I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jesse Waits, Managing Partner and Co-Founder of XS and Tryst. Waits led XS to repeat appearances as the number one club on Nightclub & Bar’s Top 100 list in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. In the interview we cover topics such as relationship management, ethics, and event marketing.
When you first started a career in the nightlife industry, who were some of your mentors and what were the lessons they gave you that allowed you to succeed?
My first mentors was Andy Masi. I worked with at Andy at The House of Blues for three or four years before I went over to help launch Light at the Bellagio with him. Pauly was someone who I used to bar-back and bartend with in the VIP Room and he was one of the guys who ingrained in me some of my core ideals. He explained to me the nightlife industry is kind of a trap. People get into a certain habits that are hard to get out of with the money, hours, and fast paced lifestyle. One of the things he always stressed to me was ethics and integrity. That was something that I think has helped me get through life in general. Even before meeting him, honesty, integrity, and work ethic were an important part of who I was. I am always the person who goes the extra mile in any job that I’ve had. The position didn’t really matter I would work extra hours and no task was ever too big or too little for me. Andy Masi was the guy who taught me not accept roadblocks and figure out a way to make it happen. If I came to him with a problem, he would insist that I figure out a way to make it happen. That made me more resourceful and I delivered results. Sean Christie is another person I worked with from my early years. We worked together and planned on building and branding parties together.
XS has been a staple in Las Vegas nightlife. It’s been consistently ranked as one of the top club destinations in the world. What’s the strategy you executed to achieve such results and how do you go about adapting that strategy to keep XS on top?
We adapt and evolve constantly and that helps us stay ahead of everybody else. We are cutting edge. For example, we were the first ones to have a club with a pool involved. It’s 40,000 square feet and we have a great space being inside the Wynn. It’s very functional and built with quality. We were the first ones to go full force with the celebrity DJs. Everybody else dabbled. We booked Tiesto, DeadMau5, Skrillex, and Calvin Harris. We committed to it.
For us, and for me it’s a lifestyle, it’s not just a job, it’s a culture. Everything I do evolves around nightclubs, all my friends, everything that I think about, my vacations. Everything is about what’s next. How do I make a better club? When I go on vacation I’m looking at different bottle services, or gimmicks, or things that make a nightclub function. Most importantly what people like. When they say something to me, I have no ego, and take criticism and when people say something I try to fix or adapt. Steve Wynn is a driving force of perfection. Then the most important thing is that I have a great team around me. From the president of the hotel, to Sean Christie, to my personal team: from General managers, DJ bookers, the marketing team and my PR person, Erika.
One of the things I do well is give people space and room to grow. I’m also a perfectionist, but I don’t try and control every aspect. I listen to what people say and realize my employees and guests have great ideas and if it can help us do better than we go in that direction.
Can you tell us about the new renovation project that was just completed?
We added 14,000 new RGB LED lights, 12 Pyro Cannons, and a kabuki drop. We basically animated the club. Before it was segment lights which is basically mood lighting. This portrayed the beauty of what we had. It showed elegance by design. We were able to exaggerate all of this with these modern updates. I think the modernization today is driven by what DJs want which is animation and lighting. So you get a better understanding of the bigger picture. David Guetta was one of the people pushing for it. I think that Vegas is the most cutting edge right now when it comes to technology. If you go to EDC, TommorowWorld, or Ultra they use the same technology we use in nightclubs.
Light has some great stuff, as does Marquee, and Hakkasan, but what we wanted to do was top it.
Many nightclub owners and promoters claim to have very close relationships with their celebrity DJs, but it seems that you have actually developed genuine friendships. The top DJs want to come back to XS! For all of the up and coming nightclub managers, what tips can you share with them in building genuine professional and personal relationships?
For me I’ve known most of these guys before they were big DJs. I’ve known Tiesto for about 10 years or so. Deadmau5 when he when he was kind of big but not as big as he is now. Avicii was just referred to me as a friend of Tiesto. I was with Alesso at one of his first shows in America. For me I fostered these relationships before they were big and I wasn’t trying to latch on to something that was already there. In the beginning when they didn’t have a lot of friends and didn’t really know what was going on, I was there to give them direction. I was a genuine friend to them. I don’t ask them favors. I treat them like a friend, not an artist. I separate my business from these guys. If I need business done I call the agent, or the manager. I treat them like a genuine friend. These guys stay at my house. Alesso is in LA right now driving one of my cars. We do things like go on vacations together and we are genuine friends. I take them on guy things to do. I take them shooting guns, or racing cars, or on helicopter rides, things they want to do. I make time for them.
Like I said before this is not a job, it’s a lifestyle for me.
I’m available 24/7 for these guys because they are my friends. I text them and they text me, and sometimes its for personal favors. It’s a genuine friendship. I treat them like people. I don’t put them on a pedestal like they are a big celebrity and I don’t treat them like they work for me.
