing. This is not somebody who will be lost in the sea of a slot floor.”

Some 3,000 students at IGI and in the university’s broader hospitality program are introduced to a range of interlocking disciplines: casino management, hotel and resort management, nightclub management, food and beverage management—“pretty much anything under the hospitality umbrella and integrated resort field,” says Bernhard. They also learn business essentials (marketing, auditing), and study industry-specific topics like slot management, responsible gaming practices and more.

Game Plans

Not surprisingly, IGI is putting an increased emphasis on technology—in particular the development of games that will appeal to the children of old-time slot players, a generation of potential customers weaned on smart phones, iPads and other interactive mobile devices.

To that end, in 2013 IGI and former Shuffle Master CEO Mark Yoseloff launched UNLV’s Gaming Innovation Program. Yoseloff personally owns some 100 gambling game patents, and has created “some of the most lucrative table games in the world,” says Bernhard. He teaches gambling game design alongside guest instructors like

Scientific Games’ Roger Snow (the brains behind Four Card Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold ’Em), Andrew Pascal of PlayStudios (former Wynn Las Vegas CEO, creator of the myVEGAS franchise and now James Packer’s Las Vegas lieutenant), and slot king Joe Kaminkow of Aristocrat Technologies.

“Innovation is a backbone of what we do, especially as regards to changing consumer tastes,” says Bernhard. “We have at last count 34 patented and patentable gambling game ideas to come out of the program, but even if they never invent a game that ends up on the gaming floor—because let’s face it, most games fail—it’s a tremendous education to look at the world through the innovator’s lens, which is different from the academic lens.”

The sheer scope of the available course work reflects shifting priorities in an industry undergoing seismic change. Though the margins from gaming still steer the bus, casino resorts from Las Vegas to Atlantic City and elsewhere are deriving an increasing percentage of revenues from non-gaming attractions. Even Macau is under order to mix up the amenities to bring in a more diversified and hopefully stronger customer base. In short, the gaming industry has become the tourism industry. And the tourism industry generates more than 10 percent of the world’s economy, according to Bernhard.

“One out of every 10 dollars or yen or won or rubles is spent on tourism,” he says, “and the single most dynamic, proven and lucrative driver in the private sector of that economic activity is the modern integrated casino resort. Our students are taking gaming as part of an overall integrated resort/hospitality/tourism education, and going on to jobs all over the world.”

The Tribal Perspective

But what happens in Vegas doesn’t always apply in Indian Country.

In 2001, San Diego State University launched its first hospitality and tourism management program (the program officially became a university school in 2007). It was a good fit for the region; San Diego hosts almost 34 million visitors each year (still a little short of Las Vegas, which hit the coveted 40 million mark in 2014). With its luxury hotels, world-famous zoo and spectacular Pacific coastline, San Diego is a top U.S. travel destination.

SDSU’s program features courses in hotel and restaurant management and also has a meetings and events emphasis. And since 2005, it has offered courses through the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming, created with a $5.5 million donation from the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, owner-operators of the Sycuan Casino in El Cajon, California. The institute develops professionals trained specifically in tribal gaming. And there’s a big difference between the commercial and tribal sectors, says Kate Spilde, associate professor at the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

“A lot of folks being recruited from commercial gaming backgrounds to tribal gaming really didn’t understand the regulatory differences, or the purpose of the gaming revenue for tribal government—there was such a steep learning curve.” Unlike most commercial gaming establishments, she says, “This is like a family-owned business model. Tribes are large families.”

Typically, about three-quarters of the students who attend the institute are not tribal members. They learn about the culture and history of tribal gaming along with the regulatory and operational aspects. They also learn about tribal sovereignty, and the delicate interplay among tribal, state and federal governments—and even the governments of foreign countries. Significantly, they grow to understand that “this is not just shareholders in some publicly traded company,” says Spilde.

“Casino revenues actually helped build that school, or paved that road over there. They feel connected to the outcomes of their day-to-day work.”

Prior to graduation, students work two full semesters in the hospitality and gaming sector through a professional center funded by Marriott. They work “in every department in the casino—the hotel, the restaurants, maybe the spa, a poker room, in table games, slots, just see how the whole resort works as an integrated resort,” Spilde says. “We want them to see what they like best, so they will stay in the field and succeed.”

The Road Ahead

The gaming industry has always welcomed people with drive, determination and bootstrap initiative, with or without the sheepskin. Will degrees in gaming be mandatory for the Wynns and Harrahs of the future?

“I don’t know,” says Spilde. “It’s part of the lore of the industry, the guy who started as a dealer and is now CEO or president. But with the focus on analytics and marketing and moving online with technology, we’re shifting from an art to a science, where you can look at the numbers, measure the outcome and make some strategic changes.”

“While a certain level of expertise can still be achieved on the floor, the old-school way of making it without a degree has been threatened by the sheer complexity of modern casino operations,” says the UNLV’s Bernard. “I travel constantly, and I’m always amazed as an educator to check into a hotel in downtown Seoul or Beijing or Berlin and have a UNLV graduate walk up to the front desk to say hello.”

