Oasis of jobs: Cherokee casino emerges as a lifeline in sour economy

Help wanted signs aren’t too common these days. But there’s an anomaly here in the far end of the state, where Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is in the throes of a $633 million expansion, one that will bring 800 new jobs to an otherwise desolate labor market.

Hiring that many new workers — plus keeping up with turnover — is no small feat. The casino has averaged 30 new employees a week during the height of its expansion. It takes a staff of seven, day in and day out, to sift through all those applications and set up interviews. Hiring is such an all-consuming task that official signs point the way to “applicant parking” and even an “applicant entrance” on the casino property.

Harrah’s has hired 500 new employees over the past two years to run the new hotel tower, expanded gaming floor and half a dozen new restaurants. It has another 300 to go by this time next year when the expansion is built out.

“We are one of the few businesses that is adding jobs,” said Darold Londo, the general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “Name another company in North Carolina that will have 300 more employees at this time next year than they do today. You can’t. There isn’t one.”

The recession has made hiring easier for Harrah’s.

“When the economy was really going well, we had a bit more of a challenge finding people,” said Jo Blaylock, vice president of human resources at Harrah’s Cherokee. “The economy has helped us in that sense because a lot of people are without work.”

Employees are staying longer as well. Turnover averaged about 30 percent before the recession compared to 20 percent now.

“People are tending to hang on to their jobs. There aren’t a lot of other opportunities out there,” Blaylock said.

While out-of-work Realtors or laid-off teachers have given Harrah’s hiring a boost, Blaylock predicts some will return to their primary field when the economy recovers.

But for now, Harrah’s is an oasis of jobs in an employment desert.

Kim Gurdock of Franklin was ecstatic to land a job with Harrah’s recently after months of looking for work. She moved to the mountains from south Florida earlier this year, giving up more than two decades as a teacher to forge a new life in a better place. But the only job she could find was working at McDonald’s.

“I had applied for 42 jobs in Franklin,” Gurdock said, a list that included the school system, banks, grocery stores and retail. Gurdock felt like her lack of local roots was a strike against her.

She starts this week as a food runner in the VIP lounge at the casino. Her boyfriend also got a job at Harrah’s as a cook, and she hopes they can work the same shifts to carpool for the 45-minute commute.

Her story isn’t that unusual.

“It is amazing the number of job applications any more that we get for jobs. It used to be 15 applications, and now it is 75 or 80,” said Dale West, the Employment Security Commission manager for Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. “If there are openings, people will apply if they think they are at all qualified.”

Josh Williams, an accounting student at Western Carolina University trying to pay his way through school, was commuting from Sylva to Asheville to work at J.C. Penney, one of the only jobs he could find. But his hours kept getting cut. So he applied at Harrah’s on the advice of a friend at school. He starts this week in food service at the new Paula Deen’s Kitchen restaurant on the property.

He considers himself lucky “considering jobs are scare right now,” he said.


A blow to unemployment

Harrah’s payroll accounts for 8 percent of all wages and salaries in Jackson and Swain counties. It’s one of Western North Carolina’s largest employers, and not just for people in Cherokee.

Tribal members make up less than 20 percent of Harrah’s workforce — only 350 of the nearly 2,100 employees are Cherokee.

The number seems low at first blush, considering Cherokee is home to about 7,000 tribal members. Some are obviously too young or too old to work. Others are stay-at-home moms, disabled or have otherwise dropped out of the workforce.

A large number of tribal members work for tribal government and agencies, nearly 1,000. Then there’s the myriad gift shops, hotels and restaurants plying the tourist trade in Cherokee — and suddenly the pool to draw from locally isn’t all that large.

The upshot to the region is that the casino has to look outside Cherokee for a huge number of its employees.

Unemployment in Swain County was 18 percent in 1995 before the casino opened. It dropped to a low of just 5 percent in 2006.

“It has made all the difference in the world as far as unemployment,” said Brad Walker, the mayor of nearby Bryson City. “If you want a job, you can get one. It has improved the lives of a lot of the people in Bryson City and Swain County. It is fantastic.”

While the recession has driven unemployment in Swain back up to about 13 percent, it could be far worse without the casino.

Most notably, perhaps, is the improvement in the labor market in winter months when tourist jobs historically dried up. Before the casino, the unemployment rate in Swain regularly topped 30 percent in the winter. By 2006, however, unemployment even during the dead of winter was as low as 8 or 9 percent.

“Before the casino a lot of tourist places closed for the winter and now they stay open,” said Vicki Horn, who works at the Employment Security Commission in nearby Bryson City.

Interestingly, the success of the casino has made the total job market more robust, eating into the available workforce for the casino itself.

“The casino has allowed tribal members to work other places,” said Vicki Horn with the Employment Security Commission in Swain County.

Casino revenue flows to tribal coffers, creating jobs for members of the tribe. The same goes for private businesses now thriving thanks to casino spin off.

“This hotel wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the casino,” said Walker, the general manger of the Fairfield Inn in Cherokee.


A challenge to hiring

The huge influx of casino employees has stressed the affordable housing market. Affordable housing for blue-collar workers is a challenge in most communities. But it was particularly true in the mountains, where real estate prices have been driven sky high by the burgeoning retiree and vacation home market, leaving low-paid hourly workers in the service industry struggling to find housing they could afford.

A surprising number of new hires at the casino have moved here specifically for the work, but have trouble finding somewhere to rent.

“I had a guy come in yesterday who told me he had accepted a position at the casino and was looking for a rental,” said Megan Cookston, a Realtor at Yellow Rose Realty in Bryson City. “That is a problem in this area. They ask ‘Where do we look?’ and really the only place to guide them to is the newspaper, but there is not that much there.”

Yellow Rose manages short-term vacation rentals, and those have been doing a brisk business thanks to the massive $633 million expansion at the casino. Construction companies have been renting houses to put up their laborers in town for the job.

“Electricians, plumbers, people hanging sheetrock — it is just everything,” Cookston said.

To meet its hiring goals, Harrah’s solicited the help of Haywood Community College to hold job fairs on the casino’s behalf. Once a month, Harrah’s hiring team travels to Waynesville to tap a fresh pool of applicants.

“We can see 30 in a day instead of 30 driving over here,” Blaylock said.

Harrah’s has a strict drug testing policy that likely hurts its employment pool. All new hires are tested for illegal drugs using a hair sample, which detects substances going back 90 days, far more stringent than the standard urine test. Every month, the casino does random drug testing on 1 percent of the work force, selected from a computer-generated list.

“The drug test is something that we do not waver on,” Blaylock said. “I think some people don’t apply because they know we do drug testing.”


