Learning about the operational side of the casino industry today goes beyond how to deal cards or having an understanding of how slot game math works. Gaming—and the hospitality infrastructure that frames it—is big business, and more institutions of higher learning are recognizing this.
The gaming industry, like all service/entertainment models, is about people. It is an industry layered in principles rooted deeply not only in liberal arts studies but also business formulas of operational balance, fundamental business applications, law, human resources and strategic marketing initiatives.
The framework of today’s hospitality industry consists of a variety of independent business segments that include dining, entertainment, retail, lodging and gaming. Separately, they each offer an experience and a unique set of operational challenges. Collectively, these segments bring the property brand together in a single identity within the total property experience for the customer.
In hospitality education, the model is presented under much of the same identifiable headings, except it is housed in a program consisting of a unique set of learning objectives that define the various disciplines within the educational framework of research and presentation. And it might include a casino course or two.
Located in various hospitality and business curriculums at county colleges and some universities, casino courses are being offered in both undergrad and graduate programs. The course selection is in place to support jurisdictional casino operations in the local area, or they are being offered to expand an already related academic program such as hospitality or business.
Whenever casino operational courses reside in a curriculum, it is a sign of acceptance into the mainstream of education. It is where students of the discipline or those desiring a broader base of knowledge can learn the fundamentals of business models, operational management tools and marketing strategies.
A Center for Gaming Study
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) is the “Harvard” of gaming education. The William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, named for the pioneering original “outside-the-box thinker” Bill Harrah, celebrates its 50th birthday this year. From the very beginning, gaming education was a central component of what was recently ranked the No. 1 hospitality program in the world. The International Gaming Institute (IGI) presents the related disciplines of hospitality that include gaming in very specific operational hands-on concepts of learning.
This mother ship of learning has partnered and supported the gaming and hospitality industry with research, programs and on-site learning curriculums covering all of its aspects for decades. They have also stayed ahead of the curve, not only supporting and teaching the various innovations but also being part of the platform themselves. Their research model has fostered studies in all areas of industry collaboration.
“We aim to foster a team full of multi-disciplinary expertise,” says Brett Abarbanel, UNLV director of research. “We work on research, innovation and education on all topics that fall under the broad umbrella of gambling.”
“At UNLV, we take pride in having a long-standing dedication to gaming and hospitality education,” adds Bo Bernhard, executive director of the IGI.
GGB: Give us an overview of the program and the experiential philosophy of learning at IGI. How has the gaming industry supported this process?
Bo Bernhard: We have a rigorous curriculum that includes gaming management (among the many other fields, including F&B, convention management and hotel management, necessary to operate an integrated resort).
Meanwhile, the International Gaming Institute is the university’s outward-facing academic institute—focusing on educating and researching the world’s industry and government approaches to gaming—and the largest academic institute in the world dedicated to the study of the global gaming industry. In Governor Brian Sandoval’s 2013 State of the State Address, he asked UNLV to work with his office to “build a global intellectual capital” of gaming—and that is precisely what we have done, often in collaboration with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), which, through its Knowledge Fund, has inspired some of our most ambitious projects yet—including our innovation centers, which have 44 different gaming innovations at various stages of the patent process.
We currently have two dozen people working at the IGI—in fields as diverse as law, sociology, business, regulation and innovation. They include some of the brightest minds in industry and academe—and all are deeply experienced in real-world applications.
How is UNLV specifically using its academic model to stay engaged with the industry?
Mark Yoseloff’s Center for Gaming Innovation and Robert Rippee’s Hospitality Lab are outstanding illustrations of industry expertise combined with academic resources. Both are longtime respected industry leaders. The inventions that they are putting out there are really amazing.
Of course, our Executive Development Program is the world’s most prestigious and beloved executive development program. It was developed by the best academic in this field—our mentor, Dr. Bill Eadington.
Our status as a go-to resource has been reflected, of late, by organizations like the Oakland Raiders coming to us to provide answers to all of the gaming-related questions that the NFL had about their move to the city. The resulting project laid the groundwork for one of the most important developments in this city.
Similarly, the government of Japan has visited the IGI on several occasions over the past four years, as that government seeks answers to the gaming-related questions.
The Industry of Change
Today’s instructors in gaming are following a moving target of innovation and change. What we have seen in the past decade is unprecedented in terms of technological innovation. The hospitality industry is rapidly adapting to the next generation of customers through innovative gaming applications as well as enhanced digital technology.
Mark L. Yoseloff is the executive director, Center for Gaming Innovation. This arena is a platform where both academia and the gaming industry can have opportunities to collaborate. Under his direction, actual issues are presented to the students, and the students work on solutions. Yoseloff says in some cases other UNLV disciplines have become involved to produce a working prototype based on the innovation labs solution. “This is an outstanding example of cross-disciplinary relations,” he says.
