Las Vegas Sun

November 16, 2018

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Philanthropy steering hotel college through recession


Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun

Officials celebrate with an oversized check during a news conference at UNLV in September 2007. At the news conference, officials announced a $30 million donation from Harrah’s, the largest corporate gift in the university’s 50-year history. From left: University Chancellor Jim Rogers, Don Snyder, a UNLV foundation board of trustees member, UNLV President David Ashley, Gary Loveman, chairman, CEO and president of Harrah’s Entertainment, and Stuart Mann, dean of the Harah’s College of Hotel Administration.

Although many academic programs at UNLV have been slimmed down or gutted because of severe budget cuts, one bright spot has been the College of Hotel Administration, which survives mainly on private donations from the gaming industry.

Last month, the college received a $1 million lifeline from Konami Corp., a Japanese video game company that has become one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of slot machines.

Half of the money will fund an endowment that will provide future earnings for the college, and most of the rest can be used as the college sees fit.

It’s the second-largest donation to the college from a gaming company. In 2007, Harrah’s Entertainment — the world’s largest casino operator — donated $30 million to build a hospitality management campus at UNLV, consolidating classes now held in multiple buildings. The funding also will pay for cutting-edge research into technology that could, for example, save the industry money or attract new customers.

And it couldn’t have come at a more critical time for the hospitality program, a local institution that wants more than to simply survive at a time when corporate donations and job prospects have receded in the tourism business.

Donations are critical to maintaining the hospitality program’s top ranking among hundreds of programs worldwide, said Don Snyder, interim dean of the hotel college and a former executive of Boyd Gaming Corp.

With an enrollment of about 2,800 students, the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration ranked No. 5 of 25 undergraduate hospitality programs in the United States in 2002, according to the most recent study of its kind from the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education, a publication edited by hospitality educators. The hotel college, the highest ranked of its kind in Nevada, was No. 3 in faculty research output among hospitality programs worldwide from 2002 through 2006, according to a 2009 report from the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, a sister publication.

Established in 1969, the college offers bachelor’s degrees in various segments of hospitality management, including beverage, food service, culinary arts, hotel and meetings, and events. It also offers master’s and doctoral degrees in hotel administration, among other graduate degrees.

Snyder said he worries about the effect of job cuts on the college’s ability to maintain such rankings as global competition among academic institutions intensifies.

“We’re doing what’s necessary to live within our means as much as we can,” he said. “But we can’t achieve excellence with just state dollars.”

Snyder, a well-connected businessman credited with raising the tens of millions of dollars needed to support the under-construction Smith Center for the Performing Arts downtown, retired as president of Boyd Gaming in 2005 and joined UNLV in July. According to Snyder, the university’s budget problems, from his new vantage point, were worse than he had thought.

The hotel college wasn’t spared from recession-driven cuts that have cost UNLV nearly 200 faculty and staff members as well as eight academic programs, including the college’s Recreation and Sport Management Department. On top of staff cuts, some of the 211 university faculty positions that remain unfilled after attrition reside at the hotel college, which has one of the university’s highest ratios of students to faculty because of the program’s popularity, Snyder said.

Many hotel courses are held in Beam Hall, which opened in 1983 and “doesn’t reflect what this industry preaches in terms of maintaining standards of excellence and quality for its customers,” he added.

Much of the Harrah’s donation, intended to create a state-of-the-art campus for hospitality students, is on hold pending matching funds from the state that may not come. Of the total, Harrah’s has funded a few million dollars for hospitality-related research that is under way. The state came up with $2.5 million during the previous legislative session, which Harrah’s matched, to kick-start the development process for the campus, called INNovation Village.

Whether the state will cough up more than $20 million in matching funds for the new campus — after trimming UNLV’s funding by 27 percent since 2007 — is in doubt.

The hotel college is one of the largest of its kind in the world, though enrollment has dropped by a few percentage points from a year ago in reaction to poor job prospects.

