Class, study, work, repeat. Such is the grind of the typical undergrad hospitality management student. Voluntarily taking on any additional tasks — let alone a complex, time-consuming research project — is an act of sheer audacity.
Enter Harrah College of Hospitality student Jasmine Nemati, whose interest in research sprang not from boldness but from curiosity. The more time she spent studying, working, and interning, the more questions she had about the inner workings of the hospitality industry — and the more she was willing to work to find answers.
The 21-year-old’s curiosity was piqued in 2018 during her internship at a major property on the Strip. She wondered, along with key leaders in the organization, if a particular food and beverage promotion was an effective revenue producer for the casino. Knowing she would need the help of an experienced researcher, Nemati approached one of her favorite instructors, Hospitality College professor Tony Lucas.
“Dr. Lucas is an amazing statistician,” said Nemati. “Since I’ve always been interested in statistics in terms of casinos, I knew this project would be an incredible learning opportunity and he would be a great mentor.”
Lucas was understandably wary given the complexity of the project but was swayed by Nemati’s earnest desire to enhance her knowledge.
“You don’t get a lot of people who are interested in this depth of analysis,” said Lucas. “We’re talking time series regression. It’s pretty brutal. But Jasmine is different. I tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn’t back down.”
Refusing to back down from a challenge is a lesson the Las Vegas native learned early on. “My parents taught me that my only obstacle in life is me,” said Nemati. “I can pursue any dream; all it takes is a bright mind and dedication.”
Nemati’s determination so impressed Lucas that when the original study fell through, he offered the undergrad a different research opportunity.
The new study focused on a type of casino promotion program that is used to entice players to spend more on electronic gaming devices like slots. It’s a marketing strategy known as free-play.
“Customers receive dollar incentives on their player cards based on how much they play,” explained Nemati — navigating the casino vernacular like a seasoned pro. “Free-play was initially launched in off-Strip casinos with lots of repeat customers, but now it is part of most every casino loyalty program.”
A ubiquitous practice because it works in driving revenue to the casino? So it would seem.
Lucas wanted to test this assumption using scientific methods. Once Nemati was able to source the performance data through her internship connections, and Lucas was able to build the statistical model, the two embarked on a four-month-long discovery process analyzing 365 days of player behavior at a top Strip casino.
The Truth is in the Math
Contrary to a widely held hypothesis, the data revealed that players in fact do not not consistently reinvest their incentive money back into the casino. They are wagering the initial full amount — a built-in requirement — but are quick to cash out when the free play ends. Nemati said the results suggest that rather than being loyal to a particular property, players may instead be loyal to their players card —perhaps even multiple players cards.
The findings, now published in the article "Free Play Impact by Customer Segment" in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, were not a surprise to Lucas, whose work is known for challenging conventional wisdom in the area of casino marketing.
“Customers just aren’t behaving the way marketers say they are behaving, which makes the considerable cost of casino loyalty programs difficult to justify,” said Lucas, who likens a casino to a complex web of ‘simultaneous forces.’ Studying this type of environment requires sophisticated measurement tools, he explained, as well as “a brave and educated casino management team willing to challenge the status quo by providing their data.”
Working alongside Lucas, Nemati realized that standing in the sometimes-controversial space of gaming research requires not only a thick skin but also a very specific set of skills. “It ignited in me a desire to continue my education in statistics and focus in on gaming,” she explained. “It solidified in my mind that if I want to pursue gaming… I have to fully understand the math behind it.”
If you had asked Nemati when she started college if she was going to be published in a top-tier journal, she would have surely dismissed the idea. But more and more undergraduate students are getting involved in research at UNLV, opening doors that used to be reserved for those at the graduate level.
“The opportunity to witness Dr. Lucas building this model,” said Nemati, “and then teach me how to do the study… even having my name on this study… I feel so very privileged and grateful.”
Beyond the many benefits to Nemati and other students, university-led research is an asset to the gaming industry, which Lucas says is going to have to move beyond business-as-usual marketing tactics in order to survive.
“As gaming spreads across the globe, everybody is going to be fighting for the same customer,” he explained, “so we better start figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. I want to tear down the politics of marketing and make it more about science. This is how university/industry cooperative efforts can be a win-win. This is how we can help.”
Now in her final semester, while also working at the Drew Las Vegas, Nemati continues to look for ways that she can help the hospitality industry contend with an uncertain future. With a major research project under belt, she is now prepared to take on even bigger questions — and embrace even greater challenges.
Prior to his tenure at UNLV, Tony Lucas worked in the casino industry for 11 years in the areas of financial and operations analysis. He is an award-winning gaming researcher and has authored several widely used textbooks, including Introduction to Casino Management, Principles of Casino Marketing, and Casino Management & Marketing Case Studies.