The casino industry from Natchez to Tunica has grown to adulthood without a designated higher education program to train its future managers — until now.
With seed money from the Ayers higher education settlement of the early part of the last decade, Alcorn State University this spring will open its School of Hospitality and Gaming Management at its new Vicksburg campus.
Like Mississippi’s gaming industry in its early years, the Alcorn hospitality school will start small and seek to grow steadily thereafter, said President Christopher Brown II, whose background as an educator includes a stint as executive vice president and provost of Fisk University in Nashville and dean of the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“To stand up a school is a multi-million dollar venture,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
“The first plan is to add the degree at the graduate level.”
Brown expects the early grad students to be working hospitality professionals, a student enrolment Alcorn expects to accommodate with a single instructor. The instructor is already in place, according to Alcorn.
Beyond the first year, the expectation is to move rapidly into a bachelor degree program and most likely a “certificate” offering that will focus on the nuts-and-bolts of hospitality and gaming management and require far fewer academic courses than the bachelor’s program.
Brown said he expects two to three additional faculty members can carry the instruction load for the bachelor program.
In the meantime, Alcorn is talking with casino executives from Natchez to Tunica to gain their insights on developing a curriculum, Brown noted. “We are having conversations with gaming on what are the key competencies they are looking for. We want to design something to serve their existing staff.”
The more students Alcorn enrolls, the more latitude it will have in designing the course work, Brown said, noting that as the program develops, he sees the school offering specialized training to individual casino properties as well as groups of properties.
“From a casino prospective, the greatest need for graduates will be in Food, Beverage and Hotel,” said George Stadler, general manager of the Ameristar casino resort in Vicksburg.
Stadler said in an email that Ameristar and other gaming resorts in the region need hospitality school graduates who understand how the operation runs in the front of the house and back of the house, the former term referring to workers who deal directly with guests and the latter with staffers who work behind the scenes to keep operations moving smoothly.
“For example,” Stadler said, “team members working in the hotel industry need a good understanding of how the front desk operates as well as laundry housekeeping and laundry departments.”
In the Vicksburg market, signing up hospitality workers with management potential are Ameristar’s biggest recruiting challenge, according to Stadler. “We currently hire around 100 team members per year in the hospitality field and welcome more hospitality graduates.”
Essentially, as a part of the service industry, Ameristar wants staffers “with good guest-facing skills,” Stadler said. Along with strong guest service and communication skills, a basic understanding of mathematics is crucial, he added.
Mike Cashion has been around the hotel and restaurant business long enough to know surviving as a manager in the demanding field requires a keen ability to stay focused amid pressure from all directions. No where is this more true than in the back-of-the-house operations of a casino, said Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association. “That is an animal all to itself,” he added. “It takes focus. They really turn and burn.”
Thus, Cashion expects the gaming sector will put a premium on hiring Alcorn hospitality school grads who can handle the hustle and bustle of the back-of-the-house .
“That’s where a lot of the external recruitment goes on” and Alcorn could be especially helpful in that effort, Cashion predicted.
As Alcorn’s hospitality and gaming management program develops, it can become a strong asset for not just casino resorts but for hotels, restaurants and visitor destinations throughout the region, he added.
Alcorn’s hospitality school will join university degree programs at Delta State University (Hospitality Service Management of Mississippi); the University of Mississippi (Hospitality Management); and the University of Southern Mississippi (Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management). Community college programs are offered at such institutions as Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville and the Gulfport campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Alcorn’s entry signals that the state’s higher education planners are listening to the pleas of the hospitality industry, especially those of the gaming sector, said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association.
“I think the industry shouted out a long time ago that they wanted education” as part of the development of a mature visitor industry, said Gregory, who previously headed the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “We want an educated workforce that is made up of Mississippians.”
Gregory serves on the advisory board of the Southern Miss School of Business of which the Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management program is a part. Gregory said in developing the hospitality school’s curriculum, the board has sought the guidance of hotel and casino executives as well restaurant companies such as Darden. “They’ve done an outstanding job,” he said of the industry advisors.
Also, USM has recruited executives and supervisors of the Mississippi coast casino resorts to present special training programs that include management, security and back-of-the-house operations, he said, and noted he has taught classes as well.
Gregory and others in the gaming resort business are especially excited by Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s ambitious culinary and hospitality program that just recently moved into a $10 million home on the college’s Jefferson Davis campus in Gulfport.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” he said of the resort management training facility, describing such instructional features as fully equipped Viking Range kitchens, banquet training rooms and even a mock hotel room.
Gulf Coast Community is concentrating on a two-year certificate program that will eventually include gaming surveillance training, slot machine repair and other technical aspects of casino operations,“ he said.
“They have done a lot of work and planning with the industry,” Gregory said, and noted he personally has met with college officials on about 10 occasions. “They’ve been tapping our brains. They know we helped get USM started from nothing.”
Gulf Coast Community’s hospitality school can accommodate upwards of 200 students and has multiple specialties and exit points for students, said Dr. Jason Pugh, VP of instruction.
The culinary offerings include such specialties as mass food production, baking and pastry preparation, Pugh said.
The tourism management program has a large concentration on customer service training, while the casino resort management offerings are varied and in the future likely will be weighted toward meeting some of the technological needs of the gaming industry, he added.
“The technology behind gaming is certainly a hot trend these days. We’re trying to understand what their needs are so we can design a curriculum around those needs.”