Rising Star goes all in on VR talent marketplace for MGM Resorts

When it comes to implementing new HR ideas, the hotel and casino industry in Las Vegas typically plays its cards close to the vest. 

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So, it’s a good thing MGM Resorts hired Mandi LaRue back in 2018 as director of organizational effectiveness for its 19 hotel and casino properties in Las Vegas and the surrounding areas. LaRue oversees the food and beverage and retail divisions across the organization, which comprise about 22,000 employees of 60,000 total workers. And in her spare time, she implemented a bold and high-tech talent marketplace with hands-on learning and development for employees looking to advance their careers within MGM Resorts that went live this year.  

Mandi LaRue MGM Resorts
Mandi LaRue

These are among the many reasons that LaRue is an HRE Rising Star of 2022.

Pretty impressive stuff when you consider this is LaRue’s first role as a human resources leader after spending seven years as a corporate food and beverage enterprise manager at Pinnacle Entertainment, a gambling and hospitality company also based in Las Vegas. 

From the outset, LaRue understood that in order to develop a strong internal talent marketplace, she and her team had to create leaders from MGM Resorts’ ranks with more cross-functional insight and expertise. She envisioned a program that resembled a “lattice versus a ladder” where managers could move up directly within their own organization, but they also could move diagonally and sideways into other areas of interest. 

This meant creating a cross-functional learning engagement program that provides structured learning experiences throughout hospitality, beverage, retail and hotel operations. “Maybe I’m a restaurant manager,” she says, explaining the rationale. “And I want to be a vice president of hospitality someday. [That] tells me that I need to know the hospitality side and the retail side as well.”

Before this program, ambitious MGM employees never had a way of experiencing different roles and positions within the casinos and hotels. “Now, we have a very structured curriculum that they can do at their own pace. It can take them a week, or it can take six months, whatever works for them in their operation,” she says.  

Greatest accomplishment: LaRue says she’s appreciated getting to see leaders she’s worked with over the years on their development fully embrace their strengths, apply them and grow to become “even more passionate and engaged leaders of the company.” In particular, she’s excited to have seen some reconsider their potential, evolving from a linear career path to a more lattice approach.

Along with creating a program that lets employees “shadow” employees or managers in different divisions, LaRue and her team implemented a bold tool for MGM’s L&D program: virtual reality-based immersive learning. Her team worked with immersive platform provider Strivr to create a pilot program that went live at the start of this year with around 150 participants at five test properties in MGM. It expanded to all properties this spring. 

LaRue was involved throughout the process—first, by identifying the types of roles that would be best served by a VR learning model, later by designing the training scenarios and finally by overseeing on-site, 360-degree filming at an MGM property. Although the project was initially interrupted by the COVID lockdown, LaRue estimates the entire planning, filming and editing took 12 weeks. The goal was to create a highly realistic VR module that would replicate the experience of working at an MGM property. In fact, one module simulates a front-desk employee’s interaction with an irate customer avatar.  

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“Something that’s been extremely important to us in the scenarios we created was that operators experienced fidelity to exactly how it is out there—not just the slightly disappointed guest with a smile on their face but the really upset guest,” says LaRue. 

So far, employees have embraced the cutting-edge initiative. “We have had leaders who’ve never even thought about a role in valet, but after they completed this cross-functional learning and spent some time in that area, they love it now,” she says. “They’ve actually applied for roles in that area.” 

LaRue and her team are also focusing keenly on employee skills that may have been hidden or not discussed during the employee’s recruitment and onboarding phase.  

“With this cross-functional learning, we’ve identified specific skills for each of these departments that might be unique,” she says. 

“We’re trying to tie skills across different departments and focus less on job titles,” she adds. “It’s much more about the skills because it allows them to have a variety of opportunities.”  

Ben Brooks, founder and CEO of coaching platform provider PILOT and an HRE Rising Star judge, says he and his fellow judges were impressed by the “well-structured, thorough, robust and empathic design of LaRue’s programs and initiatives.”

He adds, “Mandi clearly understands that employees and managers must be treated like customers, with HR organizing solutions around their needs and real-world reality, rather than the typical, top-down cascade of tired initiatives that fall flat.” 

Speaking of the real world, LaRue had a dose of reality not long after she joined MGM Resorts. In the early spring of 2020 when the global pandemic became a reality in the U.S., she remembers taking a phone call from her supervisors and learning that they were closing the resorts and casinos for two weeks, which later became several weeks. 

“I said, ‘What are you talking about? There are no locks on the casino doors. We’re meant to be open 24/7,’ ” she says. She remembers driving down the Las Vegas strip and seeing skateboarders and bicyclists zooming down an empty Las Vegas Boulevard with hotel room lights lit in the shape of a heart and the fountains still running.  

“Even though people weren’t physically on the strip, the strip was still alive like none of this was shut down,” says the casino veteran who has more than a decade of experience training and managing employees. “The heart of Vegas was still alive.”

Greatest challenge: Time. With a company of MGM’s size, the HR team is never at a loss for talent problems, nor for a lack of great ideas to solve them, but it’s tough to find the time to tackle everything. So, the team is focused on prioritizing the highest-impact projects and programs.

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