Las Vegas was in Jon Gray’s blood long before he became the GM of the Las Vegas Palms Casino Resort—and one of the youngest GMs in the city. As a child in central Nevada, he would visit his grandparents in the city, and loved walking up and down the Strip, admiring the casino lights. As a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he worked the graveyard shift as a front-desk clerk at Bally’s—and found himself bit by the hospitality bug. “I knew that it was something that I wanted to continue to pursue,” he said. He started studying hospitality management, but since he was getting experience in that field through his night job, he changed tracks and earned his bachelor’s degree in business management instead.
But even studying business at UNLV meant studying how hotels operate. “Hospitality is such a big part of the school program that you're kind of exposed to it indirectly, anyway.” he said. Working full-time and studying full-time gave him the “best of both worlds,” and he learned quickly about many different facets of the industry. “The front desk is the best way to really experience hospitality,” he said. “You deal with so much, from billing to guest service to [all of] Las Vegas.”
By his senior year, Gray estimates that he was working about 60 hours per week—a “baptism by fire,” as he recalls it. He opened Wynn Las Vegas as a front-desk clerk, where he met George Maloof, at the time a minority owner of the 703-room Palms Casino Resort, with whom the aspiring hotelier built a relationship, and who offered him a job after graduation.
Just out of college, Gray began developing the Palms’ Fantasy Suites—at the time, a fairly new concept to Las Vegas. “[Maloof] saw an opportunity to charge premium rates for the big suites,” Gray said, noting that most casinos kept their top suites reserved for high rollers on the gaming floor. “The properties would rather the suites sat empty just on the hope that a big player might show up versus selling them for cash rates,” he recalled. Shifting the idea of what a top-tier hotel suite could be, Gray helped develop the Suites’ pricing structure and butler program. “I became the gatekeeper of those suites between cash-paying guests and casino guests.”
By this point, Gray was working 100-hour weeks, and moved into the complex at the residential Palms Place tower when it opened in 2008. “Work was the blood in my life,” he said of those early years at Palms. “I loved the people here, and I think that was a testament to [Maloof] and the other people that he surrounded himself with at the property. I didn't ever want to let any of them down.”
After six years of rising through the ranks at Palms, Gray was ready for a change, and found an opportunity at Caesars Entertainment, where he opened the Linq hotel and spent almost two years as VP of marketing, GM and head of global nightlife. “To be able to kind of put your fingerprint and be part of the DNA of the Strip was something that was really exciting,” he said. He also was interested in learning about a corporate hotel culture. At Linq, Gray learned about how to set up leases with retail tenants and balance the property’s F&B options while also overseeing the development of the now-iconic High Roller observation wheel.
But then another opportunity appeared, and the lifelong Nevada citizen was lured away from the place he had called home for decades. As a big sports fan, Gray had a large collection of Nike shoes, and the company offered him a position in Oregon as senior director of its global member programs. Nike, Gray recalled, wanted his expertise in customer service and in data analytics. “I got to help create a membership program and to create profiles and really personalize the Nike experience for every customer,” he said. “I really was excited to go learn about a global brand that really puts the brand first—and the customer, obviously—and to understand the power of brand and how to take what I learned from how to operate within a corporate environment to the next degree, which is, obviously, a much larger company,” he said. Gray spent the better part of three years at Nike, visiting offices all around the world and continuing his global education—and then a phone call brought Palms back to his life.
Brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertita had been minority owners in Palms when Gray worked there, and acquired the Palms for $312.5 million in 2016 under their Station Casinos corporation. They reached out to their old friend and offered him the chance to come home again. The opportunity to apply the lessons he had learned at Nike to his old stomping grounds was too good to pass up, and at age 32 Gray returned to Las Vegas as the Palms’ new general manager—and one of the youngest general managers in the city. It is a title he still holds after almost two years on the job.
His youth, Gray believes, is an asset to the Palms’ team, which includes a range of professionals with varying degrees of experience in the industry. “I'm probably the age of the core demo, and so I understand what [that] customer's looking for,” he said. “I’ve got Frankie on the team who's 23 years old and he knows exactly what that the younger Vegas consumer is coming in and looking for. And I've got some folks on the team that are in their 60s that remember what the Palms was and bring great insight and input to what the older demographic would be looking for.”
Ultimately, Gray is glad to be back at the Palms and to be driving its growth. “I love the vision for the Palms and love the opportunity to take a place that's so special to me and to infuse some capital into it and bring it back to life,” he said. “They're putting a lot into this and I never want to let them down—so there's that pressure. But the team that we've assembled here really takes a lot of that pressure off.”
The Palms is currently in the middle of a $620-million top-to-bottom renovation—and is remaining open throughout. “Keeping the property open while you basically build a new property is certainly a challenge that is unique,” Gray said. “We have several hundred team members that have been here since day one, since 2001, and so we certainly didn't want to close the doors and lose that great talent that we have here and the reputation we built.”
Surround yourself with great people and allow those folks to to make the decisions and do the work that they're capable of doing. Inspect what you expect, for sure, but definitely let your team run.
Jon Gray's Secrets for Success
Listen to your mentors. Mentorship comes every day, whether you're looking for it or not. It comes from the line level all the way up to the chairman of the company and other peers that work in the industry and outside of the industry. Always find inspiration every day and keep your eyes open. I've learned a lot from a lot of great people and learn a lot every day.
Work hard. ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get’ is certainly a mantra that I live by, and it seems to be working so far.
Communicate. Make sure that you're communicating up, across and down. That's critical. And make sure that no one is more important than the other. You have to make sure that everyone's on the same page and shares the vision.