Changes at Harrah's Cherokee Casino and Hotel

It's not unusual to hear that casinos or hotels are undergoing renovations to stay fresh in guests' minds, so the news that Harrah's Cherokee Casino and Hotel in North Carolina is undergoing a $633 million expansion should come as no surprise.

What is surprising, however, is the news that the hotel and casino, which have been helping to support the Cherokee Nation since 1997, has only recently permitted alcohol on the premises, ending 12 years of being a dry gaming institution. Wine and beer is now being served at Sycamores on the Creek, Selu Garden, Seven Sisters Lounge, and in guest room accommodations. The wine list features a selection of international and domestic labels, as well as local vintages and a wide range of domestic and international beers and ales.

"This is the start of our transformation from a casino to a resort," said Darold Londo, the senior vice president and general manager about the new rule when he and Vice President of Marketing Leeann Bridges came by Travel Agent's New York office.

That transformation will involve a new 21-story luxury tower with 532 rooms, a 3,000-seat event center, a spacious spa, and new dining and retail options. The casino floor to will be expanded to 195,000 square feet, and artistic and cultural projects are also in the planning stages. The entire project is scheduled for completion in 2012. "It's cliched to say that we're building this as if the owner is building it for him- or herself," acknowledged Londo, "but Leeann is an owner as a member of the tribe."

Since its opening, half of the casino's revenue goes to the Cherokee tribe as a whole, and half to enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. In the past 12 years, enrolled members have received $90,000 from the casino's profits. "It's changed our way of life," Bridges said. Of the hotel and casino's 1,700 employees, approximately 350 are members of the tribe.

Bridges and Londo also hope that the changes will encourage more visitors to stop by for longer periods of time, and that the hotel will be an all-inclusive resort in ten years' time. The hotel is in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, less than a three-hour flight from New York and an easy drive from major cities in the Southeast. Fans of outdoor adventures can go hiking, biking, fishing and kayaking. An expanded arcade for children and a newly opened 18-hole, par-72 golf course will also appeal to families and leisure travelers who want to experience more outside of the casino.