There was a time not so long ago when college lecture halls were little more than incubators for knowledge consumption—the place where students would absorb information like a sponge, then wring it out come mid-term and final exams. Save for the occasional group project, these lecture halls weren’t exactly think-tank laboratories where students were encouraged to foster and flesh out innovative ideas and concepts, and come up with new-age solutions to old-world problems.
Well, times, they are a-changing—in a big way.
Armed with technology that has been at their fingertips basically since infancy, many of today’s college students are getting a chance to make their mark long before they don a cap and gown. And nowhere is this truer than in hospitality, an industry that’s trying to remain one step ahead of tech-savvy millennials who now account for a sizeable slice of the customer pie.
For students of the UNLV Harrah College of Hospitality, this means unique opportunities to be actively engaged in—and perhaps even tangibly impact—the direction their industry is headed. It also means opportunities to skip a few rungs early in the climb up the corporate latter.
“Employers today are not just looking at the fact that you’ve got a bachelor’s of science degree and you’re ready to become a management trainee or put you into an assistant manager role,” says Robert Rippee, director of the Hospitality Lab at the UNLV International Gaming Institute. “They want to know, ‘What did you learn while you were [in school], and how can that directly help my business?’ They want to know that you can bring skills to the table that they don’t have.”
Picture this: You roll your luggage into your five-star hotel room and immediately take a left turn into the bathroom. Except instead of a standard bathroom—one like you’ve seen in every hotel room you’ve ever entered—it’s more like a mini-spa. Then you head over to the sleeping quarters, where you find high-quality workout clothes sitting on the bed—shirt, shorts, shoes, all in your size, because you arranged for it to be there upon arrival so you wouldn’t have to pack your own workout gear (not to mention repack that now-sweaty attire).
These are just two examples of ideas that have sprung out of the Hospitality Lab, a college-credit course launched in spring 2016 for undergraduate and graduate students as a complement to the already up-and-running Gaming Innovation Lab. While the Gaming Innovation Lab focuses on all things casino, the Hospitality Lab is where innovative ideas are conceived for all other areas of the industry, from hotel and food and beverage to retail and entertainment.
Not only are these innovations designed to solve problems and/or enhance experiences within the industry, but some students are turning them into pieces of intellectual property. In fact, Rippee says more than a dozen patent applications for intellectual property created in the Hospitality Lab have already been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“We’ve got an excellent track record in the short time we’ve operated the Hospitality Lab,” says Rippee, a 30-year veteran of the hospitality industry who has held executive positions with several major brands. “Students have stepped in and really applied emerging tech and creative thinking and said, ‘Let’s approach this problem, but from a different perspective’—from their perspective.”
One such student was Wayman Wittman, who in May 2017 completed a dual master’s degree in hotel and business administration. Wittman was among the first group of students to take Rippee’s Hospitality Lab class, joining a team of four that came up with a technology-based idea that aims to address a problem that persists in high-end hotels and resorts. Because the team is still in the process of securing a patent, Wittman can’t divulge details about the idea, saying only that “it would be a way for hotels within gaming markets to become a bit more of a leader than a lagger.”
A native of Wisconsin, Wittman earned his bachelor’s degree in business management (with an emphasis in entrepreneurship, marketing, and theatrical stage management) from the University of Minnesota—but only after pumping the brakes on a career as a semi-professional race-car driver. Having grown up in and around his family’s food-and-beverage business, Wittman knew when he hung up his racing gloves that he’d steer his career toward hospitality.
So after graduating from Minnesota in 2006, he went to work for 3½ years at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, spending the final 11 months as a guest service manager. Years later, when he got the itch to continue his education, Wittman ultimately zeroed in on UNLV largely because of the Hospitality College’s stellar reputation and the university’s commitment to encouraging students to be difference-makers.
“The MBA side, as well as the hotel side, both have entrepreneurship roots,” Wittman says. “At the heart of the program, they want you to look for that new disruption in the market and figure out how to bring it to life, whether that’s in gaming, the guest-room side, food and beverage, or even meetings and events.”
Of course, these days the innovation path is lit by technology, which guides the daily lives of not just the current generation of students but the next generation of hospitality leaders (and consumers). It’s a rapidly growing (and highly influential) part of society that’s linked 24/7 through mobile devices that are seemingly always in hand, and will be for the foreseeable future.
“Students today are way more connected to the entire world—and this is true beyond our [Hospitality] College,” says Mehmet Erdem, an associate professor at the Hospitality College who earned his Ph.D. in hotel administration at UNLV. “Whether they are physically present in the room or not, they’re still connected. And that kind of connection is changing our society and how people approach relationships and experiences.”
It’s also changing how people like Steve Hill go about their business. Hill is the new CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, whose primary objective is to market Southern Nevada as a tourist destination. And since millennials and Generation Z now comprise a large segment of the tourism population—a segment that demands constant connectivity—it’s critical for the industry to learn how to keep up in the constantly evolving Digital Age.
“This isn’t necessarily research, just observation on my part, but the pace of technological change is increasing. And millennials and Gen Z folks are much more comfortable with that,” Hill says. “Somebody like me, I have to work to keep up; they just keep up naturally. It’s a part of their [everyday] lives.”