One thing seems certain: as casino resorts proliferate and consumers have more options, the importance of the hospitality experience cannot be overstated, says Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at the Stockton University of New Jersey.

“Many moons ago, customers wanted to go into a casino, gamble and leave, and there are still some people who are only interested in whether they’re winning or not. But more customers today want a different type of experience—to engage in the gaming action, to see a show, to have a nice dinner. They want to go to places where they are recognized, greeted and welcomed back.”

Now as ever, he says, “Customer service is a huge part of their decision to return or not.”

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Q & A with Bob Ambrose
Center for Hospitality & Sport Management, Drexel University, The Dennis Gomes Memorial Casino Training Lab

Since 2009, Drexel University in Philadelphia has offered a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management with a concentration in gaming and casino operations. Among the center’s industry partners are Scientific Games, Konami, AGEM, KGM Gaming and a number of casino companies; the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board also helped the university develop its Dennis Gomes Memorial Casino Training Lab, which was dedicated in 2014. Bob Ambrose, former vice president of slots for Gomes + Cordish Gaming Management, is an instructor and 30-year veteran of the gaming industry.

GGB: Is there a core curriculum in your program that’s mandatory for all students, regardless of their career goals?

Ambrose: All students receive a broad overview of the hospitality industry—gaming of course, but also lodging, travel, food and beverage, event planning and so on. Then students at both the undergrad and graduate level can focus deeper into gaming. When our students graduate, they have a working resume and on-the-job experience through paid co-ops.

These students are the future of gaming. What better way to have them see how serious the business of casino operation is than from those that govern the industry? I also work closely with responsible gaming partners so that students can see the complete picture.

What careers are they most interested in? 

Our students are focused learners of hospitality. Those that take my casino management and related courses definitely have a serious interest for future management roles in casino operations. We also offer a graduate online master’s in hospitality with a concentration in gaming, which is convenient for working professionals. Recently two of my students got their degrees while they were already working as managers in the industry. And they just became more marketable.

You always hear the story of the guy who started at the bottom and through his own initiative ascended to the executive ranks. Is that still true?

The Cinderella stories still happen, but there’s more competition these days. A strong work ethic still applies. Obtaining a degree in hospitality with a concentration in gaming is not going to guarantee that they’ll become a property general manager the day after graduation. A degree is part of the equation; the remainder will continue to be some pretty hard work.

How much time do you spend on new technologies like internet gaming, and ways the industry may shift to attract younger patrons?

Gaming educators must be proactive, with instructors that are engaged and on top of the research. It’s a major part of my daily routine. I spend two to three hours every morning reading industry news and industry publications, attending conferences and staying in communication with members of the industry—if I had to give it a percentage, at least 50 percent of the day. It comes easy, since I’m an information junkie anyway. This industry is fluid and changes rapidly. There is a great deal for the students of gaming to learn.

I use a textbook for the core of my casino management course, but our partnership with GGB has been one of the key contributors to keeping my course current. The students look for the magazine monthly, and we discuss the topics in class or they’ll write an opinion paper.

Some of my students have taken my course as an elective while never setting foot in a casino. Their goals may be in other hospitality disciplines—culinary, lodging, tourism or sport management. With each hospitality discipline they study, they learn the connection within the total hospitality experience.

It’s important for them to understand how each segment of all the hospitality models fuse together for the complete customer experience.  

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NCRG Training: Helping Casinos Help Problem Gamblers

With compulsive gambling, as with drug use, “just saying no” seldom works. The National Center for Responsible Gaming offers a program that helps casino operators better understand problem gaming, identify customers who may be struggling with the disorder, and, when appropriate, direct those customers to resources that may help.

Founded in 1996, the NCRG is funded in part by the gaming industry, equipment manufacturers and vendors, and belies the assumption that gaming operators are predatory and want problem gamblers to keep playing. In the words of Alan Feldman, chairman of the organization’s board and MGM’s senior vice president for public affairs, “It serves no purpose in any business to have customers who can’t pay their bills. By their very nature, (problem gamblers) will turn into bad debt.”

The EMERGE program (Executive, Management & Employee Responsible Gaming Education) is based on research led by Howard Shaffer, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. It includes the most up-to-date science on gaming addiction and its possible causes—including new information on online gaming—and offers suggestions on how to offer assistance.

By debunking widespread myths about compulsive gambling—for example, that it’s caused by the gambler’s personal weakness, and that certain games are more addictive than others—the program helps casino operators educate their employees about the issue and address it in the workplace. 

Only 14 percent of problem gamblers ask for help, says Christine Reilly, the NCRG’s senior research director. “This is the case for anyone trying to lose weight, stop smoking—you have to resolve the ambivalence. If you go to treatment the first day and are told never to do this again, you’re going to head for the hills. People have to set goals that are manageable, or it’s very hard to change.”

Should customers ask for help, casino employees can point to resources like an 800 hotline. “But they are not trained clinicians,” Reilly warns, and approaching customers who do not seek help can be counterproductive. A good opening may be simply asking, “Are you having a good time?” In those cases, it may be best for employees to share their concerns with a supervisor.

For more information about the NCRG’s EMERGE training program, which is customizable for individual casino companies, visit ncrg.org.

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