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Amanda Finnegan

Economy changes playing field for UNLV students

11 May 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The gaming industry has seen dramatic change in recent months. UNLV gaming professor Jeff Voyles would know.

He's been in the industry for 15 years, first as a dealer at MGM Grand, later as a resort company vice president in Hong Kong, Macau and South Korea, and now as a gaming consultant and university professor.

Today, he's among gaming professors teaching students who hope to become gaming executives and casino managers the skills they need to enter the workforce in one of the most trying times the industry has seen.

Voyles said he has changed his teaching style since the economic downturn. His gaming courses, which used to rely heavily on textbooks, now are taught in an issue-of-the-moment style. His students need different skills in today's gaming industry, he said, and his style of teaching has changed to accomplish that.

The good and the bad

Voyles has taught through the good times. The 1993 UNLV graduate has been in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration since 2003. His course this semester, Gaming Management I, examines hotel-casino cash flow sources, game analysis, marketing and an overview of management principles.

"Before, my teaching was really textbook-based. It became really hard for me to explain the intensity of what the industry is going through," Voyles said of the downturn. "It's easy to teach someone about good times. It's more difficult to show them what could happen until it actually does."

Today, Voyles spends about half of his course combing through newspaper headlines and discussing current events. The class analyzes why a casino operator made a certain move, how the problem should be solved and why a specific action is important.

"Station is still five interest payments behind," Voyles said, reading a headline in a recent class. He continues: "Shuffle Master gets sued for patent infringement, LVCVA extends contract with R&R Partners."

"Everything was too good and it wasn't really a realistic approach to business," Voyles said. "We were shattering records, growing at a staggering rate, developing projects that were one of a kind and the most expensive in the world. There's only so many times you can talk to students about it."

He remembers realizing the depth at which the industry was changing – and that his teaching style needed to follow – when casino operator Herbst Gaming struggled through 2008. The company later announced it would possibly seek bankruptcy protection. High gas prices, lower traffic counts at Primm casinos and overpriced acquisitions were taking their toll.

"I think that was the first time I really realized this has entered into these local companies and stable operators. Historically, we felt local properties were always going to be OK," Voyles said.

Bankruptcy is a term used often in Voyles' classes. He said his students now see it as a solution for businesses to protect assets when they're overwhelmed with debt.

"They see it as a tool to use when all other options have run out," Voyles said. "It's part of the business world."

Diversifying in the classroom

Stuart Mann, dean of the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, said he approached the faculty soon after he became dean in 1998 to move the curriculum in a new direction.

He said he wanted to give students the skills to keep themselves relevant well into their careers. Mann wanted professors to emphasize skills like critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making and strategic management.

"All of those skills that will allow an individual to maintain their level of learning to whatever is going on in the world around them. That's what is critical to our educational process," Mann said. "If we're doing a very good job with that, then students will be able to respond to the current economic crisis, as well as when times are very favorable."

A UNLV gaming management degree requires that students work between 1,000 and 2,000 hours in the industry in conjunction with their course work. UNLV junior Gary Townsend said experience alone isn't enough, especially in a down economy.

"All the managers in the business have been raised totally on experience. Right now with the recession, the past experience isn't good enough to run these businesses," Townsend said. "I think right now, learning these skills and coming out of college with fresh ideas will be more beneficial."

This semester Voyles started the Gaming Management Association, along with another faculty member at UNLV, to better connect students to executives. Voyles has brought in speakers like Green Valley Ranch general manager Tim Wright and M Resort owner Anthony Marnell to help students network.

"I know I need to work on my networking and team-building skills because it's not just one person running a casino company anymore," Townsend said. "It's the whole team."

'The demise of the industry'

Voyles recently asked students to present on the state of the industry as if they were speaking to organizations like the American Gaming Association, a board of directors or potential product buyers.

Justin M. Bowen

Dressed in suits and armed with PowerPoint presentations, students played the role of executive as if they were with companies like Station Casinos or International Game Technology. Students acting as Las Vegas Sands executives presented their "Venetian Recovery Plan" to a faux board of directors.

"How can we shine the brightest among the other gems?" one student started. The students touched on issues like current stock prices –- which have fallen dramatically in the real world in recent months -- how the federal stimulus package could help Sands, replacements in leadership and progression in Macau.

"It's crazy to think that we're even doing presentations on the demise of the industry and how do we get out of this mess. I don't even think we'd be doing this if there was a little hiccup," Voyles said.

Other UNLV gaming professors also are tailoring their teaching to fit the economy. Ashok Singh, who teaches a gaming mathematics course, has broadened his teaching style.

"I was just teaching students how to analyze a slot game and how to compute the house advantage of that. Now, I teach them how to make a slot game from scratch," Singh said. "If they are looking to get hired by a company like IGT or other gaming companies, they'll be more attractive."

Current students, 'new mindset'

While entering the gaming industry job market is a gamble right now, Voyles said he believes his students will be better off learning through the difficult times -– maybe better off than some casino managers in positions today.

"The students we were teaching eight or 10 years ago, those are the guys who are running the casinos now. I don't want to say we failed them but we pumped them full of sunshine," Voyles said.

Voyles entered the industry as part of a generation that worked its way up the ladder through gaining experience. He said as a young employee on the casino floor at MGM Grand, he often was ridiculed for his degree and desire to learn.

That's all changed.

"Before, you didn't have to cultivate your skills. You could fall right into the everyday operations and just go," Voyles said. "Now, you're going to be tested. You're going to be hired for your analytical skills and your education more so than ever because these companies know now that every decision they make has a big impact."

Jennifer Cutshall, a UNLV sophomore, said learning through this difficult time will give students a new perspective on business techniques in Las Vegas' dominant industry.

"When we're sitting there talking about some of the things these managers have done, I'm thinking 'Why did you do that?' It just makes no sense to me. I think our generation is going in with a very different mindset," she said. "We're at the right age to see what it was like before and be able to plan for the future, and I think that really gives us an advantage."