New convention center opens in Cherokee
After three years and $330 million, a new hotel tower and convention center is now open at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee.
About 150 people gathered beneath the large porte-cochère outside the lobby for the ribbon-cutting Friday, Oct. 1, with both tribal and casino leaders celebrating the project’s completion as a significant achievement and important move toward diversifying tribal revenue streams.
“As we continue our growth and completion, it further solidifies us here in Cherokee as we continue to be the leaders in Western North Carolina, and not just Western North Carolina, but throughout state,” said Harrah’s General Manager Brooks Robinson.
The 19-story hotel tower is the casino’s fourth, bringing the resort’s room count from 1,108 to 1,833 rooms. Dubbed The Cherokee, it features Guy Fieri’s Cherokee Kitchen + Bar, from the celebrity chef of the same name, as well as a 24-seat full-service Starbucks and lobby bar.
“We are able to walk on the ancestral land that our family has walked for thousands years,” said Tommy Lambert, chair of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise Board. “So ‘The Cherokee’ is us. We are ‘The Cherokee.’ And that’s what I want people to remember about the name when they go by it. Don’t just take it for granted that it’s a simple name, the name of a town. It’s not. It’s the name of a nation, the name of a people.”
The hotel contains 725 rooms, including 70 suites, as well as a fitness center and an outdoor pool on the second-floor terrace between the hotel tower and the convention center featuring sweeping mountain views. Guests desiring private pool access can reserve one of the two 800-square-foot poolside suites, complete with full kitchens. The rooms, designed by the developer DreamCatcher Hotels, use a design concept rooted in earth tones with accents of burnt sienna, golden hues and charcoal grey, along with a mix of eucalyptus and walnut woods.
Adjacent to the hotel tower is the new three-story Cherokee Convention Center, featuring 83,000 square feet of meeting and convention space — more than tripling the current rentable convention space at Harrah’s Cherokee. The center includes a 32,000-square-foot ballroom, as well as a pre-function ballroom, 26 meeting spaces and an exhibition hall, with a new 2,000-space parking deck directly adjacent to it.
Joined by members of Tribal Council, Principal Chief Richard Sneed cuts the ribbon on the expansion. Holly Kays photo
In his remarks, Sneed made it clear that he sees the convention center as distinct from the casino’s current operations — it’s an entirely new business that will attract an entirely new clientele to Cherokee, he said. Throughout his time in office, Sneed has repeatedly emphasized the inevitable arrival of competition in the gaming industry and the resulting need to diversify the tribe’s revenue streams. This project is an opportunity to do that, he said.
“When we first talked about this project, there were a lot of naysayers actually, saying, well, this is just more gaming. But this is not,” he said. “This is convention business — it’s an entirely different business altogether.”
Even before it was anywhere near completion, Sneed said, the convention center had been booking events and hotel rooms for years in the future.
“This just shows the demand for convention business but also for here in what I would say is one of the most beautiful places that God has ever created,” he said.
In an interview after the ceremony, Robinson said there were nearly 50,000 hotel room bookings for the next two fiscal years associated with the new hotel, as well as another 50,000 “likely” bookings. Despite the fact that the project was planned long before anybody had heard of COVID-19, booking numbers are on track with initial projections, he said.
“We expect our occupancy level to continue to be very high,” he said.
Staffing, however, has been more of a challenge. Harrah’s hoped to hire 450-500 new positions associated with the expansion, but as of the ribbon-cutting 250 jobs were still open. The casino has seen an uptick in applications since it raised its wages and began offering sign-on bonuses this spring, but it’s still hard to find employees.
“We’ve been very creative to adjust hours of operation and also utilize our part-time help to fill in for positions,” he said. “So while we may be down we’re definitely doing all we can to cover as many shifts as we can.”
Tribal Council first approved the project in January 2017, giving the TCGE the green light to take out a loan of up to $250 million. Ground broke in 2018, the same year that Tribal Council approved a retail project that, while a separate endeavor from the convention center expansion, intersected with that project’s physical space. When the TCGE came back to Council last year asking for an additional $80 million in funding, it said that the retail project’s arrival required a complete redesign of the expansion project, adding $30 million to the cost. Escalating costs for labor and materials also contributed to the overrun, the TCGE said.