“It’s the Godzilla of nightclubs.” That was the reaction of our nightlife guru Steve Lewis when I asked him about XS, the mega club at casino maven Steve Wynn’s Encore hotel in Las Vegas. But unlike the fictional Japanese monster who stomped on citizens and cities with uncontrollable glee, XS is a tightly controlled, carefully calculated environment designed to redefine nightlife and provide customers with the ultimate Vegas experience. As Lewis later put it, “This is the machine.”
The operators of this machine (which at $100 million, makes it one of the most expensive nightclubs ever built), are identical twin brothers Cy and Jesse Waits. Growing up in a dusty Southern California town, they had no inkling that by the age of 34, they’d be sitting atop one of the biggest nightlife empires in the country. But that’s exactly where the brothers find themselves, after forging a lasting partnership with legendary club impresario and film producer Victor Drai on a number of amazingly successful endeavors, including XS, Tryst nightclub at the Wynn, Drai’s after hours inside Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon, and Drai’s Hollywood, which recently opened in the W Hollywood. “We grew up in such a small town, I never even thought I’d meet anyone that I saw on TV,” says Cy, who now schmoozes on the regular with stars from the film, music, and sports worlds.
So how did the Waits’ find themselves at the forefront of West Coast nightlife? After all, there isn’t a school that teaches you how to master the inner workings of a mega club. The answer is experience. Growing up, they were the kids in the neighborhood who threw the house parties. “We were always trying to make everyone comfortable, making sure everyone is set up and feeling good about themselves,” says Cy. “We were the social butterflies, walking around and getting everyone’s input.” Jesse was the first one to move to Vegas, leaving the sleepy beaches of Hawaii for the blinding lights and monolithic hotels of the Strip. There, he cut his teeth at some of the city’s best clubs, excelling at everything from bartending to promoting. Soon, he was joined by Cy, who initially planned to work in the industry for a year, before returning to California to pursue other endeavors. But Las Vegas is a revenue beast, with billions of dollars being sucked up by its nightlife and entertainment industries, and Cy quickly realized the boundless opportunity a partnership with his brother could bring. “We started from the bottom up. We did everything in the nightclub business so we get it. We understand the aspect of what it takes to bartend or what the door guy goes through. We get it,” he says.
Eventually, Jesse found himself managing the popular Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay, where they met Victor Drai. “We just kind of befriended each other,” says Jesse. “He was just a nice guy who would buy bottles. We started hanging out as friends and eventually, after three years of knowing him, decided to join him at Drai’s After Hours.”
Their big break came when La Bete, hotelier Steve Wynn’s first nightclub, failed to do the kind of business necessary to succeed in Vegas’ cutthroat landscape. “It was designed poorly for a nightclub,” says Jesse. “Their structure, management, and promotional team was not as well thought out as it should have been. To run a nightclub, it takes more personality than it does a corporate structure.” Drai and the twins stepped in, and after redesigning and rebranding the club, Tryst was born. Around the mid-aughts, Tryst nightclub at the Wynn rose to become Vegas’ premiere nightlife destination. (You might recall the infamous night when a pantless Britney Spears’ partied with Paris Hilton. That happened at Tryst. “It was pretty bizarre, she was asking for the attention” says Jesse.) With a hundred-foot waterfall cascading over the dancefloor, the never-seen-that-before opulence of Tryst was only the beginning.
The waterfall at Tryst. XS.
It’s difficult to fully grasp the scope of XS without experiencing it for yourself. Both Jesse and Cy seemed at a loss for words when trying to convey its epicness. They both told me it’s something I need to see to believe. At 40,000 square feet, XS is such a behemoth, it effectively stole its sister club’s clientele. “It’s a black hole, basically,” says Jesse, “not just for our business, but everybody’s business.” Indeed, as far as most are concerned, the extravagance on display at XS will be difficult to match. Lewis, who’s been designing nightclubs for over a decade, went as far as calling it “the best nightclub in the country.” With a capacity of 4,000, XS is designed with a high style and to allow a particular flow so that it never feels crowded. “It was not another building that we renovated to make into a nightclub. It was built for that purpose,” says Jesse.
