“She’s like my child, you know?”, laughs Jesse Waits as he takes a moment out of our call to check on his dog, Lola.
We’d just been discussing the way an average working day looked for him when he was still working 12-hour days as a key player within Las Vegas’ vibrant nightclub scene. As he answers my questions over Zoom from his home in Bali, it’s clear that his lifestyle is very different these days.
Having grown up in an area of Hawaii where there were few opportunities for work, much less any kind of nightlife, few could have predicted the career path that he’d eventually take. Less than a decade after leaving behind his former home, which he describes as being ‘way out in the jungle’, he would be making millions of dollars a year at the helm of some of Sin City’s most iconic party spots.
It all started after a visit to friends in Vegas left Jesse craving a drastic change of pace, astounded by just how different the city was from his own surroundings at the time. Keen to expand his horizons, he explains to me that he set out to his new life with little idea of what he was going out there to do.
“I was just like ‘I’m gonna go to Vegas’,” he says, “So, when I was 21, I moved out there with my dog, a duffle bag and a little bit of money.”
After setting up home in the city, he soon landed his first job as a snowboarding instructor, soon moving on from this role to take on a position as a host at Planet Hollywood. For someone who had led something of a sheltered life, such a customer-focused job required Jesse to come out of his comfort zone in a way he hadn’t needed to before, though he soon found himself thriving in this environment.
“I was very much an introvert and the job helped me a lot with people because I was constantly forced to talk to people eye-to-eye,” he explains.
“It put me in the right position to get into hospitality. I just kept my nose down and worked really hard.”
Catching on to the amount of money to be made in Las Vegas’ restaurant and bar scene, Jesse soon began putting in extra hours to maximise his earnings and work his way up to promotion after promotion. It wasn’t long before he was training new hosts at his workplace, then working behind the bar (which, he tells me, is where the real money is made, should you find yourself looking for work in Vegas), then hosting the VIPs that paid Planet Hollywood a visit.
Soon, he was promoting his own nights and taking on management work.
Despite his fairly accelerated rise to these high-ranking positions within his workplace, Jesse had started to feel like it was time to move onto something bigger, driven by a desire to make his way to the top.
“I didn’t finish high school and I never went to college,” he tells me, “But I was so focused on becoming a success. I worked every extra hour that I could.”
Those extra hours soon led to a position at Light, a nightclub at The Bellagio Hotel – as one of the first of the city’s clubs to put heavy emphasis on private booths, VIP guest lists and premium bottle service, The Bellagio’s celebrity hotspot was the place to be if you were looking to build connections. Unsurprising, then, that Jesse’s hard work soon caught the attention of Vegas nightlife entrepreneur Victor Drai.
Drai was the man behind one of Vegas’ many afterhours clubs, where those who had already hit the party scene hard that evening would head to wind down past dawn. At the time, such clubs had a reputation for being darker, almost seedy kinds of places. Taking over as general manager, Jesse immediately set about creating a friendlier feeling at Drai’s spot – a mission he soon accomplished.
Impressed by his work ethic and strong ideas, Drai decided to partner up with Jesse, going into business with both Jesse and his brother, another familiar face on the nightclub scene at the time. Their first project came in the form of rebranding La Bete at The Wynn Hotel – following millions of dollars of investment and months of hard work, the trio re-opened the nightspot, now operating under the name Tryst.
It didn’t take long for Tryst, which had been struggling financially in the years before the rebrand, to become one of the city’s most iconic nightclubs.
“We were doing crazy numbers,” Jesse reminisces, as we discuss his flagship project. “It was like $40 million, $50 million a year.”
Given how successful his work at Tryst had been, it’s easy to see why Wynn Hotel owner Steve Wynn wanted to bring Jesse and co. on-board to reform further venues within his vast nightlife portfolio. Next on the list? Encore at The Wynn, soon given an entirely new look and rebranded as XS.