Corporate donations are a key part of the symbiotic relationship between the college and the increasingly global industry it serves.

With more than 10,000 alumni working in the restaurant, entertainment and hotel sectors, the hotel college has supplied gaming companies in Nevada and elsewhere with more employees than any other institution. Most graduates end up finding jobs outside of Las Vegas, while 26 percent of students hail from foreign countries — more than any other department on campus.

“The industry broadly embraces the college because they need to,” Snyder said. “This is a college that serves the industry by preparing students for employment.”

Southern Nevada’s $35 billion tourism industry is still the biggest sector of the local economy amid the recession, employing nearly 200,000 people and generating a payroll of $7.1 billion, according to recent figures from Las Vegas research firm Applied Analysis.

That was the primary motivation behind last month’s surprise gift. Konami Gaming, a Las Vegas-based subsidiary company that makes slot machines for U.S. casinos, has gained market share since opening a manufacturing plant and corporate office here in 2006.

Bigger competitors have laid off workers and scaled back operations in the recession, but Konami, now the fifth-largest slot maker, is hiring.

Most hotel college donations come from casino companies and not gambling equipment manufacturers, which typically hire people with specialized technical skills in engineering and mathematics rather than hospitality experience. One benefit will be immediate, however: The demonstration casino in UNLV’s Stan Fulton Building, used to train prospective casino bosses in the management of gambling games, will be renamed the Konami Gaming Laboratory.

“We’re trying to create an awareness that there are high-paying skilled jobs in Nevada outside of the casinos themselves,” said Tom Jingoli, vice president and chief compliance officer for Konami. “We’d like to build up our relationship with UNLV and do our part to help. This goes beyond us writing a check.”

The company also is drawing up ideas for internship programs, company tours and other efforts to benefit both parties.

Unlike academic institutions prized for their intellectual isolation from corporate influence, the hotel college — credited with helping to transform a mob-rooted industry into a professional, respectable enterprise — is valued precisely because it is intertwined with the work world.

Unlike many of their college-age peers, most UNLV hotel college students have full-time or part-time jobs in the hospitality business — from dealing cards to serving drinks. Much like graduate students, these working students view their education as less a rite of passage than a steppingstone to a better or higher-paying job in management.

Hotel college students must work 1,000 hours in the hospitality industry to graduate. They commonly sit through dozens of presentations each year by hotel and restaurant executives who donate their time to relay words of business wisdom — and pitch their brands to future generations of managers. Many students also participate in a seven-month mentoring program, which pairs students with hospitality executives at least once a month. More than 100 local executives participate in the program each year.

The hotel college is the only undergraduate program with its own career center, which is entirely funded by a donation from Boyd Gaming’s chief development officer. The Bob Boughner Career Services Center matches students with prospective employers, lately including the Starwood, Domino’s Pizza and Hard Rock Cafe chains.

Before and after graduation, students have multiple opportunities to mingle with industry executives via extracurricular student and alumni clubs as well as internship programs, said Bobbie Barnes, director of the career center.

Alumni have a high employment rate, though that’s partly because they were working by the time they graduated, Barnes said. Of recent graduates who completed a career survey, 65 percent said they were employed, with 93 percent of the group working in hospitality.

Though casino jobs are still hard to come by, nongaming hotel companies, including Marriott and Hyatt, are starting to hire again as business picks up, she said.

Interest in hiring UNLV graduates for gaming jobs is still high, even among companies that aren’t hiring now, she added.

Snyder said he is starting to see a flicker of recovery — all the more reason why the college needs money to retain good faculty.

At least one major gaming company, he said, is seeking to reactivate its management training program after a two-year hiatus.

“It’s been difficult for them to justify hiring into their management training program when they had been laying off their rank-and-file workers,” Snyder said. “Now that they see a light at the end of the tunnel, they need to gear up to put management-level people in the pipeline.”

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