Rearview Mirror ‘The Cal’ has long wooed islanders who visit Vegas By Star-Advertiser staff Sept. 21, 2012 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! COURTESY BOYD GAMING / 1975Sam Boyd opened the California Hotel in 1975. Its single-market strategy then and now was to focus on Hawaii gamblers. Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. Locals who regularly go to Las Vegas are familiar with the California Hotel. But most of us don’t know that the founder of the hotel, Sam Boyd, once worked in Honolulu and Hilo. Boyd moved to Hawaii in the 1930s, where he worked for Hisakichi Hisanaga, who owned Palace Amusements in Hilo. "Sam Boyd started off doing bingo games in Hilo," said former "Let’s Go Fishing" host Hari Kojima. "He knew that locals enjoyed that kind of stuff. They liked chance games. And he parlayed that. He knew what it took to be part of the local crowd." When Palace Amusements closed, Boyd returned to Las Vegas in 1941 with only $80 in his pocket. In 1962 he bought the Wheel casino in Henderson, Nev., 17 miles south of Las Vegas. He renamed it the Eldorado. At the time, Hawaii residents didn’t go to Las Vegas in large numbers. They went to Reno. It was easier and cheaper for locals to get there than to Las Vegas. In 1975 Boyd thought he could change that. He knew Hawaii people liked to gamble. His research showed they lost an average of $350 a day, compared with other groups losing $300 a day. He created "Hawaii Specials" to attract them to his new property in downtown Las Vegas, the California Hotel and Casino. He offered low airfares, free rooms and three meals a day. He put Hawaii food on the menu, including such things as rice, Portuguese sausage, saimin and oxtail soup. He hired people with Hawaii ties and trained those who didn’t in local ways. In 1976 Boyd and his group came to Hawaii and set up a booth at the 50th State Fair on Sand Island. They set up a slot machine that, even though it didn’t accept or pay out money, was seized by the authorities. When Boyd found Coors beer was unavailable in Hawaii, he and his son, Bill, along with their salespeople, flew in and delivered cases of Coors beer personally to their best travel agents. No other casino did anything like that, and the agents appreciated it. Boyd would throw annual mahalo parties for 2,500 Hawaii travel agents and their families at the Sheraton Waikiki, where they would launch their new packages for the year. Boyd’s plan worked. Hawaii people started going to Vegas instead of Reno. Everywhere they go, locals bring gifts with them. Las Vegas was no exception. Gamblers would arrive with a suitcase full of goodies from Hawaii, including Kona coffee, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, Maui onions and fresh pineapple for the hotel and casino staff. They would then fill their empty suitcases with gifts to bring home for friends. The most popular gift to bring home to Hawaii was beef jerky, which was hard to get and expensive back then. Herb Yamagata left a safe job with the U.S. Postal Service to open up Aloha Specialties at "The Cal" in 1984. It was the first beef jerky store in Las Vegas. "When I first opened up I had $1,200," Yamagata recalled. "That was all I had in my pocket. And the first group was from the Postal Service. They wiped out my store. I had nothing left. I would say it was $2,500 worth in one day. The first day!" He quickly borrowed $18,000 on his home, and on Thanksgiving weekend he sold $80,000 worth of beef jerky in four days. "Four days! Can you believe that? I was really surprised. I knew it was going to be busy, but not that busy. It threw me off guard. I needed to bring in much, much more beef jerky. We had to overnight-express it from Los Angeles!" Aloha Specialties has added a restaurant catering to locals, featuring teriyaki plates, stew, curries and saimin. One of the California’s marketing tactics was a fishing promotion with Kojima in the summer when many stayed away because of the heat. The National Park Service reserved a special area on Lake Mead where they could park the buses and go fishing. Six hundred people signed up. The Cal gave each entrant a rod and reel to use and keep. "Afterwards they would have a party in the convention room and give away prizes for the most fish caught, the biggest fish, the smallest fish, etc.," said Kojima. Some of the prizes were vacations in Hong Kong or Japan, and tickets on Northwest Airlines. Kojima would later air footage from the events on his TV show, which gave The Cal a lot of great publicity. The Cal still caters primarily to Hawaii residents, and visitors from Hawaii still make up the largest portion of Boyd Gaming’s customer base in downtown Las Vegas, says corporate communications director David Strow. "We currently operate five charter flights every week between Honolulu and Las Vegas through Vacations Hawaii, and guests from Hawaii make up more than two-thirds of our total hotel business at the California — along with slightly more than half of our hotel business at the Fremont and Main Street Station, our two other properties in downtown Las Vegas." "I believe the reason we have been successful — and it started with my father — is that we have maintained a loyalty to the people of Hawaii, and they’ve maintained a loyalty to us," says Bill Boyd. "It is a commitment we have made and stayed with all these years and never wavered from." "Sam Boyd and his staff took the business principle of knowing a community and the people who live in that community to a new level and created the No. 1 travel destination for Hawaii," writes Dennis Ogawa in "California Hotel and Casino: Hawaii’s Home Away from Home." Co-author and former California Hotel executive John Blink says, "Without the Hawaii market we could not have made the California Hotel so profitable that we were able to build or buy other properties including Sam’s Town, the Fremont Hotel and the Stardust, all within a period of 10 years." Sam Boyd died in 1993 at the age of 82. By the end of 2011, Boyd Gaming Corp. was a publicly traded company with 17 wholly owned casino entertainment properties in six states and assets of nearly $5.9 billion. And it all started because of Sam Boyd working in Hilo. Previous Story Finance Factors' small loans assisted a future governor Next Story How a Radford High grad became 'the Divine Miss M'