Jesse was always determined that the project was going to be yet another huge success – in part due to the doubts he’d heard around Las Vegas regarding his relentless work on the nightlife scene, despite the economic situation in the US at the time. The year was 2008 and many couldn’t understand why any experienced figure within the industry would even attempt to open a mega-club like XS during such tough financial times.
“First, people were criticising us at Tryst,” Jesse says, “They were like ‘Oh, these afterhours guys are never going to run a successful nightclub’.”
“Then we opened XS, which was the biggest nightclub in Vegas, and people were saying ‘Oh, they got lucky with the first one’ and ‘We’re in the middle of a recession, these guys are going to fail, it’s crazy what they’re doing!’”
When it finally came to opening night, ‘crazy’ was certainly the right word to use. Jesse describes the situation that evening, recalling traffic at a standstill for hours along the strip due to the sheer volume of people outside the nightclub – he even remembers the police being present by way of crowd control.
It was the first wildly successful night of many for XS, which has since gone on to win a string of highly-coveted nightlife awards.
With his nightlife empire thriving, Jesse’s attention had turned to a growing musical movement within the city, which he felt could be a game-changer for Vegas’ nightlife scene – house music, with the genre’s top DJs booked to perform at the clubs in person.
House music was nothing new in itself, though the genre had been going through something of a renaissance at the time, with former big hitters being increasingly overshadowed by up-and-coming DJs with a new, often experimental sound.
“At first, I was like ‘What the fuck is this? It’s the same thing over and over again!’,” laughs Jesse, recalling his first impressions of house music before he fell in love with the genre for himself.
“Then I started to recognise the different vibes and the journey it would take you on. I loved the female vocals mostly. It was brainwashing me – eventually, I just loved house music.”
Jesse and everyone else, it appeared. With these new names on the scene becoming increasingly popular across the world, Jesse decided that it was time to get some of the genre’s key players on stage at his clubs. His business partners, however, weren’t so sure.
“I was a big fan of these DJs, which Victor did not agree with.”
Despite pushback from his partner, Jesse was determined that this was the way to go. Forced to justify his ideas by presenting partners with the statistics and figures of different DJs – how many views they were getting on YouTube, how many followers they had on social media, etc. – Jesse was constantly researching the genre’s biggest and most promising names.
Eventually, Jesse wore down his colleagues – and immediately got to booking every DJ he could to perform at his clubs, desperately hoping that the risk would pay off.
“It was The Wild West back then,” he says, as we discuss the money that exchanged hands between DJs and clubs at the time. “You didn’t know anything about anyone.”
The problem – and part of the reason for Victor and Steve’s reluctance to back the idea – was that there was no ‘standard rate’ paid for live DJs in Vegas at the time, especially when it came to the DJs that Jesse was interested in securing for his own venues.
Despite this, he immediately set about booking sets from many of the biggest names in house, describing how this new movement meant that club owners were ‘taking chances’ on DJs without knowing whether or not this would prove successful.
“We started going crazy and just booking like twenty-five DJs a year,” he tells me, “I was booking everybody under the sun, basically.”
With ‘everybody under the sun’ being brought in to spin a set, you might imagine that the majority of DJs appearing at the club weren’t entirely memorable, but this was Vegas – and this was one of Vegas’ premier nightclubs. The DJs here were in a league of their own, with David Guetta, Afrojack, Swedish House Mafia and more each putting in an appearance at the booth.
It’ll likely come as a shock to nobody that this was yet another success for Jesse. In fact, it was the catalyst in turning Jesse into the biggest key player amongst the Las Vegas’ nightlife scene.
“I was the biggest nightclub guy at the time,” he tells me, “We were doing the biggest numbers, too – it was like $100,000,000 a year.”
XS became a hotspot for the rich and famous in Las Vegas. Each night was a ‘Who’s who?’ of VIPs, with everyone from Tom Hardy to Nick Hoult to Warren Buffett stepping in to enjoy the party.