All about the perks

Salaries at Harrah’s vary widely based on the job. Stewards make $8 an hour, while cashiers make $9. But food service supervisors make $45,000 a year, and the grounds supervisors and top chefs make up to $55,000.

But the benefits, particularly the health insurance, make up for what the salaries may lack.

Nationwide, businesses are cutting benefits as they grapple with rising health care costs. Employees are ponying up a greater share of their insurance costs and forking over higher deductibles and co-pays.

At the casino, workers don’t pay a dime toward their health insurance.

“They are better benefits than you will find anywhere else,” Londo said. “You can thank the tribe for that. Cherokee has established that as the norm for anyone who works for the tribe.”

The tribe covers the full cost of medical, dental and vision insurance for all tribal employees, and extends those benefits to the casino as a tribal entity. Legally, the casino can’t have two tiers of benefits for employees — it can’t offer better coverage to enrolled members than non-tribal members — so everyone, whether Cherokee or not, enjoys the generous health insurance plan of the tribe, Blaylock said.

Harrah’s takes the health of employees seriously. As a self-insured entity, every doctor’s visit comes out of the casino’s bottom line.

To cut those costs, the casino is hiring an in-house physician’s assistant and will open two onsite exam rooms in January. Being able to see a doctor at work will also cut down on employees clocking out for doctor’s appointments.

Employees also get a physical every quarter. If they are overweight or if their cholesterol is too high, the casino gives them a cash incentive to meet health goals. Al Lossiah, a employee trainer, bragged about getting $75 for losing 25 pounds this year.

“Then I gained it back and they’ll pay me to lose it again,” he joked.

To encourage fitness, Harrah’s has an onsite workout room with treadmills, bikes and rowing machines open to any employee who wants to use it.

Some employees probably don’t need it though. Gaming hosts walk an average of eight miles every shift, while the laundry team hefts 12,000 pounds of linens in and out of machines each day.

Alternatively, a pair of black leather vibrating massage chairs are up for grabs on breaks or after your shift.

While health insurance tops the list of coveted benefits, it’s one of many offered by a company that prides itself on taking care of its employees. Workers get a 3 percent match to a 401K, plus a pension worth another 3 percent of their salary. Vacation time maxes out at a liberal six weeks after nine years on the job.

There’s non-tangible perks, too. Harrah’s partners with Southwestern Community College to offer GED classes onsite at the casino and covers the enrollment fee for anyone who wants to pursue it.

There’s also assistance of the monetary variety. Harrah’s makes grants or loans to employees that have fallen on hard times through its “employee care fund.”

If an employee is dealing with a difficult teenager at home, substance abuse in their family or the stress of caring for elderly parents, Harrah’s pays for counseling.

“It is easy to say leave those concerns at the door and come in and service the guests, but in reality it is not that easy to do that,” Blaylock said. “We take a holistic look at our employees. If they feel good about themselves, they will exude that when they are talking to the guests.”

In that sense, Harrah’s loyalty to its employees isn’t entirely benevolent. It’s a little more mercenary than that: happy employees equal happy players equal more money at the end of the day.


Total Harrah’s Cherokee employees: 2,084
Jackson    796*
Swain    690*
Haywood    308
Macon    121
Graham    50
Buncombe    27

*Figures for Jackson and Swain include employees living on the Cherokee Reservation, which lies partly in both counties.

Rank-and-file casino workers told to turn on the charm

In a basement classroom at Harrah’s casino, a fresh group of new hires stretched out before Al Lossiah, the latest in an endless stream of weekly newbies.

They were here to learn the art of moneymaking, with Lossiah as their guide, motivator, acting coach.

“You don’t have to like them, but you got to be nice to them,” Lossiah said. “You guys have been hired as entertainers now, you learn to act. When they walk in the door, this is what I see when I look at their face.”

He picked up a marker, turned to a dry erase board and drew a giant smiley face. But in place of eyes, he put two dollar signs.

“When you do your job, we all get paid,” Lossiah said. “Keep these people happy, keep them spending that money here.”

With 3.5 million guests tromping through the casino every year, smiling at each one of them can be taxing. But employees can’t afford to let down their guard. You never know which one is the high roller, Lossiah said.

Players spend hundreds of millions at Harrah’s every year. But it’s a relatively small number of players accounting for most of the play — roughly 10 and 20 percent of players account for 80 to 90 percent of the gaming revenue.

Lossiah and those who have worked there long enough know who the high rollers are. There’s one lady who spends about a million a month, every month, he said.

“She can go anywhere in the world she wants to go, the Riviera, anywhere. But she chooses to come to Cherokee. Why? Because we treat her like a queen,” Lossiah said.

“If I was out in the public and someone said ‘I got some dust on my shoes’ I’d say, ‘Here’s a quarter go call somebody who really cares,’” Lossiah said. “Here, I can treat anybody like a king and a queen. Can I get you a drink, can I get you a cup of coffee, and you smile at them.”

He pointed to his smiley face with the $$ eyes again.

“They pay good money for us to be nice to them,” Lossiah said.

For tribal members who work at the casino, there’s a double incentive. Tribal members get a share of casino profits, amounting to more than $7,000 for each of the 14,000 members of the Eastern Band last year.

“You do your job well, guests are happy, they stay longer and play more, the casino makes more money, and per cap checks are higher,” Lossiah said.


A different kind of interview

Job seekers eager to jump on the Harrah’s Casino gravy train should be forewarned: brush up on your singing and learn a few jokes.

To measure stage presence, applicants are put on the spot, not only in front of the hiring team but as one of 10 job seekers in a panel-style interview.

“We might say imitate your favorite celebrity. We want to see if they are inhibited and can’t stand up and talk, versus who can stand up and really sell themselves,” said Jo Blaylock, vice president of human resources at Harrah’s Cherokee.

It doesn’t matter if you are applying as a hotel maid or kitchen dishwasher, Harrah’s wants all employees to think of themselves as being in the entertainment business.

“Do you have the energy, do you have the personality, can you talk in front of people,” Blaylock said. “We are really looking for people who can converse and have good relationships with guests — people that can have a good time and have a good personality.”

Not every job demands such a disposition. There are plenty back-of-house jobs, from the laundry to the landscaping team. In that sense, placing new hires in the right job is just as important as who gets hired.

Harrah’s is loyal to its employees and will work to find a good fit

“There’s about 250 different things to do here,” said Darold Londo, the casino’s general manager.

There’s fulltime light bulb changers, people who repair torn upholstery — there’s even a full-time staffer dedicated to making sure the culinary desires and whims of stars performing at Harrah’s are met during their stay. Grocery bags of soda and chips were piled up in a posh backstage lounge a couple of weeks ago awaiting the weekend arrival of country star Travis Tritt.


