At the Palms Casino, Jon Gray Talks $690M Renovation

LAS VEGAS—Meet Jon Gray, the youngest VP and GM on the Vegas Strip, who also just led one of the city’s most expensive renovations—a $690-million complete transformation of the Palms Casino Resort.

Gray has always had a love for Las Vegas. As a youngster growing up in Tonopah, a small town in the middle of Nevada, he was enamored with the bright lights of the big city during visits to see his grandparents.

“I have always enjoyed taking care of people and was fascinated with the movie Casino—thus moving to Vegas was the next logical step. I went to University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and started working at Bally’s at the front desk,” he said.

Today, he oversees gaming, entertainment, marketing and branding, guest experience, hotel operations, luxury suite sales, pool, nightlife and future project developments. With a renewed vision for Palms, Gray is ready to play an instrumental role in the reinvention and transformation of the resort, recently acquired by Station Casinos in 2016.

In a Q&A with Hotel Business, Gray talks about his career in hospitality and what’s next for the Palms.

What drew you to work at the Palms Casino Resort at 21?

I was in my last year at UNLV and several recruiters said to get as much opening experience as I could get. I had previously opened SkyLofts and the Wynn. The Palms was building a new tower. They had an assistant hotel manager position open and I applied. I was drawn to the energy of the property and the opportunity to get an additional opening experience prior to graduating.

What was the impetus for the new look?

The renovation was sparked by new ownership. In 2016, Station Casinos purchased the Palms and owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta had an incredible vision to transform the property. Some of the goals were to bring back the energy the Palms had during its peak years. It was fun, high-energy, offered great service, value for locals and was the epicenter of pop culture. We wanted to bring that back yet instill a more luxury experience.

What was it like to oversee this particular renovation?

I’ve been part of a few large-scale projects in Las Vegas, starting from my first time around at Palms building the Fantasy Tower, and then the subsequent Palms Place residential tower to building the Linq by Caesars Entertainment. However, the Palms renovation was easily one of the largest and most complex projects I’ve ever been a part of. One of the challenges was the Palms had gone through a rolling renovation, meaning we kept the resort open while we renovated virtually the entire property.

One of the most interesting aspects of the renovation was how we communicated with guests as we completed the renovation in phases. The biggest challenge we experienced while staying open during renovation was maintaining the guest experience throughout the construction. Communication to our staff and guests was critical throughout the renovation. Our marketing campaign “From Dust to Gold,” created by AKQA Portland and the Palms team, was launched in May 2018 and was the modern version of the message “pardon our dust.”

We came out strong with a message that made it very clear to consumers that we have amazing amenities complete and now open—Scotch 80 Prime, Apex Social Club and the Unknown—but we’re still working on a lot more to come such as new guestrooms, suites, restaurants and KAOS, our new pool and day club. The message resonated with the market, and we set the expectations with our guests all while signaling the Palms would be entering the luxury resort tier.

Where do you want to take the Palms Casino Resort in the future?

The vision really came from owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta. It has been incredible working for them and to be part of the team dreaming and executing the vision. Our complete transformation took course over two years at a cost of $690 million and will be complete this September.

We’ve added all new rooms and suites, including the most expensive hotel suite in the world, designed by Damien Hirst, as well as new restaurants by celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Michael Symon and Marc Vetri. Palms is also home to exclusive residences in both our newly renovated Pearl Concert Theater and all new day club and nightclub, Kaos. Those acts range from Lady Antebellum, Cardi B., J Balvin, Billy Idol, and more. We’ve also unveiled one of the most extensive collections of modern and blue-chip art outside of a museum. We have a lot of amazing ideas for the future and I am excited to see where we take the Palms.

Please share what you think is the current state of hospitality.

I think there is more competition than ever in the hospitality industry and the ultimate benefactor of that is the guest. People want experiences over things, and there is no shortage of experiences around the world. From new festivals popping up every year to incredible experiences you can book right on your phone, amazing experiences all over the world have never been more accessible. With that comes pressure to create new experiences every day for your guest. We have to keep pushing new experiences through our doors and beyond. The guest wants to connect with our team beyond their trip, so we have to continue to obsess over the pre- and post-journey and enhance those touchpoints.