Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2014

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$25 million to spark hotel school innovation

Harrah's Entertainment will donate at least $25 million to UNLV - the largest corporate gift in the university's 50-year history - to help create a novel campus to test new hotel products and technology.

The money will be used to launch INNovation Village - a complex for the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration that will include a new academic building to accommodate 4,000 students, a hotel and conference center, restaurant and retail space. The cost of the project was estimated two years ago at $200 million, much of which is expected to be shouldered by a private developer in exchange for hotel revenue.

The center, which college Dean Stuart Mann pitched to the Board of Regents two years ago, will test products in the hospitality industry, with an emphasis on new technologies, amenities and environmentally sensitive building systems.

The Harrah 's gift will help seed the new 122,000 - square-foot academic building for the college, which has long outgrown its current space in Beam Hall. UNLV officials also are seeking a developer to finance and build a working 300-room hotel and 50,000 - square-foot conference center on nearly seven acres at the northwest corner of UNLV's main campus, adjacent to the Stan Fulton International Gaming Institute.

University officials and Harrah's Entertainment executives said they would reserve comments on the gift until details of the donation are revealed Monday.

The Harrah's gift marks a significant advance in UNLV's "Invent the Future" fundraising campaign. Previous corporate gifts have been for less than $5 million, although individual families have contributed much more.

The Harrah's gift will place UNLV nearly three-quarters of the way toward its $500 million goal with 16 months to go.

William F. Harrah's widow, Verna, in conjunction with the Holiday Corp . , got the college named after Harrah for $5 million in the late 1980s.

Harrah's is following the lead of Boyd gaming executive Bill Boyd, who in 2005 increased his personal pledge to the UNLV law school that bears his name, from $7 million to $30 million.

The Greenspun family, which owns the Las Vegas Sun, has donated $37 million to build the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. The family previously donated an undisclosed amount in naming the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies.

Chancellor Jim Rogers has pledged $29 million to the Boyd School of Law, which he is making payments on, and made an additional $25 million bequest to health sciences.

UNLV officials conceived INNovation Village about three years ago while brainstorming how to fund a new academic facility for the hotel college, said Russell Dazzio, co-chairman and chief executive officer for R&R Hospitality, a hotel consulting firm.

A former adjunct professor at UNLV, Dazzio has worked closely with Mann to develop the project and has spent the past three years talking to potential business partners in the hospitality and technology industries.

The idea of a hotel and conference center developed as a way to help pay for the academic building, but UNLV professors wanted to make it unique and useful academically. With the Strip in the college's back yard, students did not need a new place to get hands-on training in hospitality or gaming.

But several companies - including Microsoft's hospitality division - told the Sun in July 2005 that they would jump at the idea of a working hotel and conference center where they could showcase and test their products.

The hotel is expected to feature a whole floor of rooms dedicated to researching new products, with hotel guests signing on as guinea pigs to experience the latest in in-room entertainment, amenities and guest services technology, Dazzio said.

For instance, a guest at the UNLV hotel might use his Black Berry or similar hand-held device to make a reservation, choose his own room, check in, check out and even use the portable device to access his room.

"We can create something out at UNLV that changes everything we do in our industry and becomes a model for it," Dazzio said.

The rooms will be changed over every six to 12 months for UNLV professors to test new products, Dazzio said.

The center will be the first in the country where the hospitality industry and technology companies can access independent, university-level research on how new products work in an operating hotel, Dazzio said.

Currently, if a hotel wants to, say, buy a property management system, there is no entity it can turn to for independent information to evaluate the products on the market, Dazzio said. For information, h otel developers must rely on word of mouth or on hospitality magazines , which depend on revenue from advertising from companies selling those products .

"What is one of the really interesting things about INNovation Village is that professors will be preparing an annual report or semi annual report on specific areas of interest as a nonbiased service that evaluates what is the best and what is the worst, almost like a J.D. Power," Dazzio said. "There is nobody out there doing that."

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