“There is obviously always the last-minute push to make sure everything is complete,” said Lambert, the general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel.
Lambert nodded and smiled in greeting a group of department heads gathered in the casino’s grand entry hall, going over their punch lists for the day. It’s a morning ritual Lambert calls the “daily huddle.”
“So we are all aware of our to-do’s and what we are trying to accomplish today,” Lambert said.
The open floor of the casino makes it easy to do a quick 360, and for the most part, it looked ready to flip on the open sign.
Lambert swung wide around an indoor bucket lift, suspending an electrician high over head, one of several contractors working their way through the final checks.
“A lot of finishing touches, little touches, a few cosmetic things,” Lambert said.
Lambert seemed to be made for the part, just the man to carry the new casino into the end zone. Raised in Cherokee, Lambert went to college on a football scholarship, and afterward served as the coach for Cherokee High School. Those skills he learned on the field were key to Lambert’s success over the past two years as he’s led the construction of the $110 million casino and the hiring of 1,000 employees to run it.
“It’s very similar to the coaching world. You are teaching them the technical part and how to work as a team, and being a cheerleader,” said Lambert, whose warm and positive personality exudes confidence. “Teamwork has always been a code I live by and stress to each and every team member.”
Lambert continued his rounds, looping past the food court, where new hires were scattered about in groups for pre-game trainings. A pile of green aprons and iced coffee drinks were splayed on a table surrounded by soon-to-be Starbucks employees, while an Earl of Sandwich team followed along as their manager went over a redux of the menu. Yet another group was gathered around a cash register, trying their hand at the keys and codes to ring up food sales.
Through the double doors of a VIP lounge, a few dozen servers who will take drink orders on the gaming floor were immersed in a written exam.
“Our new hires are excited about opening up a new property,” Lambert said. “We are all very enthused about what is going on.”
It was a monumental undertaking. Hundreds of chips must fall into place by opening day, but Lambert — cool and calm as ever — made it look like an afternoon game of checkers at the park.
One of the biggest moving parts — aside from construction itself — was getting the casino’s 900 employees hired and trained. Job fairs have been held throughout the region and training has been underway for months, particularly in fields of surveillance, slot attendants and card dealers, who undergo up to 16 weeks of training.
Despite the large-scale hiring, the casino found a willing labor pool in the region.
“Employees were very enthusiastic. They are eager to work. They are dedicated folks,” said Ray Rose, the VP of resort preparations for both the main property and new casino.
Ramping up that many employees to perform on day one has been a huge undertaking, but it’s not the tribe’s first rodeo. Several of today’s top managers — Lambert included — were there in 1997 when the main casino opened in Cherokee.
“We have a solid management team in place that has a lot of experience,” said Brooks Robinson, the general manager of the main Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Resort property. “It is a nonstop effort. We have a lot of moving parts.”
This time around, there’s been an inside advantage when it comes to employee readiness, Robinson said. They’ve had the advantage of real-life training thanks to job shadowing at the existing casino.
“I think it is going to open without hitch,” Robinson said.
The casino floor itself is a maze of shiny new game terminals. Most had a factory check-list still taped to their screen.
Teams of gaming inspectors with the independent Tribal Gaming Commission were moving through the banks of machines, plugging up to each of the 1,050 games to verify that they are programmed to the correct odds to ensure fair payouts.
“If it doesn’t pass, we don’t turn the game on,” Lambert said. But, of course, they will pass.
In the table games section, two dozen men in suits — the team of table games managers — were bantering between rounds of training as they lounged in the captain’s chairs that will soon be filled with gamblers.
A little about the property
The Valley River Casino has an open floor plan, boasting over 1,000 slot-style game machines and 70 table game stations. A 30-foot escalator leads from the grand entry to an overhead vantage point, where visitors can look down on the entire casino floor stretching out below.
The new casino doesn’t have extensive restaurant options or upscale dining like the main resort in Cherokee. Instead, it deploys a food court model, with a suite of familiar franchises: a Papa John’s, Nathan’s Hot Dogs, Earl of Sandwich, Panda Express and Starbucks.
“We knew the concept we wanted to come out of the gate with was a food court scenario,” said Rose.
With projected visitation averaging 4,000 people a day, the food court delivers on the primary goal.
“We need to be able to feed them quickly with our limited seating,” Ray said.
Ray said the strategy was to “start small and grow,” with additional options to be added in the future.
“We are very sensitive to market demands,” Ray said.
An adjacent hotel, connected by a covered promenade, features 300 rooms, all of them non-smoking. The casino itself allows both smoking and alcohol — essentials for any casino — although state-of-the-art air circulation should help keep things fresh. Air is pushed up through hundreds of small vents set into the floor, allowing new air to rise up, and more effectively circulate than the overhead system used at the main casino property in Cherokee.
The casino sits on a hilltop, with a grand tree-lined approach road gently winding up to it. The parking lot has 1,700 spaces, but it’s probably not enough. So employees will park in a remote lot at the foot of the hill, with a shuttle running constantly between the lot and the casino.
“Think about on a Saturday night when the place is humming. There will be 400 employees. That number of employees parking would limit the parking guests,” Lambert said.
The casino expects motor coach business as well, with five bays for loading and unloading.
The new casino is geographically positioned to capture a new market that’s been just out of reach for the main resort.
“The new property puts the Atlanta customer at our doorstep,” Lambert said. “The Atlanta market is one of our primary feeder markets for this facility.”
It will also draw visitors from the Chattanooga area and further south to Alabama, particularly day-trippers, who saw the main resort in Cherokee as a tad too far away for an up-and-back trip.
“Intuitively, simply because of the proximity to that market, it will be an hour less drive time for the visitor coming from those markets,” Lambert said.
There’s always the risk that visitors who would have otherwise ventured to the main casino in Cherokee will instead come to the Valley River location.
“We do anticipate some cannibalization of the main resort. But at the same time we anticipate new business coming in,” Lambert said.
The two properties also offer distinctly different experiences. The new casino is just a casino and hotel, while the flagship in Cherokee is a full-service resort, with a spa, pool, concert venue, shopping and upscale dining.
“If they still want a resort experience they still have to come to the resort,” Lambert said.
Coming next week:
The new Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel will be a game changer, not only as additional revenue for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians but as an unprecedented economic driver for the Murphy area. See next week’s paper on how the casino will change the landscape of the far western counties.
Want to go?
The ribbon cutting for the new Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, Sept. 28. The public is invited.