Both XS and Tryst are massive clubs with hundreds of staff including promoters, bottle girls, security, and management. It’s well known that the turnover rate for personnel in this industry is extremely high. How do you keep staff motivated and appreciated and help them excel?
We are like a family at the end of the day. We treat each other with respect. I make time for them and I’m there when they need me. For example, today I had an employee call to borrow some cash to buy a car and I was able to help. Small things like that carry weight with these guys. Then there are times when you need to have forgiveness when they make mistakes. It’s all about treating them like they are friends and family. At the end of the day they are.
My philosophy with our team is wanting them to work for me out of respect and not out of fear. This leads to people wanting to do things to make me happy. Likewise I try to make them happy and I go out of my way doing small things. An example is I say hi to everybody, everyday. When I get to the club I shake people’s hands and hug people. I’ve been in the business for 18 years. We encourage our people not to drink and save money. We encourage them to do positive things like stay fit. One of my managers, John Wood, teaches a fitness class similar to the Tough Mudder and probably a third of our staff goes to it. We also have outings together where the staff goes and hangs out together over dinner and vacations. We encourage that. The other thing is in Vegas nightclubs come and go and we’ve had Tryst open for almost 10 years and XS has been open for 6 years now. When people look at the big picture there is consistency with our formula and if they go somewhere else they are taking a chance. Other clubs have reputations for some of the bad things you hear of nightclubs.
Another thing that we do is get involved with various philanthrophies so that our staff has a sense of contributing to society at large.The Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center that provides clinical and hospital care and is a leader in research, education and health information.After School All Stars is something that I personally make donations toward and my team at XS/Tryst participate in the annual dodgeball tournament . It’s Elaine Wynn’s charity benefitting after-school programs for low-income children, and investing in the future is something we care about. We also have an annual toy drive and in 2014 we donated about $195,468 in toys. XS and Tryst staff members are consistently recognized as the largest donors to the Toy Drive.
A trend I’ve personally noticed across the country is that many promoters and venues today rely purely on DJs to market events. How does your team go about promotion other than utilizing celebrity DJs? In essence, what brings people back to XS and Tryst other than the DJ? How do you promote that?
It’s all about the experience and our biggest focus is treating customers like they are getting a certified 5-diamond treatment. We make them feel like they are a part of the show. We give them respect. We don’t have VIP areas other than the stage, but that’s for the DJ’s. We have a door that strives to treat people with respect. On the marketing side we focus on it being a top nightclub in the world. The whole marketing strategy is about longevity, branding, and staffing.
We have real faces to the club other than just the big DJ. Personally I try and be there constantly. There aren’t a lot of guys that run clubs that are there every night of the week.
At this point DJs are what’s driving business and the nightclubs are dependent on that. It’s a big part of what sells the experience. It’s probably 50/50. You have 3,000 people going to a nightclub but if you have a big DJ it’s 6,000 people. It does play a big part of the overall experience. There are a lot of different ways to market, but branding right now is definitely DJs.
In addition to that we have other cool aspects which people like. We have a 10K drink. One of our biggest parties each week is a called Night Swim and its locals and that draws about four to five thousand people. Alec Monopoly is our resident artist and we also have trap artists and rappers visit.
What are the characteristics you look for in your staff? How can someone go about building a career in the nightlife and casino industry? What does it take?
I don’t look for experience as much as I look for drive and passion. I think that it’s easier to steer someone in the right direction if they have that drive. There are different types of people in the world. Some want to move forward and succeed, and create things, versus the ones that just want to get by. I want people that want to advance and have big ideas and an overall vision.
I want the employee that wants to be bigger than a nightclub employee. They want everything.
There are different ways to build a career in the industry, but education is a big part. In Vegas it’s about getting in at the lower levels and just working your way up, just like any other job. But you definitely have to have a goal and vision in life. You have to know what you want and chase it. Anything is possible in Vegas. There are so many job opportunities since it’s such a transient city. It’s a trendy city and people come here with a two year plan. They go back home or move on or get caught up with all those bad habits people get caught up with. One of my biggest things, personally, is not drinking. I didn’t drink until I was 32 and I was in the heart of the nightclub business bartending, bar-backing, and promoting. Currently I don’t drink and haven’t for the past year. I never drank heavy or got into partying or clubbing. I was focused on the work side of it. It’s a big part of what gives me longevity and prevents me from burning out. I’ve been able to find a balance of where I can still have fun and be personable without drinking. It’s obviously a lot easier to do that while drinking and partying but doing it sober is more challenging.
How did you first attract the attention of Steve Wynn and get him to look at you as someone to work with?
I think Steve just recognized talent. He had a heard a lot about me and was intrigued. He didn’t understand the nightclub business at all when it first came to his resort. He was curious about the whole situation and we talked about how things work. He respected the work ethic and how we brought this whole new demographic to his resort. Now I’ve been with the Wynn Resorts for 10 years.
What does the future hold for Jesse Waits?
I think the evolution for people in the nightclub industry is hotels and hopefully I will be able to get into that.