The Sirens Call of the Strip

Editor’s note:

Save the dates and have fun for Rebel Homecoming from October 8th to 15th! Among the many events is the annual Alumni Awards Dinner, which recognizes outstanding individuals who represent the ideals of higher education and rebel pride. Here is one of this year’s winners.

Chris Smith

’98 BS Hotel 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 resort on the Las Vegas Strip is an overstatement. But not many of one.

“Las Vegas got into my blood when I was 8, and our family stopped over on a road trip,” Smith says. “During this visit, we went to Circus Circus, and I remember being wowed by the lights, the action, the excitement – ​​all of it.

“As we got older, our family regularly took a long road trip in the summer, and I was always the one with the Rand McNally card, looking for the hotel. I guess you could say I was before the internet.

Flash forward to the end of Smith’s high school years in Southern California, and that Vegas blood still ran through his veins. So when it came time to choose a university and major, well, there really wasn’t a decision to be made: the UNLV College of Hospitality.

“I’ve always maintained an affinity for Las Vegas, so studying hospitality came naturally to me; no other field really appealed to me,” says Smith. “And since it is home to one of the best hospitality schools in the country, UNLV was a no-brainer.”

Smith’s original plan: get his hotel administration degree, return home to SoCal, and eventually become the hotel’s general manager. The plan changed, however, after Smith took an eye-opening human resources course, landed an internship, and then an entry-level position in HR.

From there, as Smith succinctly put it, “I didn’t look back.”

After more than 14 years as the director of corporate human resources for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas, in 2017 Smith accepted a human resources leadership role at a Caesars property in North San Diego. About 18 months later, Smith has returned to the place that first fascinated him at the age of 8, this time taking a job at Boyd Gaming, where he is now Vice President and Head of human resources.

As his professional career blossomed, Smith remained closely tied to his alma mater. In addition to volunteering his time and mentoring skills to students at Hospitality College, he has served on the college’s alumni council and is an active donor.

When did you know for sure that you had made the right choice by becoming a rebel?

Frankly, right away. I immediately had a connection with Las Vegas and the university. Leaving Southern California at 20 and coming to Las Vegas requires adapting and making friends quickly. It’s even harder when you’re under 21 in a city built on 21+ entertainment. But UNLV provided that social connection right away and opened doors to the city that I had no idea existed.

You spent your career in human resources within the resort and gaming industry. How did you end up choosing this career path?

By accident. I had 100% intention to graduate and pursue a career as a hotel general manager. Then I took a course taught by UNLV Professor Vince Eade who opened my eyes to the HR side of business. Curious to know more, I did an internship with the HR manager of Station Casinos. From this 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 at a time when the property was reopening and eventually made it into a recruiter position.

I’ve spent over 25 years working in the field, and among the many things I’ve learned, the journey never ends in HR. Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something from our business leaders and my team.

One of UNLV’s main missions is to help students cultivate a sense of self-determination. Describe a time when you had to rely on self-determination to accomplish a task.

There are many examples, but one in particular really laid the foundation for my future.

Like many college students, I balanced a full college schedule with a full-time job, mine being on the Strip. I chose to work the cemetery team to ensure that I could dedicate time to both activities. It’s amazing how much energy you have at 21 to work crazy hours and handle a heavy academic workload, all with very little sleep. However, I kept my eye on the finish line and where I wanted to be at the end, and that helped me through some really tough days.

Learning these habits early prepared me for the demanding work of the hospitality industry. I soon realized 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 “rebellious spirit” – to be bold and courageous and to resist convention. Describe a time when your “rebellious spirit” was on full display.

Generally, I wouldn’t call myself bold. 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 surrounding tribal casinos, the resort’s management team, in partnership with tribal council leaders, renamed the area Funner, California.

He took everything I knew about the conventional experience of team members and amplified or reinvented it. From the way we engaged with customers to the standards of appearance, it was truly a cultural shift.

What I learned from that experience and what I take away in my current role is that we should challenge conventions. That said, reinvention doesn’t have to be too drastic to have a significant impact on the employee experience. Sometimes the simple things make the biggest difference.

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