Jesse Waits, Into the Life

NIGHTLIFE MOGUL JESSE WAITS NEVER sits down in XS, the $90-million club he co-owns and manages inside Encore Las Vegas. At least not for the three hours I end up shadowing him on a Friday night when 7,000 people pack the club.

Waits is constantly in motion, checking his BlackBerry, responding to messages regarding every aspect of his electronic music-enhanced operation – security concerns, VIP requests, etc. He deals with each issue promptly, calmly, in person.

Updates occasionally arrive from BlackBerry-strapped staff just a few yards away. In the fray of the 40,000-square-foot dance venue that Nightclub & Bar magazine ranked No. 1 in the world in its 2011 Top 100 list, it’s often hard to tell who’s standing next to you.

Still, Waits sees all. I catch him standing behind an employee who’s scanning the club in search of his boss. Waits politely opts to wait for the guy to turn around rather than tap him.

Waits intimately knows every corner of XS. A tailor-suited, golden-boy baron overlooking his nightlife estate, he’s vigilant in paying attention to every aspect of the venue as undulating partiers dance to house music into the early morning hours.

“It wasn’t meant to be this way; this wasn’t my plan,” he told me earlier that evening when we stepped outside the club to chat in comparative quiet as the admission queue was snaking down Encore Esplanade. “I came to Vegas on a mission – to be successful at something, anything. I wanted my life to have purpose. Honestly I’d be just as happy being a snowboard instructor.”

Waits left Hawaii for Vegas in 1996. Early on he visited Mt. Charleston and fell in love with the snowboarding scene. As co-workers prepared to work the summer on the Strip they insisted that, given his looks and reservedly-friendly demeanor, he’d make an ideal bartender and earn a serious paycheck.

He took their advice, eventually working every position in the industry at several clubs in Vegas – bartender, promoter, GM. “I went through the ranks and it basically evolved into this,” he says, waving his arm to indicate the packed, surreally-pleasurable dance floor. “It’s been a fun journey.”

Press him and he’ll admit he always had a strategy. “Okay, I daydreamed as a kid,” he says. “I didn’t read self-help books or The Art of War. I literally wrote my own playbook for the future.”

Indeed, Waits had a lot of time to surf and think about the shape of things to come. At one point he was living in L.A., taking college classes and bussing tables. His parents, whom he describes as big music fans, instilled the value of being content with work. “Work is such a big part of life,” he says. “My folks urged me to be satisfied at the end of every day. Whatever job I’ve had, I’ve lived it. Even digging fence-post holes. I’d dig the best I could. I love to make people happy, to see others happy.”

In 2001 Waits went to work for his first real mentor at the after-hours nightclub Drai’s. Waits and twin brother Cy accompanied Victor Drai in 2005 when Steve Wynn invited Drai to help reimagine an existing nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas. Tryst was so successful that Wynn put the trio at the helm of XS when Encore opened in 2008. Drai left the partnership in 2010, but Waits stayed on.

Waits says nightclubs are a passion, not a job. Still, when he takes a (brief) vacation, he seeks out nature, “quiet places,” where he can detox. Music is always nearby. “I never learned to play an instrument,” he says. “But my father was always strumming a guitar; whenever the radio was on in the car he’d quiz me about everything from The Doors to Grateful Dead. At seven years old, I knew every song – Beatles, Badfinger, Three Dog Night. I’ve always loved music because of my parents.”

His enthusiasm carries over into the music at XS, known for its stellar DJ lineup.  This past New Year’s Eve featured an incredible array of electronic artists, and Waits’ 10-person talent-booking team has never been busier. They’ve taken risks in securing 30 internationally-acclaimed DJs for 2012. “If a DJ is hot and brings concert-level energy,” Waits says, “we’ll book that person.”

The same could be said of his hiring methods; the XS staff is super-friendly to customers, detail-oriented and, most evidently, loyal to Waits. “I try to lead by encouragement, not fear. I create a family around me so that our team wants to make us proud. Everyone wants to shine, so why not help them?”

Does Waits’ ongoing success indicate that nightclubs, done right, are recession-proof? “Clubs and bars will always be successful. Having a good time and socializing – spending a $100 a night or whatever your budget is – is what this is all about. You want to enjoy a drink and meet that girl or guy who’s going to change your life.”

Does he intend on making any changes in his life?

“No,” he laughs. “I’m young, just a kid at heart. Besides, I have a few more industry-related goals on the horizon I need to take care of first.” With that he walks back into the darkness and swirling masses, back into the passion. Back into the life.

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Jessie Waits.