In the middle of a sprawling desert town, Aloha blooms. It is spoken at the guest check-in with each new arrival, served at the café with each fragrant dish of oxtail soup, and spread through the gifted efforts of the employees.
The evolution of Boyd Gaming Corporation’s California Hotel & Casino from a gambling spot to a second home for Hawaiians contributed greatly to the designation of Las Vegas as the 9th Island.
It was a gamble when the California Hotel & Casino opened in 1975, the first large property to set up off the famed Fremont Street, but Sam Boyd was good at playing the odds in his favor.
The Boyd family started in the gaming business in 1941, with Sam Boyd moving up from dealer to major hotel owner by 1962 when he first partnered with his son Bill for the Eldorado Casino in Henderson. A little over a decade later, father and son were determined to make their new endeavor work. They borrowed money from the bank, more than once, to realize their dream of a hotel in the booming downtown area that would eventually cater to an often underserved niche market: the Hawaiians.
“(Dad) said, ‘You know when we lived in Hawai‘i, there was a game on every block,’” said Bill Boyd, executive chairman and co-founder of Boyd Gaming. “In other words, the Hawaiians love to play. And he said, ‘We’re going to make the Cal their home away from home.’”
It was a heartfelt endeavor. The Boyd family sent a chef to Hawai‘i to learn to cook saimin and oxtail soup, “just the way Hawaiians like them,” Boyd said. “The chef said he also learned a new way to cook rice.”
That attention to detail is what has kept Boyd Gaming ahead of the competition and a favorite among Hawaiians visiting and living in Las Vegas. More than half of Boyd’s downtown business at its three hotels, The California Hotel and Casino, Fremont Hotel and Casino and Main Street Station Hotel Casino and Brewery, comes from Hawaiian customers.
“We go to the Cal, oh, I’d say every week or so to see family who come from the island to visit,” said Mano Hale, a longtime Las Vegan and Hawaiian native. “My uncle and his family have stayed there every year for the (football) game. It’s like a second home for us, with all the family coming in (from Hawai‘i) and checking in there.”
When Jasmine Lee, a Hawaiian native and Las Vegas dental assistant, is feeling a little homesick, she goes to the Cal.
“It’s been a tradition to go there since my family has been coming to Vegas,” for more than 15 years, she said. “Aunties like to stay at the Cal. It’s a good place for us to all get together without a lot of hassle. It’s like a little piece of Hawai‘I downtown, so we feel at home.”
Las Vegas is home to more than 15,000 non-Hispanic Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures. The Hawaiian population in Las Vegas doubled from 2002 – 2012, which has helped to confirm the city’s unofficial designation as the 9th Island, although many Hawaiians refer to the Cal as the ninth island.
Many Hawaiians moved to Las Vegas because of the lower cost of living and the tight-knit local Hawaiian community already in place.
“We already had family here and it’s so much cheaper, from housing to hot dogs,” said James Ihorn, a waiter at a Strip restaurant and 5-year resident of Las Vegas.
But there’s no place like home.
“We go to the Cal about once a week to gamble a little, get the oxtail soup at the (Market Street) Café for my wife, and get a little aloha back into our system,” he said. “That’s one thing you can’t get in Hawai‘i, the gambling, and, come on, Hawaiians love to gamble. But you can get that at the Cal and you can also get that Hawaiian spirit. It’s all over the Cal.”
They also make it a point to rub the belly of the giant Buddha at the valet entrance to The Cal, a symbol of luck, wealth and prosperity. The Buddha was a gift to The Cal in the ‘70s from Char Travel, one of Boyd Gaming’s loyal travel agents based in Hawai‘i.
The name of the Cal’s Buddha is Happy Buddha, meaning good luck, said David Lebby, Vice President and General Manager at California and Main Street Station Hotel, Casino & Brewery.
“When you leave items such as money, leis, TITO tickets, it will bring you luck,” Lebby said, who has been with Boyd for 34 years, 29 of those at the Cal.
“I have to say that the customers from Hawai‘I are what makes this job so gratifying,” he said. “Over the years many of our customers have become friends and are a part of my life.”
The Aloha spirit is prevalent.
“What’s special about our properties is we make our Hawaiian customers feel at home and it’s a place they can gather and talk story,” he said.
To better serve their Hawaiian guests, Boyd Gaming purchased Vacations Hawai‘i, a travel agency and charter service, in 1995. The following year, they began charter flights between Honolulu and Las Vegas. They offer the Kama’aina vacation packages which include complete four and five-night stays. These packages include round-trip airfare, comfortable accommodations at the Cal, daily ground transportation and three meals. Meal selections include trips to the largest downtown buffet, California’s Paradise Buffet, or a bowl of the legendary oxtail soup at Market Street Cafe — all for an incredible value starting at $699.
“The packages we get from Boyd are better and cheaper than it would cost to just by air tickets for my family alone,” said Manny Price, a native Hawaiian and Las Vegas car salesman. “We use them a couple times a year at least for big events.”
Guests check in at Omni Air International’s location at Lobby 6 in the main terminal at Honolulu International Airport and in Las Vegas, check-in is at the McCarran Terminal 1.
The packages include transportation as well as luggage pick up from the plane to the hotel as well as any medical needs, wheelchair accessibility and personal attention. Vacations Hawai‘I focuses on ease of travel for their guests, who are often returning to Las Vegas or Honolulu to visit family.
“Hawai‘i residents have always held a special place in their hearts and Aloha for Sam Boyd,” said Johanna “Duke” Duclayan, Las Vegas Charter Manager for Vacations Hawai‘i.