‘Opportunities abound’

Rising through the ranks is common at Harrah’s. The prospect of promotion is part of the job allure.

“What I convey is if you like the organization and our DNA that is unique to Harrah’s, there are opportunities abound within our organization,” Londo said. “There are people doing things that are beyond their wildest aspiration when they started at this organization.”

Londo tries to plant the seed of a Harrah’s career track when speaking to new hires.

“I want you to look back in five years and see this as the defining moment in your professional career,” Londo told a recent batch.

To help develop managers from within, Harrah’s Cherokee has a team of four fulltime, in-house trainers.

When the Eastern Band launched its casino enterprise in 1997, the tribe was angling for more than just money. It hoped the business would provide jobs for tribal members, Londo said. Many in top jobs today are Cherokee who rose to their positions.

Employing columns of tribal members remains a major goal, but not everyone is cut out for customer service jobs, particularly in the casino sector where wooing players with smiles and charm seems to fall on everyone’s shoulders, even the $8.50  an hour food runners and carpet cleaners.

“That is a real live business challenge,” Londo said.

Since taking the helm at Harrah’s six years ago, Londo has made a point of dropping in on every new hire training, a first for general managers at the Cherokee casino. He spends an hour chatting up the week’s new hires, a non-scripted and free-wheeling spiel that feels more like friendly banter over happy hour than a corporate lesson from the top boss.

Londo’s goal is buy-in.

“I want you to look for ways to make this a better place to work and play tomorrow than it is today,” Londo told new hires.

As a kid, Londo was frustrated by Coke machines only accepting coins. So he wrote a letter to “Dear Mr. Coca-Cola” and suggested vending machines that took bills.

Londo encouraged employees to ignore the chain of command. While his old West Point military academy instructors might cringe to hear him say it, Londo told employees they don’t need to run to their supervisor with every question or problem, but instead take it to the person whose job it is.

Oddly, Londo stops short of the mantra of that the customer is always right.

“We will part ways with customers if they do or say something inappropriate because we value our employees,” Londo said. “We want to convey that we value our human resources and our most valuable asset.”

Keeping morale high for 2,000 employees and keeping everyone pulling in the same direction takes constant maintenance beyond that first week of training.

Londo recalled the “have you hugged a security officer today” campaign. It was fun at first, until security officers starting getting dozens of hugs every day from their coworkers.

“It kind of backfired,” Londo said.

Before every shift, supervisors lead their team in a “buzz session.”

“They play a game to get their energy going and get the laughter coming out, to get them pumped up for the day,” Blaylock said.

“A job doesn’t necessarily have to be a job. A job should be something you enjoy and have fun at,” Blaylock said.

“If we are having fun our guests are more likely to have fun. If guests have an enjoyable time they will come back.”

That’s where Lossiah comes back again and again to his smiley face on the dry-erase board, the one with dollar signs for eyes. His red laser pointer frequently finds its way to those $$ eyes during his new hire training.

Lossiah makes no apologies for it.

“That’s Harrah’s financial strategy,” Londo told a recent group of new hires. “We treat you well, you are satisfied you take that to the guests, treat them well, we have job security and financial success,” Lossiah said.

A masterful game of musical chairs

When all is said and expanded at Harrah’s, there will be 2,000 seats at the various restaurants scattered across the property. That’s enough for every employee at Harrah’s to sit down for a meal together, albeit at different restaurants.

It marks a massive expansion of the casino’s dining options — tripling its seating and bringing in a whole new line of culinary fare, from an upscale steak house to Dunkin Donuts.

Getting all the new restaurants ready for customers is a mammoth task that falls to Greg Gibson, the food and beverage director for the entire Harrah’s Cherokee operation.

Just deciding which restaurants should earn a spot in the made-over casino resort was a challenge. Not everyone who visits the casino is on the same budget or has the same tastes. Meanwhile, Harrah’s is trying to rebrand itself, shedding the casino-with-hotel image and moving towards a full-service resort mentality. And what kind of food is served at a place like that?

For Gibson, a lot of his job is trying to determine that.

“It’s about having different levels available for different guests, having a well rounded portfolio as we come into a resort,” he said.

So Gibson looks at focus groups and customer feedback to make sure the direction they’re moving in is the right one.

“We look at different developments and different price points (to see) how much demand would we have for 800 seats total of one type or one price point of food,” said Gibson.

He’s out on the floor, he makes the rounds, he shakes the customers’ hands so he can get a better handle on who they are and exactly what they want.

Some of the new offerings are an Asian Noodle Bar, Paula Deen’s Kitchen and a food court, home to Johnny Rockets, Dunkin Donuts, a deli and pizzeria Uno’s, which are already open. Alongside those will be Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Brio, an Italian Eatery and the Chef’s Stage Buffet, which will feature cuisine from around the world.

Gibson has a lot of corporate experience with Harrah’s, he’s been with the company for 13 years. But he knows what it’s like to work the restaurant floor, too. As a Louisiana college student, he was a bartender for a local hangout before opening his own restaurant, the Caddyshack Bar and Grill. From there, he moved into the casino world and has worked his way up since, now piloting Harrah’s food and beverage into an era where cafeteria-style buffets are giving way to high-class steak joints and upscale Italian eateries.

All those new restaurants require a few hundred new employees, whether it’s bussing tables or prepping food.

The person teaching employees what to do with this new paradigm is Denise Morrison, the food and beverage trainer. Like Gibson, she’s had a long and storied career with Harrah’s, starting in 1986 as a valet parker. From there, she moved further into hotel operations, became a cashier and then cashier manager in what they affectionately call ‘the cage.’

Now, she teaches supervisors how to teach the Harrah’s way.

“I assist managers, directors and supervisors in opening the food outlets, mentoring new supervisors and new employees. I’m a counselor, I’m a teacher, I have a lot of different roles,” said Morrison.

She helps write the standard operating procedures, then makes sure they’re being followed. She helps supervisors know exactly what their employees should be doing. She’s teaching them to cater to the kind of people who come to a resort, and being a resource for them when things don’t exactly work.

“The people skills are where my forte is,” said Morrison, and even amidst opening a bevy of new restaurants, the most thrilling part of what she does will always be the people. “I enjoy being with the employees, I enjoy seeing them grow, I enjoy taking a new hire and molding them into getting another position. I like to see them become successful and just have that passion. That sometimes is hard to find.”


Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

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Dishwasher extraordinaire

Dishwasher extraordinaire

Jeremiah Chatham is the kind of person who looks far too gregarious to be wearing a suit. He has an open face, an easy laugh and is prone to a quizzical, smiling expression that’s at once friendly and disarming.  