In fall of 2016, the eSports Lab was added at IGI, addressing a need for commitment to eSports education, since it has established its global presence in gaming.
Tools for Learning
David G. Schwartz is the director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV, as well as an instructor. Schwartz is very well known for his definitive books on gaming subjects, including one all-encompassing volume, Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling. Schwartz is a noted speaker, and his passion and respect for the gaming industry is equal to his knowledge on the topic.
GGB: In this age of multiple information resources, are traditional textbooks still a valid learning tool?
Schwartz: I think that textbooks are a necessary foundation for gaming education. They are a way of making sure that all students have the basic knowledge they need to properly assess, understand and apply the course material. Once that base is established, it is important for teachers and students to test their knowledge and challenge their assumptions in the field.
How can the general academic model stay engaged going forward with the gaming industry?
I think it is important for academics to constantly challenge and revise their curricula. The gaming industry changes, generally speaking, more rapidly than others. So constant immersion in fully functional hospitality and gaming settings is necessary to ensure that those designing the courses remain in tune with the reality of conditions on the ground.
Would you agree that educating students in gaming is similar to building a real working operational team on a property?
I think that the same mechanics are at play. It is most important to establish two things at the outset in both the classroom and on the property: trust and respect. Both of those, optimally, are earned over time, but both leaders and teachers need to work quickly to establish them to ensure that those who depend on them can get the most out of their leadership. Leaders in both the classroom and the casino can inspire those they work with to push their limits and achieve beyond their wildest expectations.
Mark Birtha is president of Hard Rock Rocksino, Northfield Park, Ohio, and a graduate of the hospitality school at Cornell University. He is a highly regarded gaming and hospitality executive with over 20 years of experience. The “Rocksino” opened in late 2013. It has a strong presence in the Ohio locals/regional market.
GGB: Are colleges and universities responding to the need for educated casino executives?
Birtha: We need high-quality candidates to fill operations positions in our properties, and what better formula is there than to have qualified individuals who have started their careers with a hospitality academic foundation? Today’s universities that offer hospitality-based programming are identifying the needs of our industry and providing a unique laboratory for future leaders to get applicable knowledge on multiple levels. This is an absolutely essential incubator that will allow our industry to cultivate new talent and continue to successfully grow for generations to come.
Are the academic models across the country in gaming and related disciplines keeping up with the industry?
There has been a great evolution in academia with regard to the hospitality industry. As our businesses have evolved, so have the training programs to support them on a national and global level. Whether it is looking at our industry from an operations perspective, or through a real estate, development or financing lens, programs have continued to embrace the gaming space as a growing and relevant niche within all of hospitality. Many educational venues offer all of the various disciplines required to operate a significant property, from hotel to gaming to F&B and revenue management, entertainment, IT, spas, meetings and more. What is truly unique about our industry above and beyond these basic elements is the size of our operations and their related logistical challenges as well as the regulatory and financing hurdles. The integrated resort is the evolution of our industry, and academic programs are building and adapting their training programs to prepare future graduates to be ready to enter our field and be successful.
How can regional county colleges and universities assist new gaming and hospitality properties as they develop in a new area?
I remember when I was one of the first people from the Western companies on the ground in Macau in early 2002, and we were working with the local schools there like Macau Polytechnic Institute to build programs to train dealers and other positions needed to staff Sands Macao. The students were energized, the teachers were passionate, and we took pupils who had never dealt and turned them into the next generation of service providers in this unique marketplace. This formula has been played out time and again, and is an effective combination of business leaders partnering with academics to serve the greater needs of the marketplace to the benefit of all.
In my current property, we host hospitality students from Kent State and provide them with an intimate, interactive and live understanding of our operations. I go back to Cornell and teach a class in the gaming program, and can see the energy and interest of the students. This is the essence of what is needed to bring our industry closer to the academic institutions, and at the same time seed fertile ground for future leaders to emerge. Any operator or developer in any part of the world should have this simple strategy in mind when they are engaging their local community to better serve the needs, wants and expectations of those in their markets.
Employees in casino/hospitality operations face new challenges daily. As part of a very organized infrastructure, the employees in gaming rely on several departments to perform their duties. The casino employees also work within the parameters of government regulations, company internal controls and customer situations that can strain and test the skill sets of the best-educated employee. That is another reason for colleges that are teaching courses in gaming not to pigeonhole their thinking and curriculum. They need to keep in mind that they are teaching students about the gaming industry, not how to gamble.
“The goal is to keep the students informed on legal and regulatory issues, and to understand the concepts of gaming, whether they are going to practice law in the area or not,” says Jennifer Roberts, associate director at UNLV International Center for Gaming Regulation and adjunct professor of gaming law at William S. Boyd School of Law.
