Cherokees Play to Win for Future Cultural Tourism

The Cherokee Nation plans to use revenues from its gaming industry, which has grown to a $275.4 million business before expenses, to bring tourists to the Tulsa region.
The Cherokee Nation, from humble beginnings in Roland in 1992, now operates some of the largest gaming facilities in northeastern Oklahoma under Cherokee Nation Enterprises.
CNE employs about 3,000, 1,600 of which work in Catoosa at the Cherokee Casino Resort, 777 W. Cherokee St.
The 95,000-SF casino floor boasts 1,500 electronic games and 75 card table games. McGill’s Steakhouse, a Las Vegas-style buffet, 150 hotel rooms furnished with authentic Cherokee art, an 18-hole golf course, and several entertainment venues supplement gaming, creating what Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith calls a resort-style entertainment package.
“Each business focuses on a market segment,” said Smith. “Cherokee Casino Resort is several miles outside of town, so the market segment we look at is those who want a more complete or broader entertainment experience — not only playing machines or cards, but guests who also want good dining, music and entertainment.
“The activities besides the gaming floor are designed to complete the entertainment experience,” Smith added.
The region encompassing Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas has the third largest number of Indian-operated casinos in the country at 84 establishments in 2004, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Most casinos in this region attract 80 percent or more of their market from a 25-50 mile radius, according to the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.
Cherokee Casino Resort in Catoosa drew 3,156 of its hotel reservations from residents of Oklahoma between October 2004 and July 2006 as it lured 812 from Texas, 772 from Missouri, 679 from Arkansas, and 500 from Kansas.
“Most of our visitors to the Cherokee Casino Resort are from the Tulsa area,” said Smith. “Ask, what does eastern Oklahoma or the Cherokee Nation have to offer in terms of entertainment? What expands quickly is tourism.”
Chief Smith defines tourism as the demand for an experience, and he feels the Cherokee Nation “has the ability through the gaming to develop the skills and infrastructure to provide other types of entertainment or kinds of experiences, specifically cultural tourism experiences.
“It makes a comfortable transition, to go from gaming to cultural tourism and to package them together,” Smith said.
All Booked Up
In August 2006, the hotel boasted 87.37 percent occupancy year-to-date — one of the highest occupancy rates in the area, as compared to other hotels listed in a report submitted to the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International of Minnesota in July last year.
“Casinos absorb existing entertainment, restaurant and hotel business, and deplete dollars available to other retail businesses,” the NCALG Web site claimed.
Not so, said Chief Smith.
“The ultimate goal is to bring people in to share with them the hospitality and experience of being in the Cherokee Nation,” said Smith.
Smith is working with CNE to develop entertainment packages that will use gaming monies to promote what he calls “cultural tourism.”
“Cultural tourism is sharing with them an authentic cultural experience,” Smith said. “Sharing the history, or cultural expressions like good and games, language, arts and crafts, and our historic properties.”
Cultural tourism and entertainment packages may include a few nights at one of seven Cherokee casinos in northeastern Oklahoma and day trips to Tahlequah.
“Hotels form the base of the package, food and entertainment are on that. During the daytimes there are ways to keep people in town and get them out to rural communities,” Smith said.
“The nice thing about cultural tourism is it takes jobs to where the people are instead of them having to drive for hours from rural areas to Tulsa for work.”
CNE employees live throughout the 14-county jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation, which includes Tulsa, Rogers, Wagoner, Osage, Pawnee, Creek, and Okmulgee counties.
Local urban casinos, or gaming establishments located in urban centers and do not feature hotel or other traditional tourism amenities, cater to a separate market segment — mostly to locals not in search of a tourist destination.
According to Douglas Pearce and Richard Butler, “urban casinos…tend to draw a high proportion of their customers from the local area and thus, by definition, are not major tourist facilities.” Pearce and Butler wrote the 2001 book, Contemporary Issues in Tourism Development.
“The first draw to the casino is to play the games,” said Chief Smith. “But here you have other avenues to complete the experience, to draw more people and to encourage them to stay longer in the gaming operations. Gaming is just part of the entire package.”
As expansions continue at the resort in Catoosa and the Cherokee casinos in Siloam Springs and Roland, the opportunities afforded the tribe via gaming revenue will grow to meet the needs of the new cultural tourism plans.
“Those locations will create a triangle, and that lays the foundation for a very good network to expand on during the next few years in terms of our cultural properties in Tahlequah, Claremore, and Sallisaw. We have about 30 cultural properties, and then you start packaging those with the recreational properties.
“I think gaming is an opportunity,” Smith said, “not an end unto itself. It’s an opportunity to expand into cultural tourism. The gaming operations have afforded us the ability to develop those skills and that capacity.”
Other areas in receipt of Cherokee gaming revenues include the Jobs Growth Fund, the Cherokee Nation general fund that funnels into such sectors as education and human services, expansions of existing gaming facilities and capital maintenance. ?

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