Shuffling the deck

Casinos are not known as wellsprings of ambitious entertainment. Most performers seem to end up on casino stages post-ambition. The glittering strip in Las Vegas may have become a destination unto itself, stuffed with roller coasters, circuses and scaled-down replicas of New York and Paris, but outside of Sin City, casinos are most often seen as places where older folks seek to augment their retirement savings a quarter at a time, maybe catching a smalltime country singer or a cover band or revival act in between the restrooms and the chips clerk. The veracity of these stereotypes doesn’t really matter. After all, jaded young people aren’t likely to try their luck by driving out for a weekend.

For about a year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has fought aggressively to undo this image. Located about an hour west of Asheville, the big fish in North Carolina’s small gambling reserve has utilized its 3,000-seat Event Center — which turns 3 this weekend — to attract a diverse platter of marquee talent.

Since last summer, its hosted crossover electronic acts (The Crystal Method, DJ Pauly D), arena-ready R&B (Alicia Keys), gracefully aging rock bands (The Black Crowes) and current country superstars (Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert). Turns out, a small-market casino doesn’t have to be a desert when it comes to entertainment.

“As this property has grown over the past several years, especially as a resort, we have felt that it is just really important that we continue to add different amenities to the property,” explains Brooks Robinson, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “As we have done that, of course, the Event Center is just one that is critical as we position ourselves against the competition, not just from the regional perspective, but even reaching further out, 300 to 500 miles from the property. It’s just real important for us to have that amenity, to understand that our guests, they do have options.”

He has an obvious incentive to increase the property’s visibility. The resort completed a $650 million expansion this spring, adding a slew of new amenities and aiming for a sleeker, more contemporary environment. Live table games were incorporated, as was a new spa. A whopping 10 restaurants, including a Paula Deen’s Kitchen (since closed and re-branded) and a 600-seat buffet, were also added. The new Harrah’s Cherokee will strive to be a destination for recreation and relaxation, in addition to the requisite gaming. The invigorated concert calendar is one way to convey that intention to potential visitors.

“Part of the expansion was trying to reach different groups of people that hadn’t frequented Harrah’s Cherokee before,” says Leeann Bridges-McHattie, the resort’s vice president of marketing. “Our entertainment lineup has really become a catalyst for that. Traditionally what we’ve done with entertainment is program genres and acts that really appeal to our core guest, that gambler coming here. Really, what we’ve seen since opening the Event Center is we’ve had more success with selling retail tickets. With that, we’ve been able to expand into these different genres and program acts that in the past probably wouldn’t have done well for us.”

Previously, appeasing those gambling regulars meant leaning hard on midlevel country, legacy acts that play frequently enough to keep their rates cheap or younger, more mainstream outfits that have yet to reach a larger audience. The hard-touring Willie Nelson, who will return to Harrah’s in October, was one of its most reliable bets during this stretch. For the past two years, the resort has shifted the way they handle tickets for concerts, selling as many seats to retail customers as it gives away to incentivize gaming. At the same time, it has expanded its budget for performers. These days, Harrah’s will spend anywhere from $25,000 to about $300,000, depending on what they’re getting from the artist.

Sound strategy

Those benefits extend beyond direct revenue from ticket sales and gambling. A full house means extra traffic at that expanded stable of restaurants, and high-profile weekday gigs, such as Alicia Keys’ Wednesday-night stand in March, have the potential to fill rooms that go empty between weekends. Big names like Keys or Shelton carry the largest price tags and and will often only break even — or maybe even lose a little — but the casino shoulders the burden. Those headline-grabbing artists mean critical exposure for an isolated casino striving to revamp its image.

“We have a lot of challenges with people really understanding what we are here,” Bridges-McHattie adds. “We have a lot of people who may have made a trip here five years ago, and that image is still in their mind — just a casino and a buffet and a small showroom. The way we really try to position our entertainment is to put it out there in a position that these are some big names. These entertainers, these different genres of entertainment coming in, it’s all there to support the image of the resort and to communicate that we are very different.”

This is sound strategy. Sarah Tanford, a professor of hotel administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, presented research at this year’s International Conference on Risk Taking & Gambling that suggests that entertainment amenities have no appreciable effect on gaming revenue. One of the student studies that she shared found the slightest of negative correlations between shows and concerts and the amount of money spent on slots. But Tanford doesn’t discount the impact that these events can have on public perception.

“A big-name act can just put your property on the map a little more and draw attention to the business and give it some publicity,” she counters. “Even though it’s not necessarily going to increase gambling, it is something that you can give as a reward to your top players that could give them an incentive to come another time and do more gambling. But I think the thing that you need to be careful about there is you can’t assume that they’re going to gamble more.”

Harrah’s has had mixed results with its most adventurous offerings. Bridges-McHattie says she was thrilled with the young and energetic crowd that the kinetic Pauly D attracted last summer. But The Crystal Method, a reliable draw in Asheville, failed to fill the expected number of seats. At least the band showed up. An appearance from flamboyant hip-hop hype man Lil Jon was canceled due to a complication with his travel. All of these offerings were part of the resort’s “Cherokee After Dark” series, something they intend to continue. They know their rewards won’t come without a few risks.

Thus far, the Harrah’s Cherokee fall calendar has retreated to the safety of modern country, with the only deviation coming in the form Southern rock flag bearer Lynyrd Skynyrd, hardly an edgy selection. But Robinson assures that the resort won’t abandon its newfound musical diversity.

“From an image perspective a name like a Blake Shelton or an Alicia Keys brings something. Those are acts that we hope people look at and think, ‘Not every casino can offer this tier of a performer,’” he says. “But we also want folks to understand that we’re really flexible and that we have the ability within our entertainment venue to offer multiple options. And when we bring in a Pauly D or a Crystal Method, that is solely aimed at a totally different demographic, and we want that demographic to also know that we have an option for them. It’s a big part of our strategy, trying to hit both ends of the spectrum.”

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