Adding to the challenge for executives like Hill is that research indicates millennials are currently traveling at a rate greater than any other generation. Hill says that while the overall travel market is growing at about 6 percent, millennials are planning for 30-35 percent more travel in the future. “That kind of solidifies the reason for a [marketing] focus on millennials and Gen Z demographics,” Hill says. “So reaching out to those potential customers and understanding what drives them, what interests them, what they do and don’t want when they go someplace is very important.”
This explains why innovations such as the one Wittman and his team are attempting to bring to market—as well as the innovations current Hospitality College students are working on—are so vital. After all, who better to determine what the next generation of hospitality customers want than the folks who are part of that generation?
“The younger generation has become [Las Vegas’] primary customer,” Rippee says. “So they need to evolve their hospitality operations to better serve this new customer—which is that new generation that’s graduating out of UNLV every year.”
Certainly, senior-level industry leaders understand this to be true. Hence the reason when asked to come on campus and judge a presentation in either a classroom or the Hospitality Lab, they arrive with ears and eyes wide open—and, sometimes, with a job offer in their back pocket.
“This has happened on several occasions where after the presentation and Q&A was finished, one of my guest speakers goes up to the student and says, ‘Hey, I want you to work for me,’” Erdem says. “That’s a big sense of pride to see a fellow Rebel do such a good job presenting that somebody high up at the corporate level would go up and ask them, ‘Hey, are you working? Would you like to work for us?’ That’s really impressive.”
Rippee tells a similar tale.
“I have a panel of senior industry executives who judge the projects and ideas in my class, and when they see the world through the eyes of these young people, oftentimes their eyes are opened,” he says. “Not only are they intrigued by the idea that the students are presenting, they’re intrigued with the students themselves—that they do think differently and approach problem-solving from a different perspective.”
Prior to assuming his post with the LVCVA in August, Hill was director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. In that position, he says he worked closely with the International Gaming Institute to drive innovation in the gaming industry, and he hopes to continue that relationship in his new role while also tapping into the innovative spirit that permeates throughout the Hospitality College, and particularly the Hospitality Lab.
“I don’t want to drop that effort simply because I’ve changed jobs, because I think it’s valuable,” Hill says. “There are just so many opportunities there. Having Las Vegas be one of the world-renowned hubs of innovation in the [hospitality] industry is very beneficial and important from a branding standpoint, but also having the school connected to the industry, helping to drive the industry forward, is critically important and adds a dimension that a lot of destinations just don’t have.”
Obviously he’s a bit biased, but Rippee concurs with that sentiment wholeheartedly.
“It’s not just that we are in the backyard of a plethora of hospitality companies; we’re in the backyard of some of the biggest hotels in the world,” Rippee says. “In terms of the problems [those hotels] face, they’re magnified many times bigger in a 7,000-room hotel than in a 250-room airport hotel in Chicago. So when it comes to the perfect laboratory for innovation, Las Vegas is it.”
As for Rippee’s laboratory, it’s more than just a place where students are workshopping cool 21st-century innovations. Rather, these students are instructed to come up with solution-oriented creations and make problem-solving the cornerstone of their work.
“What’s really unique about my class is it builds upon, first, figuring out what is the underlying business problem you’re trying to solve,” Rippee says. “For example, putting a robot in a hotel may be an interesting piece of technology if it’s just for people to come and look at. But if it’s really doing something, you’ve got to articulate that in a strategy—How does the robot add value to a guest’s stay? Or how does it significantly reduce the operating costs for the operators? If it doesn’t do one of those two things, then it’s just a toy; it’s a piece of entertainment.
“So in my class, students aren’t just looking at the technology of robotics. They’re figuring out what problems they’re solving and applying the technology to it.”
It’s a multilayered approach that Wittman found appealing, not to mention useful as he embarks on a hospitality career that he hopes leads to either a C-suite position or owning his own business.
“Robert wants people who think differently and aren’t just saying, ‘Yeah, that’s good. Let’s do it this way,’” says Wittman, who currently works for Allegiant Airlines as a ground support equipment technical specialist. “No, they want you to have that constructive dialogue to that point where you realize that you may be going down this path, but if you veer a little bit in a [different] direction, it’ll make it so much better and you’ll hit it out of the park. That’s what both Robert and Mehmet teach you—to think about all different perspectives … and keep asking the questions, ‘What are you trying to accomplish? What is your end goal? Who is going to use this? What problem is it solving?’”
Indeed, as the hospitality industry evolves before our eyes, Hospitality College students and young professionals are helping to lead the innovative charge like never before as they attempt to meet the demands of the next wave of consumers. Those demands are varied, to be sure, but one is thought to be universal: Provide guests with an overall experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
“In our industry, if you think about it, what is our ultimate product? It’s a service experience,” Erdem says. “People aren’t going to necessarily remember what they ate or the brand of the bed they slept on, but they’re going to remember how you made them feel. And in this digitally connected era that we live in, students today have a distinct advantage in terms of understanding how that translates into a memorable experience.”
Adds Hill: “Our next generation of customers want a real experience—they want to find opportunities in Las Vegas that they can’t find in other places. So we’re going to have to be innovative to keep up. I know we can be, and I know we will be.”