As the man to know when it came to DJs who were looking to make a name for themselves in the city, Jesse came to count many of the biggest names in house music as some of his closest friends. During our conversation, he recounts stories of the ‘crazy after-parties’ he held at his luxurious four-bedroom penthouse next to the W, spending many an evening with the likes of Afrojack, Steve Aoki and Aviicii (who, Jesse recalls, was ‘The nicest guy you’d ever meet’).
In fact, Jesse’s penthouse became something of a home-from-home for these star performers.
Does he think that the close bonds he formed with the DJs who played at his clubs contributed to the success of these venues?
“Absolutely,” he says, but elaborates that he benefited from these friendships just as much.
“It’s what kept me in touch with everything, you know?”
“I had a BBQ at my place every year for the 4th of July and the DJs would come over and we’d BBQ together. That was just my circle.”
Despite the fun and the close bonds formed through his work, however, it also meant that the lines between Jesse’s business and personal life had started to blur. I read an excerpt from the short biography that appears under his name on the Nightclub Hall Of Fame that echoes this statement: ‘It’s apparent that Jesse’s business and personal life have become one and the same.’
Does he agree with this observation?
“Everything I do is just a part of me,” he responds.
“All of my friends were from nightlife or had something to do with my career. It wasn’t because I was obsessed with popularity, I was just obsessed with being successful. I wanted to be everything for everybody.”
However, a drive to be everything for everybody meant that Jesse was stretched pretty thin at the height of his career in Las Vegas. As we discuss what an average working day looked like during this period, he describes days of endless meetings, assisting with everything from music to design to marketing, stealing a short nap in his office before heading to the club.
That was generally where he’d spend the rest of night, leaving at around 4am, getting into bed at 5am and being up no more than a couple of hours later to do it all again.
“It was the same thing every day,” he says.
“Even if the club was closed, I’d still be doing meetings every day. I had two phones and I was using both of them all of the time – I was addicted to my phones. I was answering every single person, no matter who they were.”
To make matters all the more frustrating, rival clubs had started to step it up when it came to booking DJs. Jesse describes a ‘price war’ for big name performers, with different clubs fighting to offer DJs millions of dollars in the hope of securing their services on stage for the evening. Eventually, it became a little too much.
Ready to take a step back from the industry – recalling that he’d started to feel like a ‘corporate machine’ – Jesse decided to relocate to Los Angeles for a change of pace. He described his time in LA as feeling a lot like the dorm days that he’d never had the chance to experience.
“In LA,” he says, “It was like ‘Nobody works here, everybody’s free all the time’. Everybody was just hanging out and having fun. It was a fun culture.”
However, for someone so acquainted with working around the clock, the fun only lasts so long.
“I was drinking and partying but, eventually, it was like ‘I need to fucking do something with my life’.”
While there would likely have been an open door for Jesse to return to Las Vegas and pick up where he left off, he decided to take things in a different direction entirely – that’s how he ended up in his current home in Bali.
Having visited with friends previously, he was aware that Bali could offer the best of both worlds. It was a haven for those who wanted space to relax and immerse themselves in a range of different hobbies and interests, but also presented opportunities to carry on his work in hospitality. Bali is a favourite of the jet-set, as popular as other luxury destinations such as Mykonos, Ibiza and St. Tropez, yet lacks the same vibrant nightlife, lounge and restaurant scene – that’s something Jesse wants to change.
Hospitality, he explains, is in his blood. That’s why he’s teamed up with a new business partner and splits his time spent exploring interests such as surfing (‘I hadn’t surfed since I lived in Hawaii!’, he laughs) and jiu-jitsu with his work on developing and opening restaurants and bars in the area.
“‘I think I took the break that I wanted, but I like working a lot. I like to stay busy.’”
He makes it clear, however, that he’s not looking for a return to the ‘all work, no play’ lifestyle he often embodied in Las Vegas.
“‘I’m not trying to replicate anything,” he explains, “I feel like I want to just do something that would make sense for Bali and for the people here.”
“The biggest thing for me now is getting my mind and body healthy again and finding balance.”
You can follow Jesse Waits on Instagram here.