Exploring Caesars of The South

A small piece of obsidian stone, brilliant and infinitely black, is gently chipped and shaped by a solemn man holding a larger blunt-sided stone beneath the canopy of thick deciduous growth lightly tamped down from the brief showers passing overhead. The man patiently applying the tiny stone-on-stone blows sits atop a low bench using a small, weathered tree stump as a work surface. The weapon-making station at Oconaluftee Indian Village sits down a narrow path past displays of live finger-weaving, pottery making, wood carving and other traditional crafts of the Cherokee peoples in a setting that harkens back to the 18th Century.

Weapon making demonstration at the Oconaluftee Indian Village.
Weapon-making demonstration at the Oconaluftee Indian Village

The cultural and historical backdrop of western North Carolina is a subtle and unexpected surprise to visitors who are given the opportunity to learn about the expansive culture of the Cherokee Nation and the history that unfolded amid the gorgeous scenery beneath the Great Smokey Mountains. This region of the Tarheel State also offers meeting planners a plethora of activities perfect for any season from wading out into a cool stream for fly fishing to shooting dice in a state-of-the-art casino.

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Gaming for Tribal Prosperity

Not far from the Indian Village, a gem of modern creature comforts stands humbly off U.S. Route 19 along the edge of the rushing Soco Creek. The over 1,100-room Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is owned by the Cherokee Nation with all services operated under the Caesars Entertainment brand in a partnership that helps the surrounding community thrive.

The partnership, formed over 25 years ago during the passage of the National Indian Gaming Act, pays bi-yearly per-capita dividends to all enrolled members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. “It’s basically a payout from the revenues,” said Property Sales Manager Stacy Pegg, who reported that recent dividends were valued at $7,000-$8,000. “If they’re 1/16th Cherokee and they’re enrolled, they get it from the day they’re born so we have some kids graduating high school with six figures in the bank,” she said.

And while profits from the resort are shared with enrolled members of the tribal community, the partnership extends beyond revenue shares to professional development. To start, the resort gives preference to members of the Eastern Band of tribal members throughout the resort’s hiring process with approximately 20% of Harrah’s Cherokee workforce comprised of members of the Cherokee Nation. “The tribe actually maintains their own training system,” Pegg said. “It’s called the Cherokee Development Program that’s used to identify and help young people who want to develop their careers,” Pegg said adding that the program is open to children of any age and is an avenue to fast-track them to certain positions.

Meet at the Gateway to the Great Smokey Mountains

Image of Harrah's Cherokee Exhibit Hall.
Harrah’s Cherokee Exhibit Hall

Renovations to various meeting spaces at Harrah’s Cherokee were completed in October of 2021—illuminating the more than 130,000 sq ft. of flexible meeting space—with other upgrades having been applied nonstop for over a decade, according to property Sr. VP and GM of Harrah’s Cherokee Brooks Robinson.

“I’ve been here 12 years now and all 12 years we’ve been under construction,” Robinson said. “It seems like we’ve added so many new things with one of the latest features being our new Gordon Ramsay Restaurant, Gordon Ramsay Food Market.”

“I think one of the pieces that we really tried to do with our latest expansion was to think about diversifying from a really more or less from a casino-centric business more to conviction group sales,” Robinson said. The diversification of the property over the years and the diversity of the surrounding area are in great abundance. “I think what we’ve been able to capture well is a property that has a lot of options,” he said.

The clean and modern lines guide the beautiful décor of the meeting and pre-function spaces that gleam extravagance as if plucked from the Vegas Strip. However, a quick glance out of the floor-to-ceiling windows exposes the grandeur of the natural surroundings.

The wide concourse silently wraps around the façade of the resort’s Cherokee Tower before the 32,092-square-foot Convention Center quartered on the third floor and the 32,745-square-foot Exhibit Hall on the ground floor. The Ballroom features 22 total flexible meeting spaces with 11,100 sq. ft. of pre-function space. The Exhibit Hall features 6,000 sq. ft. of pre-function space.

