From January 13 to 18, Stern students gathered in Las Vegas for the 12th edition of Professor Harry Chernoff’s Operations and Entertainment: Las Vegas course. Through more than a dozen site visits and guest lectures, the course delivered a peek behind the curtain at key Vegas industries.
The entertainment visits were, arguably, the headliners of the week. The group took a behind-the-scenes tour of Cirque du Soleil’s water-themed show O, and the complex mechanics behind the 1.2 million gallon pool at its center, before attending an evening performance.
Ultimate Fighting Championship COO, Lawrence Epstein delivered an in-depth look at the growth, evolution, and international success of the company. Students then watched live video of a weigh-in for the following night’s event and toured UFC’s state-of-the-art training center. Later that evening on a visit to a venue in downtown Las Vegas, students shared a private box with UFC President Dana White. Other outings included a Q&A with management of Light nightclub, and a return visit to see the club in full swing later that evening.
On the gaming front, the group spoke with management from a spectrum of casinos, from the ultra-luxury Bellagio to more casual Station Casino properties, which cater to locals. These tours and information sessions laid bare a chasm between expectation and reality. Expectation for the Bellagio’s security room: a NASA-style command center a la Ocean’s 11. Reality: four wooden desks, most unoccupied with one security guard casting around haphazardly for blatant signs of insidious activity, and an admission from our host that it’s been eight years since they updated their security software.
A tour of Zappo’s headquarters in Downtown Las Vegas was met with mixed reactions from students in the group. Four tour guides marched in singing with ukulele accompaniment,before running through the company’s 10 corporate values, from “deliver WOW through service” to “create fun and a little weirdness.” The theme of the tour was culture, culture, culture. And while some students appreciated the singular focus on building a meaningful and connected office environment (the tour guide greeted every passerby by name), others found the absence of KPIs for call center staff—the majority of the company’s payroll—unrealistic and unsustainable.
Interesting things were happening elsewhere in Downtown Las Vegas. Eight years of near-bottomless investment from Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh have reinvigorated a long-derelict corridor of the city. It’s also given locals, and a growing population of visitors, a place off the strip to rally around with its music festivals, no-frills bar scene, and locally owned small businesses.
A lot more happened than can be reasonably summarized in any kind of coherent narrative. Twenty-nine students zipped around town in separate cars, learning just as much from Uber drivers as from executives, and reuniting on the other side to pack themselves back together into puzzling scenarios. We stood around awkwardly in a liquor store for an hour ostensibly interviewing management while locals squeezed by self-consciously to buy their morning tall boys. We wandered around the high-roller suite where Bruno Mars filmed his 24 Karat Magic video. We went bowling. We got hustled at poker and interviewed the world’s most interesting man, a butler at the Palms, low-key BFF to Cardi B, and overall class act.
The trip was evocative of Vegas itself, with its disparate parts, some flashy, some seedy, none of which quite fit together into a coherent, logical whole. Speaking only for myself, while I learned a lot, Las Vegas is a city I had not visited before and don’t particularly care to return to. The week was an often stark case study of an undiversified economy with a weak, underfunded education system—a city struggling with its identity and grasping at a vision for a sustainable future. Laid bare was the harsh toll this takes on those who rely on the city for their livelihood.
Fortunately, the brightest spot in all this was my classmates. This trip was a reminder of how well Stern has prepared us for our professional lives. At every turn, my fellow students shone a proverbial light through the stale, recirculated casino air and impressed me by asking smart, incisive questions of everyone we met. They kept our presenters on their toes, suffered no fools, extracted value from even the most random of speakers and scenarios, and cut through the Vegas razzledazzle to grapple with the reality that lay beneath it. There’s a lot to be learned from that.
In every sense, Vegas is a gamble. But for those who go in willing to learn some highly unconventional things from unexpected sources, the odds just might be in your favor.