LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – The most common explanations for why Las Vegas is called Hawaii’s “Ninth Island” are silly, inadequate, devoid of historical perspective.
Says who? Two anthropology professors who studied what they call a “cultural phenomenon,” that’s who. The 50th state’s bond with Las Vegas did not evolve from some Hawaiian affinity for gambling or an appreciation of Southern Nevada’s so-called laid-back lifestyle.
The two professors say it’s all because of Sam Boyd, the Las Vegas casino owner and entrepreneur who died 30 years ago this month (Jan. 15).
“Boyd single-handedly is credited with creating the Hawaiian interest in Las Vegas out of nothing,” says Cynthia Van Gilder, who along with fellow Saint Mary’s College of California anthropology professor Dana Herrera studied the Las Vegas-Hawaii connection in 2018.
Initially, the professors came upon news stories, including in the New York Times and the two Honolulu daily newspapers, claiming “we all know Hawaiians love gambling” or that they are “natural gamblers.”
Their anthropology backgrounds caused them to scoff at such notions. “We weren’t buying this racial affinity for gambling,” Van Gilder says.
Research led them to Boyd. In the mid-1970s, Boyd’s downtown California Hotel & Casino was near bankruptcy, and to save it he looked to Hawaii.
The California project, completed in 1975 at a cost of $10 million, sought to lure Southern Californians to downtown Las Vegas, hence the property’s name. Boyd quickly discovered his target clientele didn’t like the resort’s location, off the Strip and distant to main attractions.
As a young man, Boyd was a dealer on a gambling barge that cruised the waters of Hawaii’s eight islands. He needed people to stay at the California, so … “He lived in the islands, and he got the idea to target Hawaiians to come to his hotel,” Van Gilder says.
Simple connection. Not so simple a task.
Boyd and one of his executives, John Blink, a marketing and sales expert, began making trips to Hawaii. They met with travel agents and conducted seminars on why Hawaiians should visit Las Vegas. Boyd even brought with them cases of Coors beer. The Colorado Banquet suds were popular on the islands but nearly impossible to get. Boyd’s island visits offered free beer and a sales pitch – Come to Las Vegas.
All of it was to cultivate relationships, Van Gilder and Herrera say, and it worked. Soon, Hawaiians were buying all-inclusive vacation packages to Las Vegas. The more he catered to his Hawaiian clientele, the more they came to “The Cal,” research showed.
Early on, as one story goes, Boyd was frustrated because his new guests weren’t dining at the hotel’s buffet, which featured traditional American fare, including roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and casseroles.
One of his chefs suggested Boyd change the menu. “Give them what they eat at home,” the chef said.
The buffet soon rolled out sticky rice, oxtail soup, lomi lomi salmon, kalbi-style ribs and kalua pork. Service jumped from 400 lunches and dinners daily to 1,200 to 1,500 and up to 2,000.
Boyd also created a “powerful tourism imaginary,” the professors said. For so many, Hawaii is paradise. Exotic, tropical, relaxing. He offered an image of Las Vegas as an adult playground, catering to every tourist’s want and need. So many Hawaiians employed in the tourism industry seemed to get it, the study showed.
“If you live in paradise, where do you vacation?” Van Gilder says. “What is the imaginary that captures their attention and tourist dollar?
Boyd’s skills of creating “tourism imaginary” and building relationships were so good, Hawaiians embraced him, his son and successor, Bill Boyd, said. “They considered my dad to be a local boy because he had lived in Honolulu,” the younger Boyd said. “He had run a gaming establishment there. He was one of them. And that’s why they’ve been very loyal to us.”
Boyd Gaming has maintained its relationship by returning some of that loyalty. For near on 50 years.
“They’ve stayed committed to it,” says Michael Green, a professor in the UNLV history department, of Boyd Gaming’s approach. “They say … we offer (Hawaiians) a lot of comfort but also with you being able to stay in your zone. You have a comfort zone, you can stay in the same place, find the same traditions.”
David Strow, vice president of corporate communications for Boyd Gaming, says company representatives still go to the islands to promote vacations. A few years ago, the California did a complete renovation. “From top to bottom it was done with our Hawaiian customers in mind,” he said of the island decor. “There’s an investment of time, showing our Hawaiian customers are so important to us.
“Sounds simple, but it takes a lot of work.”
Before the pandemic, Boyd Gaming had about four or five charter flights weekly with round trips from Hawaii to Las Vegas. Now, it partners with Hawaiian Airlines through its Vacations Hawaii travel agency, established in 1980, to offer complete packages, Strow says.
“We’re still trying to offer that friendly, welcoming experience,” Strow says.
Some of Boyd’s work probably led to a growth in Hawaiians and South Pacific islanders moving to Southern Nevada, both Green and Strow say.
Hawaiians visiting Las Vegas worked in the tourism and hospitality industry. They found in Las Vegas more affordable housing and, early on, perhaps a less hectic lifestyle, they say.
The California, and over time, the city of Las Vegas, became a Hawaiian fantasy, Van Gilder says. While Hawaii grew to a land inhabited by outsiders, filled with foreign investors and often unaffordable for many native Hawaiians, Las Vegas offered an alternative.
Today, more than 23,000 people who identify as Hawaiian, Asian or South Pacific islander, or about 1%, make up Clark County’s more than 2.3 million residents (2020 U.S. Census). Nevada ranks seventh among states in population of Hawaiian, Asian or South Pacific islander, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The growth is part of Boyd’s legacy, his commitment to saving the California from bankruptcy.
“The California is a miniature Hawaiian world that’s been created without the tensions and overcrowding so prevalent back home.” Van Gilder says.