Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River attracts Atlanta gamblers one year in

MURPHY, N.C. — It’s a few minutes before midnight on a Thursday, but it sounds more like a weekend crowd at Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River.

A cluster of 20-somethings pack a $10 blackjack table. A few yards away, the excited yelps of a craps winner pierce the air over a soundtrack of inoffensive Top 40 hits from the ’80s and ’90s.

Those who prefer the solitary gaming of slot machines and video poker dot the casino floor, content to zone out with their pandas and princesses, Britney Spears and “Game of Thrones”-themed games among the 1,000-plus slot selections.

Beverage servers eagerly approach — sometimes a little too eagerly for those concentrating on whether or not to hold the high pair or go for the flush on Jacks or Better — offering complimentary soda and water (alcohol is allowed, but because of tribal rules, it must be purchased).

On Sept. 28, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River celebrated its first birthday — and celebrate is the accurate verb considering the success of the property.

While Georgia stubbornly digs in its heels against approving gaming in the state, Harrah’s opened its second North Carolina property exactly 15.3 miles over the state line and a two-hour drive from metro Atlanta.

The casino and adjoining hotel sit on 40 acres of land, which is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and operated by Caesars Entertainment.

“It’s been an awesome first year. The facility has been well-received. Visitation has been good,” said Lumpy Lambert, general manager of the casino-hotel, sitting the next day in the Starbucks housed in the casino lobby as early-morning gamblers streamed in.

A tally of 1.1 million people rotated through the $110 million property its first year, almost exactly aligned with expectations, Lambert said. More than 33 percent of first-year visitors arrived from the Atlanta market, according to Harrah’s research.

Valley River employs 975 people, down from the 1,100 originally hired. About 16 percent of the workforce comes from northern Georgia. The casino purposely overstaffed and then experienced a 44 percent turnover — a little higher than the expected 40 percent rate — which Lambert attributes to the idiosyncrasies of living a casino lifestyle.

“A lot of individuals came in and tried a new environment, a new career path, and it just didn’t work for them,” he said. “This is a 365 (day) operation, we’re not closed on holidays. It’s a big adjustment for some individuals. But the workforce has stabilized.”

The enterprise owns 96 acres at the Murphy location as well as the mega-sized Harrah’s Cherokee Resort & Casino in Cherokee, N.C. (about an hour east of Murphy). Both properties are operated by Caesars Entertainment.

There is plenty of space for growth, but the only imminent addition is a sit-down dining option.

Although Valley River is equipped with an inviting food court that can recharge gamblers with grub from Panda Express, Earl of Sandwich, Papa John’s and a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs/Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips combo — as well as the aforementioned Starbucks — visitors told management through surveys and conversations that a slightly more formal dining option was desired.

Lambert expects that the restaurant, which is slated to open in summer 2017, will be internally branded instead of a chain, serve three meals a day and possibly incorporate a buffet within the restaurant setup, similar to the Selu Garden Café at Harrah’s Cherokee.

The addition of a kitchen would also allow for room service, which currently isn’t available at the 300-room hotel.

A few other tweaks occurred during Valley River’s inaugural year, including the implementation of slot tournaments, gift giveaways and other promotions, as well as an outdoor summer and fall concert series featuring regional acts. Lambert plans for the music to return in the spring.

To cement its investment in the area, the casino also donated more than $82,000 to area nonprofits including Manna FoodBank, Blue Ridge National Heritage, NC Beautiful and the North Carolina Senior Games.

With its reasonable proximity to Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., Valley River is well-positioned as the day trip alternative to its sister property, which tacks on an additional 45 minutes from Atlanta.

Jay Maurice considers himself a casual gambler and has made the 105-minute drive to Murphy from his home in Powder Springs three times since Valley River opened.

He’s been pleased that even on weekends there are blackjack tables available for less than $25 per hand and during the week he has seen tables in the $5-$10 range. Valley River offers about 70 table games, including craps, Mississippi Stud and baccarat.

Ideally, Maurice would enjoy the option of poker at the Murphy property — the poker room at Harrah’s Cherokee is nationally renowned among professional players — but Lambert says while it’s an addition they’ll continue to explore, adding a poker room isn’t a top priority at the moment.

But Maurice and his wife, Sue, fall into the target category of Atlanta outliers looking for a quick getaway, which might include an overnight in the casino hotel, which they’ve done on two of their three trips (average room rate is $79-$99).

“Sometimes that overnight feels like a country trip,” Maurice said. “And it’s nice to spend time driving with my wife and stopping at the place that sells apple butter. I go to Murphy because I don’t want to drive three hours to (Harrah’s) Cherokee. We went there before this one opened and haven’t been since. Murphy is so close, and I don’t need those resort things. I want a place I can go gamble and not feel like I have to drive forever, and come back home after a few hours if I don’t want to spend the night.”

Maurice said he’s noticed a change in the level of professionalism since Valley River opened, which he attributes to growth and experience.

Indeed, Lambert is quick to point out that the casino’s employees consistently earn some of the highest customer satisfaction scores among Caesars’ brands.

“Our team enjoys their work and are engaging, and that makes a difference from a service perspective,” Lambert said.

While there was some concern about Valley River cannibalizing guests from Harrah’s Cherokee, that doesn’t seem to have occurred, proving that Valley River’s marketing efforts as a quick-gambling-fix destination are working.

“It’s close enough that I can spontaneously go,” Maurice said. “I think it’s a real hidden treasure up there.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Travel

There’s something brewing at Ohio hotel, where the scene is hopping
There’s something brewing at Ohio hotel, where the scene is hopping

CANAL WINCHESTER, Ohio — There was nothing obviously out of the ordinary about the middle-aged man sitting near me in the hotel breakfast area, except for the beverages he chose to supplement his morning coffee: a flight of beers. Well, maybe it wasn’t that unusual, considering that I was breakfasting just outside of Columbus, Ohio, at...
With country roots, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium still raises the roof
With country roots, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium still raises the roof

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This was the heart of Saturday night, and honky-tonk singer-songwriter Whitey Morgan had Ryman Auditorium in an uproar. Wearing a determined scowl and a long beard, Morgan prowled the stage as if looking for a fight. Now and again he’d let his band, the 78’s, carry the tune while he paused to pull on a bottle of...
Survey reveals travelers want more automation, control and privacy

Airline passengers around the world are looking to new technology to give them more control and information when traveling, while also making the entire experience more efficient. These insights were revealed as part of the 2018 Global Passenger Survey conducted by the International Air Transport Association, or IATA. The study is based on 10,408 responses...
Assessing 2 new spots in the Pacific Northwest’s little Bavaria
Assessing 2 new spots in the Pacific Northwest’s little Bavaria

Leavenworth is a trip. Nestled against the far side of the Cascade mountains just a few hours east of Seattle, this little town does an impression of a Bavarian village with all its might. The beer flows freely and the music is oompah; buildings are decorated with wooden beams, family crests and gingerbread trim (or their trompe l’oeil versions)...
Harrowing boat crossing leads to a lesson – trust the professionals
Harrowing boat crossing leads to a lesson – trust the professionals

I had repeated it over and over again as the weekend approached: “We’re going on an adventure!” “We’re going on an adventure!” My boyfriend, some friends and I were going to Victoria, British Columbia, for a few days in February. It would be their first time taking the Victoria Clipper, a high-speed catamaran; it...
More Stories