The Sorcerer of Linq Alley

They’re calling Jon Gray the ‘mayor’ of Caesars Entertainment’s half-billion dollar project. But can he conjure an urban vibe?

Caesars Entertainment has promised that when Linq opens in 2013, it will be one of a kind. Shopping! Dining! Entertainment! A giant observation wheel! Of course, you don’t have to walk far on the Strip to find places to shop, eat or be entertained. And if all goes according to Howard Bulloch’s schedule, the equally massive Skyvue observation wheel will already be open by the time Linq’s High Roller wheel takes its first spin.

So, what’s going to make Linq different?

For one, the $550 million shopping and entertainment district between the Flamingo and (for now) Imperial Palace will have its own mayor.

Admittedly, the idea of a private business having a mayor—Foursquare notwithstanding—calls to mind a mascot more than an executive. But Jon Gray, the guy Caesars Entertainment has tapped for the post, is no Mayor McCheese. He’s considered one of the fastest-rising stars in the Las Vegas hospitality business. If there’s anyone who can rock the “mayor” title without losing credibility as vice president and general manager of Linq (his official title), it’s a man who has spent much of the past decade learning the business from one of the best.

Gray, a 28-year-old Tonopah native, started working behind hotel front desks in 2002 while attending UNLV. Recruiters told him that opening a hotel was his best shot at getting ahead, so he helped open Wynn Las Vegas. In his senior year, he landed a job at the Palms as assistant hotel manager, running front services on his shift. Palms founder George Maloof would call frequently to get the latest occupancy numbers and guest check-ins. Maloof started to get used to Gray answering the phone, so Gray felt comfortable enough to ask the boss if he had any more responsibilities he’d like to give him. Maloof put him in charge of the Fantasy Suites, the signature attraction for the about-to-open Fantasy Tower.

“That’s where it really started,” says Gray of Maloof’s mentoring. “Because of the guests we had, I became by default his go-to guy for lots of things.” Before long, he was taking on more, including the MTV Video Music Awards, NHL Awards, and many other special events while getting a daily lesson in how to run a Las Vegas resort.

“George would call me when a light was out,” Gray says. “I loved it. He could have called maintenance himself, but he wanted me to see how an owner sees—why that light is important. He got me involved with marketing, sales, operations, HR, and IT. I owe him all my success.”

Maloof credits Gray’s work ethic and follow-through for his quick rise through the ranks at the Palms. “You don’t have to tell him anything twice. More than anything, the thing that sets Jon apart is that he’s not just going to sit back and wait for things to happen. He’s very aggressive. He was always asking what more he can do.”

When TPG Capital and Leonard Green acquired the Palms in 2011, Gray moved over to the N-M Ventures, which runs the N9NE Group restaurants and nightclubs at the Palms. Then Caesars offered Gray an opportunity to help reshape the city he’s been drawn to since childhood.

“There’s no single place in Las Vegas with a critical mass of dining and entertainment and retail that appeals to people from all walks of life,” Gray says. Right now, he’s tight-lipped on Linq details—the tenant list isn’t settled yet. But his passion for the project is convincing.

“I want it to be something for everyone,” he says, “a place where you can meet business friends for a drink, have a bachelor party, have a girls night out, take a date, as well as a place you take the family for the High Roller. It’s going to be the place where everyone meets—”

Yes, but what’s the twist?

At last, the mayor pulls back the curtain—just a little.

“There are 8 acres behind the High Roller that we’re going to play with,” he says. “We’ll have street festivals, concerts, fights … we’re already working with partners, and we’ve got some cool ideas for the space.”

That’s part of the promise of Linq—the somewhat risky attempt to engineer an urban vibe (mayor and all). If the engineering works, it might put Linq over the top. And those 8 acres might push it even further if they end up including a full-fledged arena.

Caesars has a lot riding on Linq: The company’s debt load isn’t shrinking, and it needs to get the most out of its huge Strip portfolio. Which might be why the project needs a mayor. Gray says the title reflects his role as a facilitator, helping tenants fit into the development and helping Linq drive business to Caesars’ surrounding casinos.

So is Gray up to the challenge? Christopher Hammett, managing director of The Procierge, a concierge and lifestyle marketing firm, worked with Gray at Wynn and has followed his career since. “With all of the projects he’s done at the Palms as George’s right hand, he’s more than capable of helping Caesars elevate its brand. He can really connect with people, and with so many businesses involved, he’ll be right in his element. He’s got the technical knowledge to execute it as well.”

And what does Maloof think of his former student’s new role?

“He’s very flexible, he’s willing to learn, and he’s able to work on the fly. He’ll do great.”