XS’ unabashed extravagance is best bottled up (pun intended) in the Ono Cocktail, which, if ordered, is the equivalent of drinking liquid gold. Invented by Cy, the drink is more a muscle flex than a thirst quencher. When someone orders one, the XS staff makes sure the whole club knows it. At $10,000, it’s composed of Charles Heidsieck champagne and Louis XIII de Remy Martin Black Pearl cognac, and each glass comes with gold XS cufflinks for the men, and a black pearl. “I would say we have sold at least 12 or 15 of them in a year. I mean that’s pretty good for a cocktail that’s $10,000,” says Cy.
The twins admit the look of the place is mostly thanks to Victor Drai’s distinct vision. He’s the mastermind, they say. “He doesn’t think about how it’s going to work, all he focuses on is the look and flow,” says Cy. All of Drai’s spots are created to look like lush, dense paradises that avoid any tawdriness. Drai’s After Hours in Vegas is dotted with red velvet couches, leopard print carpeting, and Tamara de Lempicka prints. It all stems from his trailblazing sense of style. “He was popping his collar long before anybody else was doing it,” says Cy. “He’s got his boots and his swagger. He’s amazing. You have a conversation with him and you’d be surprised he’s 65. It feels like he’s 22.”
But after 12 years in the nightclub industry, the Waits brothers have also developed a sixth sense for what makes a club work. Once Drai has exercised his particular brand of showmanship on the place, Cy and Jesse will work on the club’s personality. They’re after the little things, the details customers don’t notice, but nevertheless that enhance their experience. Says Cy, “We’ll sit down in booths and make sure everything is comfortable. Everything needs to have a feeling to it. Where are the table sides? How big is the booth? How far are your knees from the ground? How many stripper poles should there be?”
Once the club is open, it’s the twins’ job to make sure it has legs. And, like any cohesive partnership, they’ve adapted and split their duties to play to their particular strengths. As Jesse tells it, he’s on the “marketing” side of things. He’s at the door every night greeting clients, whether it’s the governor of Nevada or someone looking to spend their roulette winnings on a bottle of Goose. At a club with thousands of people, personal attention from its top personnel can make nights. That’s what Jesse, and to some degree his brother, provide. He sees himself as the club’s diplomat, on the front lines with the clientele. Cy, on the other hand, thinks of himself as the problem solver, the fix-it guy. He handles the staff and ensures all the cogs of the machine are running in unison. Neither brother is ever without his BlackBerry, except while practicing martial arts.
Cy and Jesse are constantly traveling between their permanent homes in Vegas (they live in mansions on a golf course, Cy on the 8th hole, Jesse on the 2nd) and their temporary ones L.A. (they have neighboring penthouses at the W). Cy had eighty thousand tons of sand installed in his yard, a personal beach in the middle of the desert. Both brothers have multiple motorcycles, the product of a riding, hippie father of the Easy Rider ilk. They’ve made several Most Eligible Bachelor lists, although Jesse is now in a long term relationship with former Playmate of the Year, Jayde Nicole. They rarely, if ever, drink. Their sobriety is part dedication to a healthy lifestyle, but also, it’s impossible to control a nightlife empire after you’ve had seven gin and tonics.
Most siblings have a competitive edge, but for identical twins, that edge is sharpened. “When we were kids, it used to be who can throw the biggest rock through the window,” says Cy. That they work so closely together is an achievement, even if they admit to butting heads occasionally. “It’s war sometimes,” Cy says. “A couple of years ago, there were times when we almost got into fist fights over the most ridiculous things. We’ve gotten past that. When we first started working together again, we were in each other’s face. If Jesse’s really emotional about something, or I’m really emotional about something, one of us will just back off and we’ll just not talk for a few days until we cool down, and then it’s like nothing ever happened.”
Adds his brother, “The best thing about working with my brother is that out of anybody I know, I can trust him because he has my best interest at heart. If anything went down, I know that he would protect me and back me one hundred percent. And in a work environment where people are constantly trying to move up, that’s hard to find.”