CEO Special: Plaza Hotel & Casino's CEO Jonathan Jossel - it's not a job, it's a lifestyle

September 19, 2023

Jonathan Jossel meets Tim Poole to reflect on risks taken at a young age – risks that led him to Las Vegas, redeveloping the Plaza and building a Downtown 'community.'

“People are often afraid to try things because they already have this notion of how things will end up. There’s this idea of day one: everything is day one. You try things, you keep that energy and you stay humble. Because actually, that’s when you keep learning and keep being open to new things, as opposed to thinking you know everything better.”

For the CEO of the Plaza Hotel & Casino, Jonathan Jossel, being the youngest ever gaming license holder in Nevada was not a daunting prospect. Instead, the executive focused on his advantages. Rather than being weighed down by what could easily have been branded a lack of experience, Jossel has – throughout his career – brought youth and energy to Las Vegas. “The area we were in needed fresh ideas,” he states. “Downtown Las Vegas was an area that had been forgotten over the years. In my position, I wasn’t clouded by any previous experience. That’s the one thing which being young gives you the benefit of: you’re not restricted by any limitations.”


A passion for the industry

As we sit down to speak with the Plaza CEO during one of his visits to London, Jossel tells Gaming America that, even at an early age, he very much envisioned a future in gaming. “I don’t know if I would have picked the job of a CEO, but I saw myself in the gaming industry,” he says. “I always had a passion as a consumer, understanding the psychology of it, so I was always interested in gaming. The opportunity to actually get into the business side of it was very fortuitous – and that is what led to me being here. But I always was passionate about the industry.”

That “fortuitous” entry is one Jossel describes as a “blessing, for sure” – but not one that came without risk. Indeed, born in South Africa, Jossel’s family left for the UK when he was six years old. At just 23, however, he was unafraid to move again, deciding to leave home and move to Las Vegas by himself – a new city in a foreign country where he knew no one. That scenario might frighten a seasoned executive at the peak of their career – let alone a 23-year-old. “I was doing my thesis in the gambling industry in the UK in the early 2000s,” he recalls. “There was this time in the UK when they were talking about bringing mega, Las Vegas-style casinos to London. I was studying the socioeconomic impacts of that, the pros and cons, and one day I met a gentleman through that, who had just invested in Downtown Las Vegas. I told him I was doing my thesis on the gambling industry  in the UK and he told me he’d just bought six casinos.”

The chance meeting (with Poju Zabludowicz, Chairman of Tamares Group) led to an understandably fascinating conversation for Jossel. That dialogue concluded with Jossel asking for work experience in the Silver State. Downtown Las Vegas in 2005, though, was in Jossel’s words “a little rough,” with “not much going on.” Four weeks of work experience were therefore more than enough for the young executive. Little did Jossel know back then this would be just the start of his Downtown adventure. After university, his work took him back to the region, with a visit from his employer showing a new side to the area: there was momentum, investment and support from Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. It was enough to persuade Jossel, single back then, that the timing (in 2007) was right. In his words, he “genuinely saw that there was the opportunity for some young people to make a difference Downtown, both on the real estate and casino side.”


“You’re crazy. You’re 27!”

Yet the macroeconomic climate had other ideas for Las Vegas, much as it did the rest of the world. Momentum was checked across the globe, and the mortgage crisis and Great Recession of 2007 meant a number of developments Jossel and co. were working on had to cease with immediate effect. This resulted in the young exec quickly having to learn the operations side of the casino business, given how much money was being lost in that climate. According to Jossel, it was a “great time” to learn during those formative years. “If you can learn to run the business in tough times, it’s much easier in the good times,” he tells Gaming America.

If there was ever one ‘big break’ for Jossel – it came in 2010, as he closely observed the significant remodeling of the Plaza Hotel and Casino – one of the main casinos within the Tamares Group’s portfolio. Here, Jossel saw “the good and the bad of management – what works and what doesn’t.” It prompted him to phone his employer with a rather bold claim… “I called up and said ‘hey, I think I can run this place.’ And Zabludowicz said, ‘you’re crazy. You’re 27!’ But I backed myself – and he backed me. I ended up going forward for the licensing process and, when you get the license, you pretty much become the CEO by default because you’re now the responsible person of the entire operation.” From start to finish, the process of learning the business, gaining a non-restricted gaming license (making Jossel the youngest person in history to hold this license) and become CEO of the Plaza took no less than seven years.