Chatham is the recently appointed executive steward at Harrah’s, which is a deceptively vague title for a hard-to-define job.

Basically, Chatham is supposed to make sure everything food-related stays clean — the dishes and cutlery and glassware and trashcans. Where cleaning and food service intersect, well, there will Chatham be also.

But really, it’s more than that, and the job is ever-changing, as Harrah’s grows and spawns new eateries, a new employee dining room and new buffets, to name a few.

“Every time I’m able to quantify it and define it, then we just grow,” says Chatham.

As the property grows ever upward and out, even the walls aren’t guaranteed to always be in the same place, a consequence of working in the middle of a massive construction zone.

“I remember when I first started here we’d have this pathway that we walked through. One day, I’m finishing shift and the pathway that I used to take now had walls,” says Chatham, by way of illustration.

Part of the challenge, in that kind of environment, is ensuring that the behind-the-scenes stay that way — in the back of house.

“I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about is the logistics of trash. That you see a trashcan, and when you’re in a resort operation the trashcan is never full,” says Chatham. “You don’t think about where your trash goes, but there is a major process to it, there are all these steps that we have to take to make sure that it’s out of sight and out of mind.”

And the composting of all the food coming off the many restaurant lines is another, major operation entirely. It’s all sent to the Cherokee landfill for repurposing into compost, and Harrah’s is the top contributor.

And as new restaurants keep moving in, one of his top priorities is streamlining how all the cleaning, composting and trash pickup is done.

Sure, Paula Deen’s Kitchen has totally different forks than The Noodle Bar, but they should be washed the same way.

“The ultimate goal is to get every outlet essentially to run the same way, so that when we walk into Paula Deen’s, it should be just as clean as the food court,” says Chatham.

Doing that, he says, requires an intimate knowledge of how every process works to begin with, which is why his favorite part of the week is losing the suit and donning a work uniform, getting into one of the restaurants alongside his 70-person team and working a shift with them.

“I like it because it lets me see what problems we have procedurally,” says Chatham. “You need to be administrative and be operational at the same time. You need to know how to balance that.”

A balancing act is really what his job is becoming, a balancing act on a steep learning curve.

There has never before been an executive steward at Harrah’s Cherokee. This is the make-it-up-as-you-go phase. And in the midst of that, the job is doubling and, by the end, the stewarding staff will probably double, too.

Although it may be his first time in this job, Chatham knows this business back to front.

He’s been working in food service for a decade, in every position from the very front to the very back of the house. He finds something of a poetry in how he’s come full circle, from his first position as a dishwasher back to this job, a kind of king of the dishwashers.

In fact, he started at Harrah’s as a server, with no view towards bigger things. But after putting in his ten years on the line, this was the next natural progression.

Most of Harrah’s guests have no idea that Jeremiah Chatham exists, but without him, their experience would be a lot different in seemingly small ways that make a big difference.


Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

Gardener sees casino as a canvas

Finding a custom fit 2,000 times over

A masterful game of musical chairs

Finding a custom fit, 2,000 times over

Deep in the labyrinthine basement at Harrah’s, in an ordinary hallway sits an extraordinary room. There’s a service counter and a door, and it seems, at first blush, like a standard work-and-storage room — a few shelves, some sewing machines on desks and a row or two of wardrobe racks.

The room that holds the wardrobe department is, however, TARDIS-like: it’s bigger on the inside.

And Arlene Reagan truly couldn’t be prouder.

Come in and look straight upwards, and before you unfolds an entire story of snaking racks, filled with skirts and shirts and raincoats and blazers and specially-tailored dresses and elaborate Asian-inspired costumes — the image of Harrah’s Cherokee, expressed in clothes.

This is Reagan’s domain. She’s the wardrobe supervisor, and on her automated racks are the uniforms of 47 different departments, enough to dress anyone from size zero to 26.

Every last person who dons a uniform for Harrah’s crosses Reagan’s threshold. No oversized shirts or misshapen pants miss her inspecting eye. Unlike many uniformed companies, employees here get fitted before hitting the floor. Some such as beverage severs who roam the gaming floors, cocktail tray in hand, get a custom tailored fitting, a uniform melded to their precise shape. Front desk clerks, in dry-clean-only suits, get the same courtesy.

Everyone else leaves the wardrobe room with what Reagan calls a street fit, an outfit that fits like you’d buy it yourself.

And with employees rotating in and out in a never-ending cycle — there’s a new hire class every week — the job in wardrobe is never done. The department closes for six hours each day, from midnight to 6 a.m. Otherwise, Reagan, her two seamstresses and five clerks are busily fixing and fitting for 18 hours a day.

They sew on buttons and hem pants and skirts and resize for those on the up or down swing of a weight-loss plan. A handmade dress hangs on a rack next to a sewing machine, modified for maternity after a beverage server announced her pregnancy.

Then there’s the testing. Of the 47 departments, Reagan helps managers pick new uniforms every few years. They bring in vendors, have a fashion show and then they test.

When clothing 2,000, it’s tempting fate to take the manufacturer at its word.

“We would look for the construction, the durability, we would run it past a stain test,” says Reagan. “If it was a beverage server garment, we would take everything that they would come into contact with and we spill it.” Coke, coffee, vodka, grape juice, cleaner. And then they wash it. Does it shrink or pill or stretch or otherwise react weirdly? Is it uglier post-wash?

For the seamstresses and clerks, it’s a constant education. With nearly four dozen departments and numerous different uniforms in each, an encyclopedic knowledge of how each works is essential.

Reagan came to the job when the casino opened in 1997 with a home economics degree, a remnant of days past, and experience making traditional Native American costumes. Plus, she’d just been sewing her whole life.

She has a warm, motherly air and a practical, cheerful demeanor. She’s reminiscent of Julia Childs, forthright and merry, and like the famed cook, came to her career later in life, after seeing her children through high school.

A lot of her clerks and seamstresses came from the now-diminished manufacturing sector that once employed many behind a sewing machine. There’s not much turnover here, but with those skills becoming harder to come by, finding their eventual replacements may prove challenging.

Though Harrah’s is entering ever-new iterations of itself, Reagan has watched the company’s outfits move rather more cyclically over the last 14 years, much like fashion in the wider world.

“It kind-of goes in a cycle,” she says, offering an example. “When we started out in beverage, they were in a dress, then after that they were in a bustier, then they were in a jacket, now we’re looking again back at a bustier.”

The current beverage dress du jour is somewhere between dress and bustier, a cropped jacket and tailored A-line skirt.

