They say you can never go home again, but it turns out, that’s not true in Las Vegas.
In late 2014, UNLV business management graduate Jon Gray left town for a job with Nike in Portland. Up to that point, he’d been climbing the career ladder in Las Vegas: progressively greater responsibilities at George Maloof’s Palms Casino Resort, followed by a term as general manager and vice president at Caesars Entertainment putting together the Linq Promenade.
Working with Nike gave Gray some perspective on life outside of Las Vegas and new insights into how to build—and maintain—a global brand, but when Rich Haskins, president of Station Casinos, called to ask him if he’d be interested in coming back, not just to Las Vegas, but to Palms, he was sold. There was one call, though, he had to make.
“I called George [Maloof, founder of Palms] right away. He said, ‘You’re the right guy for the job. If anyone can bring Palms back, it’s you and the Fertittas [brothers Frank and Lorenzo are the chairman and director of Red Rock Resorts, owner of Palms and Station Casinos].’” So, earlier this year, Gray, who started in the hospitality industry behind the front desk, returned to Palms as general manager and vice president.
In fact, Gray and Maloof continue to talk regularly about Palms: “He offers his advice, tells me what he wished he could have done with the property,” Gray says. “I’m honored to have him as a friend and mentor.”
It turns out there is no shortage of people whose counsel Gray appreciates. He sometimes speaks with his former bosses at Nike and mentions former Palms president Jim Hughes as well as Joe Hasson, Staci Alonso, Rich Haskins, Stephen Cootey and Glen Bashore of Station Casinos as giving him guidance. Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta have been superb as well, sharing both their deep knowledge of the casino industry and their vision for their latest acquisition.
It’s a vision that Gray wholeheartedly embraces, one of a casino run by passionate people who are “hyperobsessive” about the guest experience. Other casinos in the Strip corridor can offer more options to more guests, but management can be removed from the customer; Palms, Gray thinks, has to be about people who care and who are physically present. “That trickles,” he says, “down to every aspect of the property.”
Gray had a homecoming that made him feel like he never left: He still sees Manny, Darryl and Ricky at the bell desk, and Ronnie in the Public Area Department wasted no time in returning to one of his favorite topics, the Buffalo Bills. On seeing Gray for the first time in years, the first thing he wanted to discuss was the Bills’ latest draft, which Ronnie thinks has set them up for NFL dominance. That kind of easy rapport is one thing, Gray says, that has always made Palms stand out.
In the old days, Gray says, “What made this place home was that people knew that George was here. If something happened, someone cared.”
Gray has returned to a property that feels like a microcosm—the wild ride that has been Las Vegas of the past decade. Palms, after its 2001 opening, became one of the hottest resorts in town despite its small size and off-Strip location. A starring role in MTV’s Real World and the successful rollout of one of the city’s early casino-nightclub scenes made it a must-visit for many. That success fed an unfortunately timed growth spurt that added Palms Place Condo-Hotel and Spa just as the recession was hitting its worst stretch. In 2011, the Maloof family relinquished their control of the property.
During the next five years Palms was owned primarily by private equity, and it suffered from a loss of focus: The casino that once offered the best of both worlds to locals and visitors drifted from its roots. Since Station Casinos bought it last year, it’s made restoring Palms’ luster a top priority.
Visiting Palms now, you can’t help but notice many construction walls; much of the casino is being renovated and they are making way for an all-new buffet. We can see a tip of the iceberg of Palms’ future in the newly opened Lucky Penny Café. What has taken the place of the former 24 Seven Café isn’t a reskinned Grand Café at Red Rock Resort but rather an unpretentious dining space that, like the menu, is equal parts comforting and cool.
Gray is mum for now on much of the ongoing work at Palms, but he says that entertainment will be “a massive pillar” of the new Palms, pointing out a recent three-show weekend at The Pearl. A first-phase $146 million development plan will be completed by second quarter 2018. Changes will include: two new restaurants, upgrades to the movie theaters, renovation to the convention/meeting space, a new high-limit area and lounge, a new hotel registration and VIP check-in and a new low-rise exterior facade along with porte cochere and landscaping improvements.
Returning to Las Vegas with a global perspective thanks to his Nike globe-trotting, Gray also has a greater appreciation for his hometown.
“When I came back,” Gray says, “I wanted to be more involved in the community.” He is now on the board of the Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada, and his wife and children are involved in several volunteer projects. So while Gray will definitely help change the game at Palms, he and his family will also have an impact far beyond the casino floor.