“We bring the gaming industry and regulatory environment to life,” she says. The program provides opportunities for students to attend gaming board and commission hearings, and also experience industry guest lecturers as they speak about their careers and the impact of various regulations on the industry.
Industry and Education Initiatives
Collaboration between academic institutions and higher education must be ongoing nationwide. Valuable joint studies have been produced, as in the publication of “The Millennial Entertainment Preference Study, 2016.”
The study was a collaboration of Stockton University’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism (LIGHT) in New Jersey and members of the Atlantic City gaming community.
Jane F. Bokunewicz, assistant professor of hospitality at Stockton, authored the study.
“The millennial study was a win-win for the casino industry and Stockton University” says Bokunewicz.
Several casinos supported the study financially and provided marketing executives to offer input on the design of the survey instrument. Stockton provided firsthand experience in working with this elusive age group, as well as access for focus group participants and survey distribution. The results were informative to all parties.
“The millennial study was an impactful research project because of the collaboration with the casino industry,” Bokunewicz says.
And of course, co-op, or “externships,” as Jennifer Roberts from UNLV calls them, are programs where students of gaming or related interests can spend a semester working at a specific job on a casino resort property. It is a great way to test the student’s interest.
Still, some educational institutions, whether through outdated ideological views of gaming or a lack of understanding of the industry, still maintain very little interest in expanding their programs. However, those that have embraced gaming offer their students a broader learning experience. And the gaming industry has been very supportive in terms of funding and scholarships.
A great employee of casino/hospitality operations is always a “student” of the industry. Remember, simply training students will provide skill sets to accomplish short-term goals. The extended learning philosophy for gaming and related hospitality programs comes into play through formal education initiatives where students receive a learning experience for their long-term employee development. Presented within these learning objectives, students see the big picture and better understand the impact of their role and how it contributes to the company bottom line.
Today’s students, employees, and yes, customers, are in a mine field of competitive options. Each individual segment of the integrated hospitality experience comes together to present the brand. Competent, trained and educated employees must be at the core of any operation.
Thanks to the collaboration of the academic institutions and the gaming industry, a core model of research and learning is not only producing the next generation of employees, but also providing the current tools needed for the entire hospitality industry.
And yes, it might just include some casino gaming.
Demand Drives the Market
Regional casino relationships in community college education
In past years, local community colleges have offered some standard casino training classes such as dealer training and slot repair.
In recent years, based on regional growth of casino and integrated resorts, demand has risen for expanded educational initiatives in operational programs. The regional community colleges have taken steps to expand their footprint by offering more specific casino-related courses that previously may have only been seen at four-year institutions.
Recognizing this new sense of purpose, regional casino operators have also stepped up an alliance to support the college initiatives. There has been an increase in partnerships with two-year educational institutions, either through a direct relationship during a new casino property development or to fill a more permanent niche market.
In Massachusetts, three major casino resorts are scheduled to open in the next couple of years. In anticipation, community colleges in the state have developed alliances with various casino industry partners to bring casino education to the residents of the state. General casino-related courses are being established to develop a foundation of learning in both management development and certification for dealer training.
The collaboration includes the Massachusetts Casino Careers Training Institute, a consortium of 15 community colleges and some four-year schools in the state.
The mission statement for the organization is concise: “The MCCTI was formed as a collaborating workforce development organization by the state’s 15 community colleges. The MCCTI has developed a memorandum of understanding with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to work collaboratively regarding workforce certification, training, licensure and other requirements.”
The institute will be collaborating with local community organizations, state employment boards, unions and casino developers for training and job placement. This is a plan for the future that recognizes what is needed in a collaborative effort for both the gaming/hospitality industry and regional educational institutions.
Similar support initiatives have taken place at Arundel Community College in Maryland and Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, as well as the Atlantic Cape Community College through its Casino Career Institute (CCI) in Atlantic City. CCI has had a long history working closely not just with industry partners to fill a need but also developing and marketing programs with other educational institutions in jurisdictions where gaming is being developed.
The casino program at the Schenectady County Community College in New York is particularly impressive. Stepping up to recent casino initiatives in the state, the college offers a Casino and Gaming Hospitality A.A.S. 60-credit program with six casino management-specific courses.
Within the School of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism, the two-year program offers courses such as Intro to Gaming Operations, Casino Security/Surveillance, Law & Regulations and Marketing, and ties the integrated resort experience in with a Non-Casino Gaming Operations course. The program has partnered with the major casinos in the area for field trips and speaker engagements.
“The program is designed to provide students with a strong foundation in hospitality, allowing for many potential opportunities within the integrated resort setting, and in casinos proper,” says Assistant Professor Kimberly Otis. “The casino-specific classes lend themselves to both in-depth study and the cooperative and interrelated nature of the industry perfectly.”
Otis has also achieved high praise for the development and implementation of a Responsible Gaming Ambassador certification program in cooperation with the New York Council on Problem Gambling.