The looks have come and gone over the years, but Reagan’s business has barely changed.

As with any job, she’s learned tricks to make it better. There’s now a chute for dry clean clothes. The clerks have learned an assembly line to fly through routine repairs.

The best part of the job, she says, is the people. And while everyone says that about their job, when Reagan says it, it is truly believable.

She makes people look good, because good-looking people work better and better-working people make the company better.

“You get paid for being nice,” says Reagan. What, she asks, could be better?


Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

Gardener sees casino as a canvas

Dishwasher extraordinaire

A masterful game of musical chairs

Gardener sees casino as a canvas

Twelve thousand. That’s how many annuals Zeke Cooper and his crew have installed in the last month in and around the hotel and casino, adding summery punches of color to the landscape and bringing some organic life to the gleaming interiors at Harrah’s.

Cooper, the grounds supervisor, is in charge of the living décor at the casino, the thousands upon thousands of plants that dot the grounds and fill beds in every building.

That 12,000-strong installation he just completed will happen three more times in the next year, as the seasons change and the flowers wither. When they come out of the ground, some will go to the compost pile and some will get new homes in other venues around the property. They’ll all be replaced by a new design, planned six or more months in advance.

“It’s a little overwhelming sometimes,” says Cooper, whose background is in landscape architecture. “There’s probably a mixture of tens of thousands of plants. Right now in the hotel alone there’s over a thousand annual begonias. That’s coming probably in a three to five week cycle, constantly changing out.”

Simply put, Cooper is in charge of all the plants and everything that’s outside. He and his crew of seven keep the parking garages clean, the plants watered and growing, the live installations constantly pruned and changed with the weather.

They start at 6:30 every morning, scouring the grounds, looking for things like plant problems and trash and weed encroachment. Everybody has a section and they spend the morning looking for problems and the rest of the day fixing them.

Because of its picturesque mountain setting, it’s almost a challenge in itself to make Harrah’s match the natural beauty that surrounds it.

And with the new expansion, the landscape — in the shape of a rushing creek running through the heart of the hotel and casino complex — is now a part of Harrah’s itself.

It’s Cooper’s job to take advantage of that, working behind the scenes to make the outdoor areas change seamlessly from winter to spring, summer back into fall.

In the sometimes-harsh winters of the Western North Carolina mountains, keeping a lively, colorful horticultural atmosphere is not always easy.

“There’s a lot of science behind it and a lot of study and education behind everything we do,” says Cooper, and then there’s old-fashioned trial-and-error, too.

“It’s a fickle thing,” he says. “Sometimes you think you’re putting them in the right area and then they’re not going to do anything.”

It’s a process of learning things like microclimates — plants plopped down next to a parking garage might as well be in a desert, thanks to the heat radiating from the car-filled building — and color wheels.

Got a red building? It’s best to pair it with whites and yellows. For rust, go with brighter reds.

And then you get creative. What will look lively in the bitter cold of winter? Maybe red twig dogwood; the blooms will be gone, but the deep red branches are their own kind of winter art.

Like any artist, each landscape architect has their own creative flair. Cooper likes going for the big effect.

“I like to do large, vast blocks of color,” he says. “It just kind-of makes a larger impact.”

The impact, at Harrah’s, is key, especially when they’re trying to wow patrons who have frequented the place for years. Keeping it fresh is a challenge on multiple levels, and as the place blossoms into an ever-more-massive resort, it’s the details that will give the biggest impact.

“Because the property is so vast, there’s a lot of areas that haven’t been really detailed in the past just because it is so big,” says Cooper.

You may never see a Harrah’s groundskeeper, but look anywhere and you’ll probably see their work.


Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

Finding a custom fit 2,000 times over

Dishwasher extraordinaire

A masterful game of musical chairs

Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

Go to Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino on any given day, and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter a promotion of some kind. You could win a cruise. Or a car. Or $10,000. Or just more chances to play the slots.

At the height of the pre-recession glory days in 2007, the casino was running different promotional ploys to attract customers five days out of seven. These days, it’s scaled back a bit. But the number of ways the facility is trying to bring in potential gamblers is still into the hundreds a year. And it’s Leann Bridges’ job to think up new ways every day.

She is the vice president of marketing at Harrah’s, and she has a team of people who come up with new and different ways to make Harrah’s a more enticing place to come.

“We do a lot of brainstorming,” said Bridges, because it’s a challenge to keep the same product new and fresh.

Gambling, of course, will always attract the committed players. But getting the occasional gambler — and getting them to come back again — is the job of the marketing team. Because, unlike a clothing store or restaurant, there aren’t often new lines coming out and the gambling menu doesn’t often change.

So creativity is paramount for Bridges and her colleagues to get players to spend more and play longer. And they do come up with some interesting ideas. There was a long-running trout challenge for a shot at the $100,000 purse, where players earned points over two weeks of play toward a shot at fishing for the winning trout.

There are cash pots to be won by swiping your casino card, only to see the ante upped — keep the money, try for more? There are retail promotions, car giveaways, vacation getaways. Imagine a promotion, and Harrah’s has probably done it.

Around Bridges’ office, you can see the detritus of promotions gone by. A large disco ball sparkles in the corner, holdover from some past event.

But really, she said, for all the different spins they put on them, those in the business know that there are essentially three types of promotions. And making people think this or that one is special, day after day and year after year, is where the real talent comes in.

“It’s very, very difficult keeping things fresh,” said Bridges. There are some big breadwinners they can fall back on time after time, that people know and look forward too, such as the casino’s long-running take on the car giveaway called Fast Lane Frenzy.

“We have some brand equity in that, but if we tried to run that every single month it wouldn’t be successful,” said Bridges. So on top of that brainstorming, a lot of what they do in her department is borrowing. She trawls the internet regularly, looking for interesting deals.

Every time she hears a commercial on TV offering some new, hot setup or contest, she perks up. Part of the job is hearing other marketing ploys and thinking, ‘I know how that works, and how could we make it work better?’

Just last weekend, said Bridges, she stopped by a Chick-fil-a and picked up some ideas from its current pitch.

And unlike on the casino floor, the house doesn’t always have the advantage when it comes to promotions. What brings people in is sometimes as surprising to Bridges and her crew as anyone else, and much of their success comes from a minutely analyzed process of trial and error.

Say there’s a $15,000 prize giveaway. Analytical programs calculate how many people will be lured to play and how much — an ultimately how much revenue it would generate. Would it bring in enough to make up for the prize payout?

“There a lot of different ways that we can slice and dice the data to tell us this drove people in there, people opted in, there was a high level of interest in this,” said Bridges.