During the summer, Vacations Hawai‘i runs four charter flights per week to Las Vegas, bringing about 872 passengers to Las Vegas each week. Otherwise, they run five charter flights per week.
Additionally Vacations Hawai‘i features 7 and 8 night packages with Hawaiian Airlines and the California Hotel. In their travel agency department, Vacations Hawai‘i can get Hawai‘i customers to Vegas on all commercial airlines and also feature great fares to other US cities, with outer island, Disney and cruise packages as well.
“We treat each customer with and in the Aloha Spirit,” Duclayan said.
Jimmy Kline is an alum of the University of Hawai‘i and makes sure to go down to the Cal each spring for the UH vs. UNLV annual game.
“UH Coach Norm Chow is so accessible when he’s at the Cal,” Kline said. “I’ve gone up to him a couple of times when we were at the buffet and he was eating and we talked for a long time.”
Sports are a big reason Kline makes it a point to visit the Cal during football and basketball seasons. Former University of Hawai‘i men’s basketball team coach from 1987-2007, Riley Wallace, is an executive host at the Cal.
The customers are one reason Wallace enjoys his job. He became friends with Bill Boyd during his coaching career and it was a natural progression from friends to working for the gaming giant.
“It’s like seeing old friends when you go to work,” said Wallace, who lives in Las Vegas with his wife Joan full time and returns to his condo in Honolulu regularly with his family. “You can talk about the present and the past with them.”
Wallace makes a point to visit each of the three Boyd properties downtown, often running into Bill Boyd walking the casino floor as well.
“Boyd wants people to know that Aloha is spoken here, and it is,” Wallace said. “Our customers know the Aloha spirit and respect it. It’s a good marriage right here between Boyd and Hawai‘i. It’s real. They want you to like the islands, and it doesn’t take you long to know why. It’s a beautiful place, and the people are, too.”
Boyd Gaming employees are what makes the properties stand out within all that glitters for guest’s attention in Las Vegas, said Liz Damon, a slot host at the Fremont hotel and former pop singer.
“The employees are the ones that are going to bring them back over and over,” said Damon, who has more than 20 years in the industry, 9 of those with Boyd. Finding a position that worked well with her personality and skills was a lucky break, she said, when she decided to step away from the music industry for a time. “The employees are great every day, every time, and that’s what people come back for again and again — they feel at home here. I believe the employees are the mainstay of our three downtown properties.” Much of that positive, Aloha attitude on the casino floor comes from the corporate culture, she said.
“Mr. Boyd himself, from what I’ve known (talking to him) in the last nine years, you can tell he really cares about the employees and our guests,” Damon said.
Damon is humble, particularly since she is better known as the lead singer in the Hawai‘i-based group Liz Damon’s Orient Express, with hits that made the Billboard charts, including “1900 Yesterday,” “But For Love,” and “Me Japanese Boy.” Each weekend she gives away T-shirts, stuffed animals and other Boyd paraphernalia to winners at the Blazing 7 slot machines near the VIP booth, where she sings some of her well-known hits.
“Being at the Fremont, one of the sweetest things is I get is folks who come in and ask for my autograph, they bring in old records and things to sign,” Damon, a Hawaiian native, said. “It’s a lot of fun. I sing during slot tournaments and people get a kick out of it.”
When Hawaiians wonder what makes Downtown Las Vegas the 9th Island, the resounding answer is the aloha spirit found at Boyd properties like The California, Fremont and Main Street Station — so stop by, rub the Lucky Buddha’s belly, grab a bowl of oxtail soup and see what the Aloha spirit in Las Vegas is all about.
Market Street Café — Open 24 hours at the Cal, this café serves American favorites with a twist of island flavor. Specials include a legendary oxtail soup, saimin and Kahlua pig.
Lappert’s Ice Cream — A mainstay on the main Island is a winner late night for cool treats.
Redwood Bar & Grill – Recognized by Zagat with outstanding ratings this restaurant offers an intimate setting featuring tender steaks, succulent lobster, luscious crab legs and other delectable seafood.
Award-winning keno at the Cal — From the friendly keno staff to the many winning tickets, The Cal is the place for keno.
Triple 7 Restaurant and Microbrewery — Chill with six varieties of hand-crafted beers, in-house seasonal specialty brews made by our own brewmaster, and an array of delicious dishes from pizza to fresh sushi to Korean tacos and beyond.
Garden Court Buffet — Ranked in the top five Las Vegas buffets by USA Today Travel, the Garden Court Buffet is known for its delicious rotisserie chicken but wows with Southwestern, pizza, Asian-inspired and specialty stations.
Main Street Station antiques — Behold history. This free, self-guided walking tour will take you back into time: Berlin Wall, a chandelier from Paris’s Figaro Opera House, even the bronze doors and façade of the Royal Bank of Kuwait!
Tony Roma’s — yearning for sticky ribs and other Tony Roma’s specialties? Just down the street at The Cal’s sister property, The Fremont, you can find the only Tony Roma’s in the state of Nevada!
Paradise Buffet — Set in a tropical garden decor, the largest buffet downtown serves breakfast with a variety of specialty nights, fresh sushi made nightly and 8 stations of culinary delights.
Second Street Grill — Recognized year after year by the Zagat survey and featuring a unique Pacific Rim influence, Second Street Grill specializes in seafood dishes, steak and poultry. Specialties include Thai Cioppino soup and Mongolian rack of lamb.
Next time you’re on at the Cal, Fremont or Main Street Station, if you don’t have a B Connected Players Card — it’s time to sign up! Not only will you receive deals tailored just for you, but you can get discounts on dining, room and entertainment specials. Recently voted the Best Loyalty Club in Las Vegas by the LVRJ, B Connected is your pa
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