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October 25, 2014

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Q+A: XS’ Jesse Waits talks club’s evolution, challenges ahead of fifth anniversary

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Danny Mahoney/XS Nightclub

Confetti showers on XS guests during Eric Prydz’s Black Dice set.

It seems like only yesterday XS was celebrating its second anniversary with a promising young DJ called Deadmau5. This Saturday, the Wynn’s nightlife juggernaut marks its fifth year in Las Vegas, and is showing no sign of slowing. While the milestone is a feat for just about any club amidst the rapid turnover and changing trends of Las Vegas’ nightlife scene, XS has maintained a level of popularity -- and revenue -- that most clubs relinquish after a couple years in the game. We spoke with XS Managing Partner and local nightlife veteran Jesse Waits, who has been with the club since its inception, about XS’ evolution, challenges and plans for the future.

Age is double-edged sword for nightclubs in Vegas. It can speak to a club’s staying power, but it also presents new challenges for how to endure. What does it mean for a club like XS to hit five years?

It’s a big deal. There are a few clubs that are older, Tryst is going on nine years, Tao is going on nine years. Studio 54 was at ten or 11 years I think. So it’s not age so much as still being the number one club, or the most relevant club, that’s a big deal. I think typically the shelf life for a nightclub to be relevant is three years. For us to exceed that is a big deal, and I think people recognize that and appreciate it.

To what do you attribute its longevity?

One of the biggest things is being in the Wynn, because it’s its own brand, it’s Steve’s brand and his standards. It’s also the way that the club is built. It was built far in advance of everything else, it was the first club to have a pool involved in it and a unified indoor-outdoor space. I think it was also changing with the music. In year three, where we were peaked out and it usually goes down, we evolved into dance music. It changed our brand, basically. It changed our club -- the way it looked, the way it felt, the entire experience. We went from being just a really nice, beautiful club in Las Vegas without a real buzz to the hottest EDM club in the country. And it changed all of Vegas. I think the perception of Vegas before EDM was that it wasn’t recognized as one of the better places to go for nightlife.

How did the club rebound after Victor Drai’s departure? Did that open the opportunity to change the club’s programming and bring in some of these DJs he said he wasn’t interested in?

Victor is amazing at a lot of things and I have a lot of respect for him, and his leaving made a lot of changes for me. It made things difficult in a lot of ways that I wasn’t ready for at the time, but I think that was one of the turning points. He did not believe in DJs. So him not being there did open up doors to having artists come in. I can’t say that we would’ve not gone past three years of being the hot club, but I believe that the DJs contributed to the success of the five years.

Tell me more about how and why you made the decision to change the club’s programming and to start bringing in these big names.

When I worked with Victor at Drai’s -- we worked together for like nine years -- throughout our relationship there, he had the same beliefs -- he didn’t believe in DJs. (He believed) that paying a big DJ, you should pay minimal. Because I was in the mix everyday, and because I had worked at House of Blues before that and we were all about talent, it was just my culture. So I believed in it. I had booked someone like Kaskade at Drai’s before anyone knew who he was. I booked Paul Oakenfold. When I would get them, I would have a sponsor come in and pay them on the back end without Victor really knowing. I would only do it on big weekends where we’d get a lot of people from out of town, because the East Coast crowd were always bigger fans of EDM than the West Coast. So it was my biggest opportunity to make money on these nights. I still don’t think Victor recognized that it was the DJs, I felt he thought it was his club or his brand (that was the draw). So when we opened up XS, we opened the Sunday nights as EDM only, again without him really even knowing that we’re doing it, because of sponsors paying for it. When he left, I kind of already felt there was a big draw for these EDM artists. Marquee was just opening and they had just started programing those artist as well. About two months after they opened, we booked Deadmau5 for our second year anniversary, and it was one of our biggest nights we’ve ever had at XS, revenue-wise. So that helped the resort open up their eyes to EDM as well, and they gave me the green light to basically do what I wanted as far as booking. Then throughout the whole year I just studied all the DJs and artists and did my homework on who I thought would be the best, biggest artist, along with Sean Christie (Operating Partner of Surrender and Encore Beach Club), and together we pulled together this all-star roster of 36 of the best DJs. Which included Deadmau5, Tiesto, Skrillex, Aviici, Guetta, Steve Angello, Sebastian Ingrosso, Axwell. I mean, every artist you can think of, before they were big and being broken at the time. We had Afrojack before he even had any songs out.

As Vegas nightlife has evolved, what have been the biggest challenges XS has faced? What challenges does it face going forward?

A couple years ago, there were only a couple mega-clubs in town, Marquee and XS. Now everything has turned into a big club atmosphere and everyone wants to go to big clubs with three- to six-thousand people. The challenge now is that it’s a fractured business. People are spread among several clubs instead of one big club being full all the time. At the end of the day, I believe it’s gonna be quality that people come back to -- the best experience they have -- but when you have all these big nightclubs opening, it’s taking a chunk out of all the nightclubs. I think there are like eight nightclubs closing this year. So the big clubs are really taking a toll on everything.

So then how do you tackle that challenge?

This year, instead of doing DJs who might cost less or have less draw, I had to go and book more of the biggest DJs more frequently. I had Guetta 12 times last year, I’m doing him 20 times this year. With Avicii I had him 10 times last year, I’m doing 18 this year. Same thing with Kaskade, Zedd, Skrillex. It’s the headliner power, and investing in production and staying ahead of everyone else. At one time we had the best production in town, now you have people like Light that have these insane systems. It’s about creating the best experience possible.

It’s hard to imagine what the nightlife scene might look like another five years from now. Where do you see the XS brand heading? What’s in store for its future a few years down the line?

I look at it as an institution. I feel like this EDM thing has legs for a few more years. My life is about my clubs and I try to stay ahead of the times, and I think we’ve done a good job so far at that, so we’re gonna see where it takes us. I don’t feel like it’s changed too much so far. Yes, we’re going up on production but on other nights we’re more about the customer experience. We’re changing our format on Sundays and Mondays because I think EDM is being overplayed in Las Vegas and I think people still want good music, they want to hear hip-hop and other stuff. On Sundays in the winter we’re doing a trap night. On Mondays we’re doing open format with more top 40 stuff. Our Night Swim is more of an experience about the pool and being outdoors than it is about the music. We'll have the headliners to give a push to start, but then it takes off.

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