And, as with most business propositions, it’s revenue generation that matters. In the past, that has meant more money and customers in the casino. Until now, that’s been the name of the game: casino customers.

Their base demographic has always been the 55-year-old female slot player, and that was the crowd that the contests, giveaways and sweepstakes were playing to.

But with the massive expansion that’s remodeling the place, the focus is shifting entirely.

“There’s still a lot of people that think we’re just a little slot house. People don’t even know what we are in some cases. So we have that group of people that we need to address and talk to and educate,” said Bridges. These days, the buzzword around Harrah’s Cherokee is resort. Once, they say, we were a casino with a hotel. Now, we’re a resort. And not everyone that comes to a resort even wants to play the slots. At a casino, it’s all about the gaming. At a resort, it’s all about the experience.

So Bridges and her team are changing their game to get those people. What if some people came to Harrah’s and never spent a dime gambling?

That is the new goal.

They’re not leaving their old, core clients behind. And the gambling will always be there. But the new challenge is creating wild and wildly enticing promotions that are still doable.

In the past, they tweaked the contest to the clientele. One game had a giveaway that was valid for only five minutes after the winner’s name was called. Hear your name, you have five minutes to get to the prize redemption window. With that one, Bridges heard complaints because, well, Harrah’s clientele on the whole aren’t exactly young, lithe athletes. They couldn’t make it across the building in time to claim the prize. The time limit will be upped in response.

The same mindset, said Bridges, is what they have to take forward if they want new people to come.

“We are changing everything about Harrah’s Cherokee,” she said. “It’s almost like starting from the ground up. This is going to be a totally new facility, a new experience. And for us, no two days are ever the same.


Gardener sees casino as a canvas

Finding a custom fit 2,000 times over

Dishwasher extraordinaire

A masterful game of musical chairs

Behind the casino curtain: Keeping a 56-acre complex running no matter what

Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino towers over the landscape in Cherokee, its three hotel towers only surpassed in height by the mountains providing its backdrop.

The polished product it offers patrons — legal gambling in a refined setting with a high-class feel not found elsewhere in the region — is only a fraction of what happens on the 56-acre footprint that Harrah’s occupies.

Running the operation is a machine, and keeping all the working parts moving 24 hours a day means it must be immaculately oiled.

Laundry for the hotel alone amounts to around 12,000 pounds a day. There is so much, in fact, that it has to be taken to a large warehouse laundry a mile up the road.

The casino and hotel complex has 4.46 miles of walkways and corridors that must be vacuumed and kept trash free. Thousands of windows have to be washed.

Powering the campus is a monstrous feat in itself, and in a non-stop video gambling palace, there can be no such thing as a power outage. The casino employs eight generators, capable 16 megawatts of power. It’s enough power to light up the entire Cherokee reservation. It’s so much power that, on particularly toasty summer days when air conditioners are running full tilt across the state, Duke Energy calls up to ask Harrah’s a favor: can they switch over to their generators to free up power load on the grid?

Speaking of AC, the units that serve the new gaming floor each move 35,000 cubic feet of air every minute — designed to continuously pump out the cigarette-smoke laden air and pump fresh, clean air in.

And how, exactly, do you keep a place with miles and miles of corridors and gaming floors and restaurants and hotel rooms and lobbies full of fresh air?

“We pay for it,” says Norma Moss, laughing bluntly. Moss is in charge of operations at Harrah’s, so she knows precisely which cogs must turn in which wheels to keep things running smoothly.

And with 2,000 employees and a 24-7 schedule, the logistics can be slightly nightmarish, with cleaning being a particular challenge. It seems somewhat uncouth to clean around customers, but the customers never fully leave, so Moss and her team have to get creative in their efforts. On top of that, though, they just put a lot of man hours into it.

“We have people that do nothing but pull trash out of trash cans off the casino floor,” says Moss. “They pull trash out of cans and put in a new liner. That’s their whole job, that’s what they do every day. They’re not reassigned.”

There are people who come in the dead of night to do heavy cleaning in the parking garages. There are people who constantly empty ashtrays.

There is an on-site upholsterer who repairs and replaces the multitude of furniture, from hotel room sofas to stools on the gaming floor. There are people who roam the halls, replacing thousands and thousands of light bulbs.

That alone is a challenge, given the dozens of different light bulb types found throughout the casino and hotel, some highly specialized and very expensive indeed.

Basically, if you see something wrong anywhere in Harrah’s, there are probably people for that.

The place is gargantuan, so there are going to be problems. The goal, says Moss, is not just staying on top of them but staying ahead of them.

Even though there is a specialized job for just about everything — about 250 different job descriptions in all— the philosophy is that everyone should be responsible to the whole thing.

See peeling wallpaper? Tell somebody, make sure it gets taken care of.

Burned out light bulb? Missing trim? Cracked window?

When it comes to staying ahead of the avalanche in a non-stop business, Harrah’s has taken a leaf from the Department of Homeland Security’s book: if you see something, say something.

And it shows in their maintenance record. When things break, a form, of course, gets filled out. When the thing is fixed, the form is closed out. They close about 700 a week, says Moss. There are fewer than 20 that are two weeks old, ever.

It’s how they keep the machine from spilling out into the front of the house, this seemingly paradoxical philosophy: something is specifically your job, but everything is everyone’s job.

Paying no attention to the man behind the curtain is much easier when there are 2,000 wizards running the machine.

Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

Gardener sees casino as a canvas

Finding a custom fit 2,000 times over

Dishwasher extraordinaire

A masterful game of musical chairs

It’s time to approve dealers at Harrah’s casino

Been to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino? Even if you don’t gamble, I’d encourage a walk through. My bet is you’d be absolutely astounded at what is happening in Cherokee.

I took a media tour a couple of weeks ago and, honestly, couldn’t believe what I saw. The reality that there is something that huge, that glitzy and that busy juxtaposed so near secluded mountains, vast wilderness areas and all of our very quaint, very small downtowns at first take seems a little odd.

What’s not odd, though, is how Harrah’s has changed the fortunes of the tribe — and the region — for the better. In fact, as this recession lingers, it’s painful to imagine how Cherokee, Swain and Jackson counties would be faring without the casino revenue.

The casino, in what is admittedly an understatement, has blossomed. It now employs more than 2,000, and that will go up to 2,400 once the current expansion project is done. It attracts about 3.6 million gamers annually, making it the state’s largest tourist attraction.

And now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants approval, to use a poker term, to go all in: it wants dealers instead of video machines, a move that it estimates would add at least another 400 jobs. Along with those dealers, say gambling industry insiders, would come tens of thousands of more patrons.

