Jonathan Jossel | Photo by Tomo Muscionico

Plaza Reflects Downtown’s Resurgence

How $35 million in upgrades recreated the classic casino.

Jonathan Jossel, the Plaza’s chief executive officer, sharply dressed in a dark business suit and light-blue shirt minus the tie, walks the casino floor of the venerable Downtown property chatting with employees and customers, and awaiting an afternoon visit from his wife and 6-month-old son.

Upon their arrival, a crowd of people who’ve come to know Jossel as a caring boss and proud new dad gather to fawn over the baby, whose eyes are fixated on the colorful, sparkling lights that play into the casino sensory overload experience.

This kid will have some great Vegas stories to tell when he grows up.

Jackie Gaughan | Courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Jackie Gaughan | Courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Jossel, a South African native, came to Las Vegas in 2007 from London, where he was a real estate executive with Tamares Group. Tamares partnered with Barrick Gaming in 2002 to purchase the Plaza from longtime Downtown casino king Jackie Gaughan, and became sole owner in 2005.

CEO of the hotel and casino since October 2014, Jossel oversaw the $35 million renovation of the property that’s celebrating its 45th anniversary. It was built in 1971 and opened as the Union Plaza, in reference to its origin as a Union Pacific train stop in Las Vegas. Its address is 1 Main Street.

“We’re sitting on the site where the first land auction took place, where the train track went behind the Plaza. That’s where Las Vegas began,” Jossel says in the bar area of Oscar’s steakhouse. “Back when Fremont Street was open to vehicle traffic, there’s no one who hasn’t seen a movie of cars driving down Fremont Street with a vision of the Plaza head almost swallowing up the entire street. It has the most iconic lights and building down here.”

Renovation of the Plaza began in 2010 when Tamares had an opportunity to acquire high-end furniture, fixtures and equipment from the bankrupt Fountainebleau on the Strip. Jossel says the furniture he saw sitting in the basement was too good to pass up.

“Once we got this incredible furniture, the conversation evolved into ‘Well, if we’re going to be doing such nice rooms, we’re going to have to have a nice casino. If we have a nice casino, we need to have a nice lobby.’ We kept getting bigger and bigger and we ended up pretty much remodeling the entire property with the exception of the pool deck.”

Splishin’ and splashin’

Jossel, who believes he took over a property that was in relatively good shape, says changes in morale and personnel dictated the $4 million renovation of the Pool at the Plaza, which opened in July.

It’s a “retro Palm Springs-meets-classic Downtown Las Vegas” outdoor space offering resort-style amenities such as private cabanas, a 12-person hot tub, a full bar and the pool’s own food truck. Sunbathers can lounge on lily pad daybeds and chaise chairs and enjoy the scenery on the 70,000-square-foot pool deck. And it has 16 pickle ball courts.

Opening night of the Union Plaza. (Photo by Wolf)

Opening night of the Union Plaza. (Photo by Wolf)

The entire perception of the Plaza has changed, as reflected by heavier business, mainly because of improved standards throughout the casino and hotel, the CEO says.

“Once we saw this huge increase in occupancy, we realized, yeah, we need a great pool deck now because there’s demand for it. That was always the reluctance back in 2011. Why do the pool deck if there’s no demand?”

Like the rest of Downtown, the Plaza has experienced a resurgence in business predicated on its vintage Vegas appeal and value pricing. Revenue is up 25 percent year-to-date, Jossel notes.

The pool has been such a success that he’s looking at other areas showing signs of improvement. The Plaza has 30,000 square feet of convention space being renovated. The third annual Big Blues Bender beginning September  8 will be the space’s first major event.

“We’re seeing huge increases in convention business at the Plaza,” Jossel says. “If we build upon the fact that we have the biggest convention space down here and we make it a huge destination, we can really spike that business.”

Change doesn’t come cheaply.

Once advertising $1 well drinks and draft beer on the side of the hotel facing Interstate 15, the Plaza now charges $5 for the well and $4 for the draft. Table play minimum is $5, compared with 25-cent craps games that brought in Social Security retirees hauling oxygen tanks.

The joint has gone a little more upscale, but Jossel makes sure that players such as Dexter, a Downtown gambler for 52 years who didn’t want to give his last name, remain a regular. Dexter says he was personally invited by Jossel to come over to the Plaza when the Las Vegas Club closed.

“Jonathan is a guy coming into his own. This guy is something else,” Dexter says between hands of video poker and sips from his bottle of beer. “He’s a unique guy. He shows respect to all the workers, hugging them and talking to them.

“He’s humble. Even with his high IQ, he’s humble enough to listen for ideas and feedback. ‘What do you think?’ ‘How can I make your trip better?’”

Change for the better

Ten reasons why the Plaza is back on top as a Downtown destination:

The pool renovation. It’s a great place for parties and concerts. Sticks & Stones Agency, known for discovering the hottest up-and-coming models and photographers, is hosting a live photo shoot by Filthy Mouth Creative and pre-Life Is Beautiful party at the pool on September 24. The next day, Dylan Smith (Mod Sun) will be at the pool for a free show.

Plaza rooftop. Photo courtesy of the Plaza

Plaza rooftop. Photo courtesy of the Plaza

The Scintas. The show spans several generations, blending music from Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Bruno Mars. The Scintas have played Las Vegas for 16 years with their signature act of comedy, music and spot-on celebrity impressions. After the show, they’re often seen hanging out with guests in the casino.

Re-energized casino floor. The Party Pit is open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., attracting tourists from Fremont Street with live music in the lounge. Local favorite Wonder Boogie plays disco classics on weekends.

• One Epic Night. This live stage act features finalists from NBC’s The Voice, along with special guests from popular TV talent shows.

Oscar’s steakhouse. Oscar Goodman’s retro restaurant has become a hot spot for Downtown power players, residents and tourists. During the Oscar Dinner Series, guests enjoy a gourmet meal and wine while listening to Goodman’s stories as a former mob lawyer and three-term mayor of Las Vegas.

Pool at the Plaza Food Truck. Headed by chef Shawn Giordano, the food truck offers a menu of street food inspired by classic California cuisine, including ahi tuna poke lettuce wraps, crispy rice paper tacos and lobster rolls. The truck had to be hoisted by crane to the fifth-floor pool.

• Revamped casino operations. The number of new slot machines has increased and payouts are more favorable to players. The Plaza even added some older machines that pay out in coins.

Renewed focus on bingo. The Plaza has the only bingo room in Downtown, and regularly attracts 500 players for big games.

Young and dynamic executive team. They’re not afraid to try new things to make the property a success and attract an array of customers.

• Industry leaders taking notice. “The Plaza’s turnaround shows that the basics done right never lose in Las Vegas,” says David G. Schwartz, Vegas Seven columnist and director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV. “Good gambling conditions, an eye on quality, walking the floor—these things go a long way. What Jonathan Jossel and the Plaza team have done is very much in the spirit of Jackie Gaughan, who always strived to give his customers the best deal he could.”

Vegas Seven