The resort’s Council Fire Ballroom features 13,801 sq. ft. of meeting space that can be configured into as many as four ballrooms ranging in size from 3,100 to 3,529 sq. ft. each. Planners can easily treat even larger groups to an exciting night out all together at the resort’s Ultrastar Multi-tainment Center featuring bowling lanes, a restaurant, bars and a dance floor on two separate levels spanning a total of 55,000 sq. ft. The 16,814-square-foot Event Center is perfect for large presentations, special performances or keynote addresses. The second-, third- and fourth-floor levels of the center all include ample pre-function space and can accommodate 600 to 800 guests for a reception and 50 to 240 for banquets.

When smaller groups need to hammer out matters of business, the Birch Boardroom can accommodate up to 12 in the finely furnished executive-style meeting room.

Image of the Birch Boardroom.
The Birch Boardroom

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Never a Dull Moment

The property alone offers gaming, entertainment, shopping, several restaurants and bars and a variety of outdoor activities.

“The thing that really makes it unique is just situated right here and really, you know, western North Carolina on the boundary, the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain Parkway,” Robinson said, noting that planners can easily schedule an assortment of activities for groups. “That could include rafting, ziplining, biking or taking a trip to our museum at the Indian village,” Robinson said. “Golfing is another option—the tribe owns the Sequoia National Golf Course.” And the bulk of these activities are within a 30-minute drive from the resort.

The 18,000-square-foot Mandara Spa at Harrah’s Cherokee offers guests the opportunity to unwind and relax following a full itinerary of meetings and activities with a wide selection of treatments and services all in a serene setting. The spa also offers comprehensive salon services with pedicure thrones and a nail bar.

And of course, what resort experience would be complete without golf? The Sequoyah National Golf Club—owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian tribe—is perfect for group outings with services specifically tailored to the needs of the group. The course offers 6,600 yards of green and also includes a practice area, clubhouse, restaurant and stunning views. What’s more, guests of Harrah’s Cherokee are eligible for preferred rates.

For groups wishing to explore their surroundings, the region outside of the resort is rich with history engrained into the heavily wooded slopes of the Great Smokey Mountains. The Great Smokey Mountain Railroad departs from Bryson City—less than 10 minutes from the resort—passing along the banks of the Fontana Lake and over the historic trestle providing views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Nantahala National Forest, the Nantahala and Tuckasegee Rivers and historical structures.

Image of train car from the Great Smokey Mountain railway.
The Great Smokey Mountain railway

Robinson also reports that Harrah’s Cherokee will soon be home to the Comedy Zone—featuring food and beverage options, 180 seats and live comedy five nights a week. The new entertainment venue is expected to open at the resort in June or July and will be made possible through a partnership with Caesars Entertainment and the Comedy Zone.

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The Spread of Success

The crucial element for this successful partnership between Harrah’s and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian tribe is the expansion to other resort properties in the region. That “relationship has really been able to flourish, allowing us to open a second casino property in Murphy (Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River),” Robinson said, adding that Caesars Entertainment and EBCI holdings opened Caesars Virginia in mid-May.

“Our goal is that our customers will come and see these are Caesars branded properties where we’re able to offer the same type of amenities, the same type of service, and utilize their loyalty cards to their advantage,” Robinson said. “Just leveraging the partnership to help our customers whether they’re gaming customers or group sales customers, we want to leverage these opportunities and allow them to visit other Caesars properties.”

The 300-room Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River opened in September 2015. Caesars Virginia’s recent soft opening comes ahead of the resort’s full debut slated for 2024 in Danville, Virginia. “It’s a temporary openness,” Robinson said, adding that the current site is home to a casino beneath a massive A-framed tent.

The facility, once opened, will feature 500 guest rooms, a full-service spa, numerous bars and restaurants, a 2,500-seat state-of-the-art live entertainment theater and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting and convention space.

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