Some casinos on Fremont Street have changed hands; some are undergoing major renovations; and some will be affected by plans that are still on the drawing board. Through all the upheaval, perhaps the most impressive constant on the street has been the hold Boyd Gaming and its California Hotel continue to exert on its bread and butter source of revenue, visitors from Hawaii who have been calling the hotel their home away from home for decades.
Indeed, according to Nancy Archer, the hotel’s director of publicity, about 80 percent of the guests at the California are from Hawaii, while a sister Boyd property, the Fremont, gets about 60 percent of its visitors from the islands and a third, Main Street Station, draws about 50 percent of its guests from the Aloha State.
Overall, the three downtown properties draw a total of approximately 300,000 visitors a month, according to a Boyd spokesman. About 80 percent of those are Hawaiian tourists or transplanted Islanders who now reside in the Las Vegas area.
That places Hawaii second only to California in the number of visitors it sends to Southern Nevada.
The Boyd family’s connection to Hawaii goes back to 1938 when family patriarch Sam Boyd arrived on the islands to organize bingo tournaments, according to Las Vegas Bound, the company’s in-flight magazine for passengers who travel to southern Nevada via a travel agency owned by Boyd Gaming. (Hawaii and Utah are the only two states that still ban gambling in all forms.)
The charter flights, offered seven times a week, are full for every trip, which translates into 350 passengers touching down in Las Vegas every day, according to a company spokesman. That translates into 127,400 Hawaiian passengers a year. Part of the attraction of the flights stems from "a great fare and meal coupons," said Archer.
When Sam Boyd opened the California Hotel in 1975, his gamble was that he would be successful enough in cornering the market on visitors from Hawaii to offset the perceived disadvantage at that time of having a casino that was located off of Fremont Street. He felt he could do that if he could provide them with a place "where they feel at home. They like to feel comfortable in their surroundings," Archer said.
In addition to the charter flights, the California Hotel caters to Hawaiians in a number of ways, including the staff wearing Hawaiian shirts instead of suits and ties because, according to California management, the islanders felt intimated by the more formal attire.
The hotel’s Club Cal snack bar offers a number of Asian treats including bento, teriyaki, shrimp tempura, eggroll and wonton soup, sushi, saimin soup, and tropical ice tea. Similarly, there are other dining options in the hotel that offer Pacific Rim specialties including the Market Street Café, Aloha Specialties and the Paradise Buffet.
The gift shops are also stocked with goods popular with Hawaiian travelers, such as dried fruits and nuts, and Asian candy often called "cracked seed."
Archer said the hotel stages two festivals a year, one called Pure Aloha in April with music and ethnic food available in the hotel’s parking lot. The other festival is May Day, Lei Day, which is staged during the first weekend of that month.
There are even a number of shops around the hotel that offer items with a Hawaiian twist, including Vegas 808 (the number represents the Islands’ area code), which advertises a wide variety of jerky as well as dried fruits, fancy nuts, scallops (Hokaido) and dried Ebi (shrimp).
These shops also often serve as a kind-of clearinghouse or meeting center for many Hawaiians who have relocated to Southern Nevada.
The visitors from the 50th state are known to be fond of gambling, especially slots and craps, said Archer. The California has a sports book but not a race book, while the Fremont has both and Main Street Station has neither. Of course, Main Street Station is connected to the California by a bridge that spans Main Street.
Hawaiians’ fondness for craps was epitomized on May 28, 1989, when one of their own, the late Stanley Fujitake, took the dice and held them for three hours and six minutes or 118 rolls. His friends nicknamed him the Golden Arm and as a result of his effort, the hotel established the Golden Arm Wall of Fame with plaques designed for the honorees. Craps players who hold the dice for an hour are awarded Golden Arm status while those who hold the dice for more than 90 minutes are given platinum recognition with the plaques arranged on a wall on the bridge that connects the California Hotel with the Main Street Station.
Every year there is a meeting and festival of The Golden Arm Society at the California Hotel.
When they are not gambling, the "Hawaiians love to shop because they can get better value here than they can in Hawaii. They’re very big on the outlet malls," Archer said. However, she said when they are not shopping or gambling, they tend to stay close to the California and the downtown area as opposed to the Strip.
Archer characterized the Hawaiians as "loyal, good hearted" people and the Boyd company honors those traits with three parties on three Hawaiian Islands in November. "It’s strictly to thank them for being loyal customers," Archer said.