Sin City

Viva Las Vegas: MBAs Catch the Gaming Bug


(The story has been updated to clarify the number of students who attended Harrah's recent recruiting event in the eighth paragraph.)

In the past few years, casinos have begun betting on hiring MBAs to improve their businesses, enhance marketing, refinance debt, oversee human resources, and manage gaming and all the extras, from fine dining to luxurious hotels. "The employers are just waking up to the education of business students," says Chris Roberts, director of the School of Hospitality Leadership at DePaul University. Now schools, and students, are waking up, too.

Although University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) remains the leader in educating managers for the casino industry, other business schools are beginning to offer courses, clubs, and job treks aimed at helping students develop careers in casinos. For instance, Roberts, who helped develop a casino management concentration at the University of Massachusetts in the 1990s, recently launched at DePaul an undergraduate casino management course in which 23 business students participated. Plans are under way to do the same for graduate students, including MBAs, in 2011. Some business schools are teaming up with their school's hospitality programs, while others are going it alone.

What all the business schools have in common is a drive to provide aspiring MBAs with new career opportunities. "The biggest motivator is that the financial area jobs have dried up," says Harry Chernoff, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business (Stern Full-Time MBA Profile), where he teaches a course called Operations in Entertainment: Las Vegas. Says Chernoff: "Our students have been broadening their horizons."

The Old Days Were Different

Changes in the casino industry have opened doors for MBA hires. In the 1950s, casino managers were king, and their personalities drove the business, says Roberts. By the 1980s, corporations began to take over casinos, and Las Vegas wasn't the only venue anymore. Still, most casino managers, says Roberts, began as dealers in the casino. A college degree wasn't even a requirement, let alone an MBA.

But more competition is motivating casinos to hire people with special business skills, and opportunities abound. During the past two decades, according to the American Gaming Assn., the casino work force has increased almost 80 percent, from 198,657 employees in 1990 to 357,314 in 2008. Additional states that have voted to allow gaming have also contributed to an increase in jobs.

Although the gaming industry faces challenges because of the economic crisis, insiders remain optimistic that it is bouncing back, says Pearl Brewer, professor and director of graduate studies at the UNLV William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. In the past year, the number of graduate students enrolled in gaming courses at UNLV has tripled, says Brewer. She adds that many more people who are already in gaming are returning for MBA and MS degrees in the hopes that they can advance in the industry.

Variety of Management Challenges

"I look at each casino as a mini city," says Dan Wyse, marketing analysis manager at Harrah's Entertainment (HET) in Las Vegas and a 2007 MBA graduate of Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business (Tepper Full-Time MBA Profile). Casinos nowadays are usually part of big hotels that feature restaurants, shows, retail shops, giveaways, and other tourist attractions, all of which require good management and a solid business strategy, adds Wyse.

Harrah's has been taking the lead in recruiting MBAs. For many years, the company has offered the President's Associate program, a management rotational program for MBAs. But interest in gaming among MBAs is just starting to take off. The most recent Harrah's recruiting event at Stern attracted more than 100 students, a big increase over the last time it was held, says Chernoff. Although few students ended up pursuing actual casino jobs, it's an indication of the growing interest among business students in casino management.

MBAs are in many ways ideally suited to take on the challenges facing the casino industry today. Member cards are one example. The cards, which allow casino patrons to accumulate points on bets and purchases and use them for such freebies as a free night in a hotel, collect data about spending habits and personal preferences. With the right analytical tools, the data can yield valuable insights, and MBAs have the right tools. "You need people who know how to read the information collected from the data cards and put it to good use," says Wyse. Indeed, Wyse was drawn to Harrah's after a case study he analyzed at Tepper, which showed that the company was on the cutting edge of data mining for marketing.

Dual Degrees in Hospitality

Case studies aren't the only way MBA students are getting exposed to casino management. UNLV has offered graduate-level courses in the subject for 15 years, says Brewer. About 50 students at any given time are pursuing a dual degree with an MBA and an MS in hospitality, she says. Once you are pursuing the dual degree, you can select a specific topic, such as gaming, as a concentration.

In January 2009, Stern began offering Operations in Entertainment: Las Vegas, a three-credit elective that has students spending their winter intensive (a time when they're not taking any other classes) in Las Vegas getting a firsthand look at hotels, food and beverage services, gaming, real estate development, and nightlife. The course can fit only 30 people, says Chernoff, but close to 100 students have been on the waiting list each time it was offered.

Students at MIT Sloan School of Management (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile) have participated in a Los Angeles/Las Vegas trek for the past few years.The most recent trip had MBAs visiting NBC and Comedy Central in Los Angeles, Encore at Wynn Las Vegas(WYNN), and the Venetian Las Vegas.Aspiring MBAs in the Risk Management & Gaming Club at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business (Booth Full-Time MBA Profile) also have made the trek to Vegas in search of recruiter meetings and a peek at the casino industry.

Besides offering an alternative to traditional MBA jobs in finance and consulting, casinos bring something else to the table. "It's a really fun product," says Wyse. "We are selling fun, and we're an entertainment option." The best part, say professors, is that MBAs need the gaming industry as much as the gaming industry needs them, especially right now. "This is an industry," says Roberts, "screaming for management leadership."

Francesca_dimeglio
Di Meglio is a reporter for Businessweek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.

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