Harrah College of Hospitality Alumnus of the Year Michael Kawazoe’s official paperwork says he earned his hotel administration bachelor's degree in 2018, but the reality is he began reaping the rewards from his UNLV education two decades earlier. In fact, Kawazoe points to an internship he secured at Bellagio ahead of the megaresort’s 1998 opening as a tremendously impactful experience, one that allowed him to apply classroom principles about teamwork and efficiency in a real-world environment.
Working in the resort’s hiring center, Kawazoe — who attended UNLV from 1995-2001 — was part of a group of fellow Rebels responsible for using a seven-step benchmark to process tens of thousands of job applicants.
“Each area was responsible for their specific hurdle, and we needed to be fluid and efficient to keep the process going, much like a factory,” Kawazoe recalls. “I’m confident the reason we accomplished Bellagio’s goal of hiring 8,000-plus associates was directly tied to our time spent at the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality.”
Today, Kawazoe is applying the lessons he learned at UNLV as executive director and vice president of Lucky Holdings Inc, which owns the Ohana Waikiki Malia Hotel, a property his family purchased in his native Honolulu in 1989. Additionally, Kawazoe serves as vice president of S.K. Ventures, which owns two restaurants he created within the Waikiki Malia. His experience even extends to the financial sector, having spent eight years in the industry, six of them with JP Morgan Chase in Las Vegas prior to joining the family business full time in 2009.
Even though an ocean has separated Kawazoe from UNLV for more than a decade, he continues to bleed Rebel red: Besides completing his degree two years ago, he’s been a regular benefactor to everything from athletics to the Annual Fund to the Hospitality Hall building.
The coronavirus pandemic has reminded all of us about the power and importance of being resilient. Share a moment from your time at UNLV that helped build resiliency in you.
I was very involved in student government at UNLV and won every election I entered — homecoming king, Hotel College senator, etc. So I decided to run for student body president, and after a landslide primary victory, I was heavily favored to win the general election. Feeling I was a shoo-in, I got complacent with my campaigning and paid the price. While losing that election was painful, I learned a great life lesson that has since served me well both personally and professionally: Always work hard and stay diligent to the task at hand.
What’s the single most important characteristic a person must possess to have a successful career in hotel administration?
The mindset of customer first. Without customers, we don’t exist — that’s something the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded everyone in this industry. If nothing else, this situation has allowed us to pause, reflect on the importance of “customer first,” make the necessary operational changes that align with that philosophy, and implement them. One thing hospitality businesses cannot do is become complacent and just expect customers to return in the numbers they did before.