Downtown versus the Strip

When Gaming America asks Jossel what separates being CEO of a Downtown property from, say, running a casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip, his enthusiasm for the ‘underdog’ of the two comes right across. He explains, “There are quite a lot of differences; the obvious one with Downtown is the fact that our property only has 1,000 rooms, which is massive by any other city or country. But by Las Vegas standards, 1,000 rooms is almost routine. These are not 5,000-room properties. So we have the opportunity of getting to know our customers and taking that time to meet people, to be more hands on. It’s much harder when you have 10,000 employees versus 1,000 or 700 employees. So we really get to know our team members – and our customers – better. Then there’s also the benefit of being in Downtown, that we really are all working together to make the area better. We’re not actually competing with each other as much as one might think. As Downtown gets better, we’re all going to independently do better, so the focus is actually on the neighborhood. For us, the best thing that can happen is a new casino opening across the street, more development, high rises and entertainment.”

Derek Stevens is one man who has brought eyeballs to Downtown’s modernization, especially since the opening of Circa Resort & Casino in October 2020. Jossel is understandably keen to give him credit, though he feels “equal credit” is due to Tony Hsieh, known as the Mayor of Downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh sadly passed away in 2020 but his legacy as the man who saved – or at the very least helped transform – the area was heavily publicized. Jossel also credits those who have been “believers in Downtown from day one,” likes James Trees from Esther’s Kitchen

and other smaller, independent operators, alongside the bigger operators a lá Stevens and co. “Everyone has to be there to make this neighborhood better and contribute. You have the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Discovery Children’s Museum... All these things wouldn’t be possible if everyone else wasn’t doing what they’re doing too.”


Changing the landscape

Another individual familiar to both Jossel and Gaming America is regular contributor Oliver Lovat, who met the now CEO while Lovat was teaching at Cass Business School. Lovat is a huge advocate of the work that has both already been completed and is currently underway for the renovation of Downtown. And the Plaza Hotel & Casino has played a central role in that process. Sitting on 17 acres of land, it is the biggest hotel Downtown by land size. Jossel describes it as a “very iconic” property on a “strategic piece of land.” Plaza visitors can experience the older hotel casinos, as well as Symphony Park, and the long-term plan is to develop the 17-acre site with a new hotel, new entertainment and new projects. “We’re very proud because many people told us a decade ago to knock it down and start again,” the CEO recalls, “We took a different approach. We decided: no, this is a great historic brand. It’s a great location and it’s got good bones for the future.”

That persistence with the property has since seen the Plaza totally remodeled and redesigned. All 19 elevators are brand new, along with a new pool deck and convention center – while all 1,000 rooms have been redone. The list of upgrades also extends to the property’s new Carousel Bar, Pinkbox Doughnuts and a new patio for Oscar’s Steakhouse. Jossel adds, “Our approach has been to, one by one, go around this building and upgrade it every day, making it a little bit better. At the same time, we’ve been working long term on the future development of those 17 acres – because that’s where we think we can really change the landscape of downtown.”


The Plaza family

When Gaming America risks using an old cliché by asking if Jossel feels protective over the Plaza, as though it were his ‘baby,’ the CEO is keener to talk up the part played by his team as a whole. “It’s something the customers and team members define,” he responds. “But in terms of the way we’ve gone about remodeling, it has certainly been a team: a core team that’s been with us from day one.” That collective has shared the same vision, a vision that will also now involve more F&B options and greater entertainment choice – finding ways to “keep the building interesting and relevant,” while maintaining the basic functions of cleanliness. The Plaza is, though, a “direct reflection” of how Jossel and his team treat customers and aim to make them feel.

