Hawaiians boost downtown casinos

Mar 14, 2006 3:40 AM

Record-setting gaming revenue in January indicates Nevada’s casino industry is off to a robust start.

Even Las Vegas’ downtown casino district, which seldom reports an increase in gaming win, posted a 15.4 percent increase in revenue in January.

Downtown officials and advocates like to cite factors such as Landry’s purchase of the Golden Nugget as contributing to busier casinos (they said the same thing when the dot-com millionaires bought the Nugget three years ago).

In addition, officials say, the construction of several luxury high-rise apartment buildings and the expansion of the World Market Center, an international home furnishings market, have helped to revitalize the downtown area.

Revitalization is one thing, but generating casino revenue is another, and the Boyd Gaming properties in downtown Las Vegas have been a solid contributor to the district’s bottom line for the past three decades.

According to recent quarterly reports, Boyd’s downtown hotel-casinos — Main Street Station, California and the Fremont — have enjoyed double digit increases in gaming win and nearly 25 percent increases in pre-tax cash flow.

All three casino-hotels are dependent on a strong economy in the Hawaiian feeder market, which accounts for more than 80 percent of Boyd’s downtown clientele.

That clientele has proved significant over the years as Boyd’s downtown properties continually outperform the other downtown casinos in terms of gaming revenue and hotel occupancy.

The Hawaiian connection to Boyd gaming was established by its founder, Sam Boyd, and cultivated by the company over the years.

Boyd first discovered the Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s, when he ran some bingo games and other establishments in Honolulu.

He came to Las Vegas in 1941 and got a casino job, working his way up from dealer to pit boss to shift supervisor.

Eventually, Boyd raised enough money to invest in several hotel-casinos, including the Sahara, Mint and Eldorado Club in Henderson.

But the company really took off when Boyd opened the California Hotel in downtown Las Vegas in 1975, which was followed by Sam’s Town on Boulder Highway and the Stardust on the Strip.

Because of his knowledge of and ties to the Hawaiian Islands, Boyd recruited Hawaiian customers for his Las Vegas casinos by offering bargain rates and amenities geared to their special needs and cultural heritage.

When Boyd retired to the Islands in the 1980s, he became involved in establishing discounted charter flights to Las Vegas, as well as package deals at his downtown casinos.

"Hawaii has been and continues to be a very significant part of our downtown operation," said a Boyd gaming official. "It’s a relationship that has been building for the last 30 years. We pride ourselves on our ability to serve that market particularly well."

"Serving that market" goes beyond charter flights and tour packages. The downtown hotels follow a Hawaiian motif with dealers and staff dressed in aloha shirts and flower-print attire.

There are also Hawaiian-themed slot machines, some of which feature Polynesian images and Island icons, and tournaments and events with a Hawaiian flavor.

Equally important, the casino restaurants serve cuisine that will pique a Hawaiian’s palate. Among the foods popular with people from Hawaii are saimin (a noodle soup), oxtail soup, corned-beef hash (usually for breakfast), spam, and bok choy with duck. Note that the somewhat bland poi is not on the list!

"What we try to create is a home away from home for our Hawaiian customers," said a supervisor at the California Hotel. "The challenge is to find the right ways and right personnel who know how to give back to Island customers, many of whom return four or five times a year."

Gift giving is actually a Hawaiian tradition deep-rooted in its culture. In the Islands, it’s traditional to take a small gift whenever visiting friends or relatives.

In fact, visiting Hawaiians often bring small gifts to their casino hosts, such as pineapples, crack seed, macadamia nuts, flower leis, puka shell jewelry and other tokens of friendship.

The casinos in turn like to extend small offerings to their guests on their arrival.

The notion of creating a "home away from home" for Hawaiians has worked so well it has helped induce native Hawaiians to relocate to Las Vegas.

It is estimated that there is a local Hawaiian population of more than 60,000, many of whom emigrated here in the past 10 years.

The migration of Hawaiians to Las Vegas has served to strengthen their culture, as reflected by the bakeries, gift shops, restaurants, and clothing and jewelry stores, and has created a unique cultural experience for the houles (Caucasians) inclined to explore the Hawaiian experience.