The governor and the tribe are both playing hardball in the dealer negotiations, and reportedly the two are not very close to a deal. The state wants an agreement with the tribe for a percentage of casino revenue for its coffers before allowing dealers. While we agree that the state should gets its fair share, we also hope state leaders take into account what Harrah’s provides for a region that has little industry, few large corporations, and traditionally doesn’t get the attention that is lavished on the coast or the urban centers in the Piedmont. I suspect every leader in this part of the state wants the casino to continue to prosper.

Here’s what leaders in Raleigh need to understand: the casino is the right kind of tourist attraction for the mountain region. It doesn’t pollute like a traditional factory (and thereby spoil the attraction of the mountains), doesn’t add to urban sprawl, doesn’t strain infrastructure, and its patrons come for a few days, spend their money and leave.

The state spends millions on tax breaks to attract jobs in other parts of the state, and yet it could shackle the next planned casino expansion because it wants more revenue than the tribe has so far been willing to relinquish.

It’s been more than a decade since the state let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to gambling. Not only did leaders roll out the welcome mat for the casino, it has since set up a lottery. So there’s no moral or ethical argument for delaying approval of the tribe’s attempt to win approval for dealers. It’s all about the money.

The governor, state leaders and the tribe need to get a deal done so Western North Carolina’s lead economic engine can reach its full potential.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

High stakes casino expansion tests the theory: If we build it, will they come?

When a new federal law in the 1990s opened the door for Indian tribes to build casinos, it set the stage for economically-depressed reservations to become masters of their own destiny, to create wealth where none existed before and improve the quality of life for their people.

“Some have and some haven’t,” said Darold Londo, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “Cherokee was willing and able to make tough decisions that didn’t come easily within the tribe. They were wise and courageous to have done what they did.”

While the casino appears from the outside to be a shining beacon of money, launching the enterprise took more than flipping on an “open” sign and watching the money roll in.

“It took a lot of smart, difficult work with a lot of people in the tribe and Harrah’s to market this operation,” Londo said. “It blew the expectations of the tribe and Harrah’s away. It was more successful than people had ever expected.”

A decade later, Cherokee found itself once again at a crossroads. Since the casino first opened in 1997, there had been growth spurts followed by plateaus.

“We knew there was another plateau coming,” said Principle Chief Michell Hicks said. “At some point, like any product, it gets stale. The customer loses interest. If you don’t keep it fresh there is a risk of losing the customer base.”

The risk of doing nothing — of watching the casino grow old and tired — seemed much worse than the leap of faith by the tribe to go for another expansion.

“It is making sure the casino stays ahead of the customer wants and needs but also make sure we can push the profit level as high as we can possibly can,” Hicks said.

The tribe embarked on a massive $633 million expansion in 2007 to remake the casino and hotel into a luxury resort.

Since then, however, the recession has taken its toll on casino profits. Revenue fell for three consecutive years following a high in 2007. Cherokee was not alone. The trend was industry-wide.

But the decline led many in the tribe to question whether the massive expansion was ill-conceived.

The outlook is improving. Profits are up 10 percent for the first six months of the year over the same six months last year. It’s a sign perhaps not so much of a better economy, but that pieces of the expansion coming on line: the third hotel tower is humming, the concert venue is in full-swing, new restaurants are opening every few months.


Was it worth it?

A big question still looms in the minds of tribal members: was the expansion worth it? It came at a cost — $633 million to be exact. And now the tribe must pay off that debt using its cut of casino profits.

The expansion must reap enough new business to justify the cost — otherwise it could hurt the tribe’s bottom line instead of help, the massive debt eating away at profits.

But that seems unlikely.

“Any business decision you will look back and say ‘should we have done it, should we have not,’” Hicks said.

But for Hicks, he still believes it was the right move, particularly given the bargain interest rates the tribe could get.

As for the recession, however, Hicks admits the timing wasn’t ideal.

“With regards to the economy it didn’t match up as well,” Hicks said.

Cherokee is smart for remaking the casino into a resort, according to Vin Narayanan, a national casino industry expert and managing editor of Casino City Press.

Had Cherokee remained static and not pushed for a massive expansion, its outlook five years from now would not be good. The casinos faring poorly right now are those offering little to guests other than a gaming floor lined with slot machines.

But resort-style casinos, with onsite hotels, shopping and dining: “that has been a proven formula for success,” Narayanan said.

Cherokee had been somewhere in between: not a simple slot-parlor, but not a full-fledged resort either. The new resort amenities will not only attract new guests, but also younger guests.

It will also diversify their revenue stream. Less than a decade ago, 80 to 85 percent of revenue for Vegas casinos came from the gambling side.

“Now it is almost 50-50. Almost half their revenue is coming from dining, hotels, the shopping, that whole thing,” Narayanan said. “It is not just about gaming.”

Cherokee’s casino competition doesn’t just come from Atlantic City, the Gulf Coast or Vegas. It is competing against cruise lines and Disney World — the whole sphere of entertainment dollars.

At least revenues are climbing again now. If not for the expansion, they could be flat or still dropping.

Londo predicts the Cherokee casino won’t get back to past profit levels until 2012 — three years ahead of the rest of the industry.

“In the industry they are not projecting a return to those types of levels until 2015. That is a testament to the capital investment in this property that we’ll return much sooner to previous levels,” Londo said.

Hicks points out that 2010 would in fact have held steady from 2009 if not for three bad months in the winter, when Cherokee was surrounded on three sides by landslides blocking the way to Western North Carolina. Rockslides shut down Interstate 40, U.S. 64 and U.S. 441, essentially blocking all routes to Cherokee from points west.

“We had some variables there we couldn’t control,” Hicks said.


Protect the monopoly

While the economy has tempered the tribe’s hopes for the expansion, things could be much worse: gambling could be legalized in North Carolina or a surrounding state.

That should be the tribe’s biggest fear, according to Narayanan.

“States are in a world of hurt from a revenue standpoint,” Narayanan said. “If the North Carolina budget becomes bad enough, they might bring in an industry that is willing to get taxed at a ridiculously high rate. A few hundred million in revenue starts to look pretty good.”

That’s exactly what’s happened in some New England states, putting a major dent in Atlantic City’s monopoly, and thus its profits.

“It is like McDonald’s and Burger King, there is a finite amount of fast food revenue that the industry is competing for,” Narayanan said.

Closer to home, the state of Ohio sanctioned four casinos in the throes of recession budget woes. Each will rival the number of games offered at Cherokee, and two are resort-style casinos carrying a construction price tag of close to $1 billion.

As the only game in town, Cherokee has a clear advantage. The next closest casino is a day’s drive any way you slice it: the Mississippi River, the Gulf Coast, Atlantic City, or the many casinos run by northern and mid-western Indian tribes, from Oklahoma to Iowa.