Jossel loves “every day” of his life at the Plaza but, when asked to single out the best aspect of his role, he points to the freedom it brings – a freedom that public-owned companies might not emulate – to work from a “blank slate.” He explains, “We wanted to try to create something new and there are no limitations. We can do a rodeo,  a pickleball tournament. We can put art on the building. We can open new concepts.

We really aren’t constrained by any preconceived notion of what it’s meant to be or what it has to be. We have a great team, a great ownership that allows us to be creative and try new things. And so the creativity and the opportunity are second to none. That is the best thing.”

Yet there is a flipside to this very approach, as Jossel freely admits. He remarks, “We’re like a big family, so it’s a blessing because it’s great that everyone feels comfortable. But at the same time, you lose some of the things you may need in a corporate structure and traditional corporate America. Those things probably exist for a reason. But we’re just more of a family operation. We had an ex-employee that went to work somewhere else and they told me it’s crazy – that they wore so many hats in the Plaza and that, at their new company, everything is very structured. That’s just the way we are: we’re a family.”


Downtown versus the Strip – the sequel?

The family aspect Jossel describes is a world apart (although not geographically) from the likes of Caesars CEO Tom Reeg, MGM Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle and other public-company Las Vegas CEOs. They attend quarterly conference calls, are answerable to global shareholders and form a central part of the “corporate American” culture Jossel refers to. But could the Plaza CEO see himself as the leader of a Las Vegas Strip property one day? “Not to say there haven’t been opportunities like that… but right now, I think the opportunity is just so big here in Downtown as a whole,” he affirms. “Going to the Strip or a bigger project and starting something new there, it’s just not what I’m looking to do because I love the difference that we’re making here. In the future, you never know. But I would be very cautious about giving up the freedom and creativity to do what you believe in, versus being constrained by public companies.”

Besides, Jossel is still able to pursue additional projects while CEO of the Plaza, for example his role on the board of online operator and Betway owner, Super Group. He describes it as a “different opportunity” given it is a 100% online company. In the 12 months or so since he has taken the role, it has enhanced his understanding of the digital landscape and corporate governance. It, too, has opened up learnings for Jossel (that may well be applicable at the Plaza) on how consumers differ, the different rules that exist and where online and land-based can crossover.

Jossel’s interests in Las Vegas and beyond also include philanthropic projects. “I’m on Boards of a few other things to do with Las Vegas,” he tells Gaming America. “The Fremont East Entertainment District – I’ve done that from day one. We have some buildings in East Fremont, so I’m very passionate about our neighborhood and helping with that. I’m on the Board of the Nevada Resorts Association; the Board of Young Jewish Professionals. There’s one other charity I’m very passionate about because of our connection at the Plaza with pickleball: I’m on the Board of Inspiring Children, which is a charity for sending underprivileged kids through school using tennis; and now we’re hosting pickleball events to help benefit the charity as well.”


The Downtown community

For Jossel, all of these roles represent contributions to Las Vegas – and underline something very important to him: that he and his team are part of the wider Downtown community. It’s a community the CEO wants to be part of “in everything he does.” The aforementioned pickleball is another example, a variation of padel – the Mexican tennis-like sport (which our Gambling Insider CEO Special earlier this year revealed is played by NeoGames President Tsachi Maimon!). Jossel describes pickleball as “like if tennis and table tennis had a baby.” In short, all roads lead to Rome for the executive – or in this case Las Vegas. Jossel is based in Vegas with his wife, three children and pug-beagle Snorkel. Ultimately, being Plaza CEO is not just a job – it’s a lifestyle.

He concludes, “Before I had children, a big part of my life was understanding the way people move through these buildings, the way people experience these buildings and casinos. I would often spend late nights and early mornings at the Plaza to see what people were seeing and experiencing, meeting the different teams on the different shifts. Because we’re a 24-7 business – so we have different employees, different shifts every single day, spending that time there late night, early morning. Getting to know the people and the buildings is what helps you form the ability to ultimately improve and remodel them, because you understand what the building is. So it’s a lifestyle. Now we open our new bar… It’s being in there, hearing the music, seeing what the guests are experiencing when they come in, what they see in different areas. All these things are lifestyle, not just a job.”


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