’98 BS Hospitality Administration
William F. Harrah College of Hospitality Alumnus of the Year
To say that Chris Smith knew by the time he reached third grade that he was destined to become a Rebel and land a job at a Las Vegas Strip resort is a stretch. But not much of one.
“Las Vegas got in my blood when I was 8 years old, and our family made a stopover on a road trip,” Smith says. “During that visit, we went to Circus Circus, and I remember being enamored by the lights, the action, the excitement — all of it.
“As we got older, our family would routinely take a long summer road trip, and I was always the one with the Rand McNally map, searching out the hotel. I guess you could say I was Hotels.com before the internet.”
Flash forward to the end of Smith’s high school days in Southern California, and that Vegas blood was still flowing through his veins. So, when it came time to settle on a university and major, well, there really wasn’t a decision to be made: the UNLV College of Hospitality.
“I always maintained an affinity for Las Vegas, so studying hospitality just seemed like a natural fit; no other field really pulled me in,” Smith says. “And it being home to one of the top hospitality schools in the country, UNLV was a no-brainer.”
Smith’s initial plan: Earn his hospitality administration degree, hightail it back home to SoCal, and eventually become a hotel general manager. The plan changed, however, after Smith took an eye-opening human resources class, landed an internship, and then an entry-level positition in HR.
From there, as Smith succinctly puts it, “I haven’t looked back.”
Following more than 14 years as director of corporate human resources for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas, Smith in 2017 accepted an executive HR role with a Caesars’ property in northern San Diego. Some 18 months later, Smith returned to the place that first fascinated him as an 8-year-old, this time taking a job at Boyd Gaming, where today he serves as vice president and head of HR.
As his professional career has flourished, Smith has remained tightly connected to his alma mater. In addition to volunteering his time and talents as a mentor to Hospitality College students, he has served on the college’s alumni board and is an active donor.
When did you know for sure that you made the right choice to become a Rebel?
Honestly, right away. I instantly had a bond with Las Vegas and the university. Leaving Southern California at 20 years old and coming to Las Vegas forces you to adapt and make friends quickly. It’s even more difficult when you are under 21 in a town that is built on over-21 entertainment. But UNLV provided that social connection right away and opened doors to the city that I had no idea existed.
You’ve spent your career in human resources within the resort/gaming industry. How did you end up choosing that career path?
By accident. I 100 percent intended to get my degree and pursue a career as a hotel general manager. Then I took a class taught by UNLV professor Vince Eade that opened my eyes to the HR side of the business. Curious to learn more, I did an internship working for the head of HR at Station Casinos. From that experience, my interest grew.
Then through a partnership with UNLV and the Aladdin Hotel & Casino, I landed a job as an entry-level HR clerk during a time when the property was reopening and eventually worked my way into a recruiter position.
I have now spent 25-plus years working in the field, and among the many things I’ve learned is the journey is never ending in HR. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t learn something from our business leaders and my team.
One of UNLV’s core missions is to help students cultivate a sense of self-determination. Describe a moment when you had to rely on self-determination to accomplish a task.
There are many examples, but one in particular really set the foundation for my future.
Like many college students, I balanced a full college schedule with a full-time job, with mine being on the Strip. I elected to work the graveyard shift to ensure I could devote time to both endeavors. It’s amazing the amount of energy you have at 21 years old to work crazy hours and handle a heavy schoolwork load, all on very little sleep. However, I kept my eye on the finish line and where I wanted to be in the end, and it helped me get through some very challenging days.
Learning those habits early prepared me for the demanding work in hospitality. I realized quickly that every day brings a new challenge, and perseverance is a big part of success in this industry.
UNLV students and alumni are encouraged to embrace the “Rebel Spirit” — to be daring and gutsy and to resist convention. Describe a time when your “Rebel Spirit” was on full display.
Generally, I would not label myself as daring. However, being part of a rebranding effort at Harrah’s Rincon Casino-Resort — a Caesars property in north San Diego — was by far the most innovative cultural experience of my career. In an effort to stand out among the dozens of tribal casinos in the surrounding area, the resort’s leadership team — in partnership with tribal council leaders — renamed the area Funner, California.
It took everything I knew about the conventional team-member experience and either amplified it or reinvented it. From how we engaged with customers to appearance standards, it truly was a cultural evolution.
What I learned from that experience and have carried into my current role is that we should question convention. That said, reinvention doesn’t have to be overly dramatic to significantly impact the employee experience. Sometimes, the simple things make the biggest difference.