But that advantage only goes so far. The rest has taken the blood, sweat and tears of an entire tribe to realize.

“The thought that we aren’t in a competitive market based on our geography is a false perception,” said Londo, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “There is a percentage of gamers that are relatively promiscuous. They will travel to the right environment for them. In some cases, it is just as easy to hop on a plane. Nobody has the lock on that business, even if they have a geographic advantage.”

The lack of competition can even be a turn-off. Some gamers like the action of casino-hopping.

“Some people if they are going to make an effort to game they want options and choices,” Londo said.

Cherokee’s sprawling casino expansion does its best to make up for that.

“Here we were very deliberate in creating zones, so it had a different look and feel because people do want that change in scenery,” Londo said. Different lighting, different music, a different mood — and different luck.

The marriage between the tribe and Harrah’s has been a happy one. Harrah’s brings the expertise and know-how to running a casino. The tribe benefits from its name recognition and cross-marketing of other casinos.

In return, it gets a management fee, based on a percentage of the profits.

“As we’ve grown in our capabilities, Harrah’s has learned as much from us as we learn from them,” said Erik Sneed, construction oversight liaison for the expansion. “We’ve been very smart in the way we do our business to stay ahead of the curve.”

Ultimately, Harrah’s is a corporation, while the tribe is beholden to social, cultural and civic goals. Their goals aren’t mutually-exclusive, but there are differences, Londo said.

“What you will find inherent for tribes is they want to prevail over a longer period of time, whereas companies beholden to Wall Street want to focus on short-term results,” Londo said.

Cherokee is more interested in ensuring revenues will still be strong five years from now and less concerned about the current state of business affairs, Londo said. And the tribe also wants to provide jobs for tribal members and see them promoted in the company.


In the trenches

When 46-year-old Londo took the helm at Harrah’s Cherokee in 2006, the tribe was eyeing an expansion in the neighborhood of $400 million.

Not big enough, Londo thought. He believed Cherokee had more market potential than that. It meant “going bigger, and a lot bigger in some cases,” Londo said.

But there’s a fine line.

“Nobody wants to be in a facility that feels empty, that lacks excitement and enthusiasm,” Londo said. “If you were going to err you would err on the side of being just a little smaller than a little too big. It feels energetic.”

Londo has Ojibwa ancestry, though he didn’t grow up on a reservation. His parents ran a restaurant in Milwaukee. His first memory is as a five-year-old boy, filling an ice chest in Londo’s Lounge.

He went to West Point, and became a captain in the military, flying Cobra attack helicopters and then training other pilots. He got his MBA on the side, then quit the service and went to law school. After working 10 years in the field of business law, he landed a job with Harrah’s in Atlantic City 2002 and rapidly rose through the ranks.

Londo is cool and calm by nature, to be expected from his West Point education and military training. He exudes the virtue of self-discipline.

The expansion on the horizon was a major drawing card for Londo to leave Atlantic City and move to comparatively rural Western North Carolina.

Londo lives in Sylva with his wife and three kids, ages 12, 16 and 17. As far as the family is concerned, it stacks up to their past life just fine.

“My wife probably enjoys it the most. She says if you have a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s you are good-to-go,” Londo said.

“I would have been a lot less excited to come here if Cherokee wasn’t on the eve of exploiting its growth potential,” Londo said.

Londo instantly immersed himself in the master planning for the expansion.

No decision seemed to small for Londo to weigh in on. Where should valet parking drop-off be? How many seats should the buffet have, or the concert venue? Which would be better, a new Italian restaurant or a steak house? As for retail, a ladies footwear shop or consumer electronics?

A master planning committee of the casino’s top management and architects had their own “situation room” dedicated to the expansion, where such details were hashed out.

“There was a time when I was in design, construction and right-sizing type meetings three-and-a-half days a week,” Londo said.

But it was his forté and he loved it.

“The military trains you to plan, plan, plan. Planning is important,” Londo said.

When the tribe set its sights on a major expansion of the casino, one of the first steps was a critical casino-hopping tour in Atlantic City to check out the competition. Far from a sightseeing junket, however, the team had a rigorous itinerary, visiting several casinos a day with notepads in hand.

Those on the trip each had their own take-away goals. Rather than honing in on the price points for buffet menus, Sneed was on a big-picture quest.

“For me, it was about the quality of the experience. How do you design a space that is beautiful and fabulous but is still functional?” Sneed asked.

He also wondered how amenities were integrated into the gaming floor. Restaurants and shops were one thing the casino lacked, and in addition to sheer square-foot expansion of the gaming floor, the amenities would be a major focus of construction.

How are drink windows tucked in to the gaming floor? How close does the food court come to the tables?

The master plan team didn’t close the books once ground was broken. They were constantly refining.

“That blueprint or playbook that you established isn’t set in stone, so as conditions change you can adapt to it,” Londo said.

Most notably, the advent of alcohol. Talk about a game changer. The casino was dry — like the rest of the reservation — until just last year. Plans were rapidly redrawn to include bars and walk-up drink windows on the gaming floor.

The recession also led the casino to scale back the square-footage for the spa.

The expansion is taking the casino from 1,600 to 2,400 employees. Londo makes an hour each week to drop in on the new hire training sessions — averaging about 30 new hires a week right now.

“How are we expanding when the rest of the economy is contracting?” Londo asked after hitting the highlights of the expansion. “It’s magic. We can’t figure it out either.”

Cherokee is consistently a top performer out of 17 Harrah’s casinos in the country. Once a week, the general managers from every Harrah’s hold a conference call to compare numbers.

Likewise, Londo reports to his boss at Harrah’s corporate headquarters almost daily. Londo has goals to meet — not just for the year, but every month and every weekend. Every Monday, his boss wants to know: how was weekend performance? Did you meet your goals? Did the promotions do as well as expected?

“If not, what do we do about it?” Londo said. “That’s how myopic we get.”

It’s hard to gauge just how high the bar should be for Cherokee. Harrah’s expects growth from one year to the next, but setting revenue goals has been complicated by the economy, with even the most well-versed industry experts flummoxed over how much of a hit casinos could expect in the recession.

But in Cherokee, it’s been doubly complicated. Will new revenue from the expansion off-set the recession? Or for that matter, finally introducing alcohol?

Londo flipped an imaginary coin in the air with his thumb when asked how Harrah’s even begins to set profit expectations for a property in such flux. But he quickly donned his business demeanor and returned to casino-speak.

But Londo’s remaining time in Cherokee is probably short. With the expansion due for completion next year, Londo is looking for that next move.

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