Michael Johnson

Dean, Cornell School of Hotel Administration

Cornell University is one of the nation’s leading institutions for hospitality degrees. Many of the top executives at hotels and hotel companies carry Cornell diplomas. And today, that is also true of the gaming industry. Michael D. Johnson, dean of the School of Hotel Administration, has taken the lead to incorporate gaming courses into the degree program at Cornell. Last spring, the school’s Statler Hotel-the last Statler in the world-hosted a group of gaming executives for a look at Las Vegas and the lessons it teaches the hotel industry. Speaking with Global Gaming Business Publisher Roger Gros at Global Gaming Expo, Johnson explained how higher education can elevate the level of leadership in the gaming industry. To hear the full interview in a recorded podcast, visit www.ggbnews.com/podcasts.


GGB:  Gaming has not traditionally been a class taught at the university level. How did gaming become part of your hospitality program at Cornell?
Johnson: Gaming has gone through a similar evolution that a lot of other aspects of the hospitality industry have. It’s gotten more concentrated. There has been an evolution from mom-and-pop organizations, individual casinos, individual owners, people who owned and operated the same property, one property, to an industry today that is complex in the sense that there are some very, very large companies with complex business processes and hierarchies. They’re facing capital market issues; they’re facing geographic dispersion, which means they’re facing political issues, whether it’s in Macau or Singapore or other places, and they’ve become more well-rounded hospitality entities. Less than 40 percent of the revenues now come from the traditional gaming side of the operation. So these have become bigger, more complex business organizations. It’s not unlike hotels or restaurants, where you’ve gone from the mom-and-pop to the large, complex organization, and you need people with a grounded business education to be able to manage a lot of that complexity.


How did a school as reputable as the Cornell School of Hotel Administration recognize that the gaming industry could be a viable partner?
I really have to credit our alumni. Our alumni have taken our education into different parts of the industry. There are other programs, there are some good ones-UNLV does some very, very good things on the operations side of gaming. We don’t. Operations experience for our students is going to be more on the traditional hotel and restaurant side.

On the other hand, our students are going to look much more to the real estate, finance side, capital markets, in terms of managing the business as an asset, and how to extract the most value from it. I think it’s our alums-we have 100 alumni in high-level positions in Las Vegas.

Unlike other hospitality programs, we’ve probably been doing this for the last 20, 25 years on the gaming side, seeing students go that way and be successful.


Do you have any gaming-specific courses at Cornell at this point?
We have specific gaming electives. What we don’t have is a full-fledged gaming curriculum. What we’re really going to offer the students is courses in spa management, club management, and on the casino side we have individual courses. So students can pull together a collection of courses that would be useful. If you look at a place like the Wynn, aspects of the club management, the spa management, casino management and the hotel operations and restaurant management, you could put them all together and that’s really the modern Las Vegas business entity.

In the gaming industry, if somebody comes from the hospitality or hotel side, they often get branded as a hotel person. Do you think people with a hotel or hospitality background can become successful in the gaming industry as well?
Absolutely. I think that experience in one industry is incredibly important, but industries can also put up blinders in terms of how they do things, the processes they bring to things, the kind of structural aspects they bring from a hiring or training standpoint, from operational practices. It’s important to look outside the industry.

And of course, knowing the general business background and how to operate a business in general, a service industry business, it has a lot of parallels.
I’ll give you my favorite analogy that I give to students. In a manufacturing or consumer product-type company, a strategy drives culture. You want to produce high-end frozen pizza and a medium and a low-end frozen pizza. You can go find people in the organization to do it. But service businesses can’t operate that way. In a service business, the culture drives the strategy. The people you bring in around you and the type of people you hire for your front-line service people, they’re going to dictate what you do, whether it’s on the casino side or the traditional hotel side.

Let’s talk about that service aspect. How do you instill that kind of value into your students and make them understand its importance?
We choose their parents very, very carefully. I’m being just a bit facetious, but it’s something that’s hard to teach. You have to look for it in people. We’re the only school at Cornell that attempts to interview every student. We end up interviewing 98, 99 percent of the students who apply, but the idea is to look for what one of my associate deans calls the E Quotient-the Emotional Quotient. In other words, we’re not necessarily looking for the student who is just the very best on test scores and grades. We need students who have good test scores and grades to handle a rigorous curriculum, but beyond that, they need to have balance. 

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