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Cherokee Nation launches first ‘Hard Rock in the Heartland’

TULSA, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation has taken entertainment to a new level in Oklahoma. On Aug. 3, the tribe opened the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa, a $155 million expansion and renovation of its former Cherokee Casino Resort. The new resort is the seventh Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in the world, and the first in America’s heartland.

According to David Stewart, Cherokee Nation Entertainment CEO, the tribe was the first Native nation to bring a resort-style hotel casino to Oklahoma.

“Part of our business strategy has been to differentiate our facility from other casinos. Through our expansion and by taking on the Hard Rock brand, we are raising the bar in the industry and setting ourselves apart from all other entertainment options in the region.”

The new resort, under the management of Bob Zablonski, features 350 luxury hotel rooms and suites; more than 125,000 square feet of gaming space; five dining establishments, including McGill’s on 19, a Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, and a fine-dining penthouse restaurant. It also features five nightclubs and entertainment hot spots, including a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino event center which will seat 2,500 and is scheduled to open in 2010.

Some other resort highlights include an 80-foot-long frozen bar topped with solid ice in The Center Bar; a friction lounge offering a high energy musical dance experience on par with urban nightclubs; a 5,000-square-foot banquet facility enclosed with floor-to-ceiling Chevron glass in the Sky Room on the resort’s 18th floor; a 35,000-square-foot meeting and convention space; and a retail store stocked with Hard Rock merchandise.

The Cherokee Hills Golf Club, a championship, 18-hole course, is located on an adjacent property. In addition, a state-of-the-art swimming pool, inspired by Hard Rock Las Vegas, will open in the fall.

Opening festivities, which began in the resort’s Grand Lobby, featured a ribbon cutting ceremony and keynote address delivered by Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith. Cherokee Nation Entertainment CEO David Stewart was on hand, along with country superstar Toby Keith. His restaurant, I Love This Bar & Grill is a key dining venue at the resort, and Keith will serve as celebrity representative of the new casino. During the ceremony, Smith presented Keith with a Pendleton blanket as a “gift of honor and affinity.”

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The Cherokee Nation, already one of the largest employers in the state with annual economic impact in Oklahoma and surrounding areas of more than $1 billion dollars, will employ 1,400 at the new resort under the division of CNE. Minimum wage in Oklahoma is currently $7.25, but resort employees are paid $9.25 and enjoy full benefits including medical and dental insurance and a 401K option; and 70 percent of the facility’s staff is Native American, of which 60 percent

are Cherokees.

“We attribute much of our success to our employees,” Stewart said. “We are all about our customers, and if our employees are happy, our customers are happy.”

Formerly known as Cherokee Nation Enterprises, CNE handles the tribe’s seven gaming establishments, race track, retail, entertainment, hospitality and tourism ventures. The division’s name was recently changed as part of a vigorous marketing strategy that includes branding to more accurately reflect the nature of the businesses the company oversees.

This branding strategy continued with the name change of the Cherokee Casino Resort to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa. According to Stewart, CNE entered into a licensing agreement with Hard Rock Hotel Holdings in order to “distinguish itself from other casinos by becoming the first and only Hard Rock in the Heartland.”

The building’s renovation and expansion work was done by Flintco Companies, Inc., a Native American-owned construction contractor.

Stewart, an experienced CPA with advanced business degrees from Oklahoma State University, was a lead negotiator with the State of Oklahoma on the state-tribal gaming compact, an agreement which authorizes and defines Class II gaming for Oklahoma Indian tribes. Under his continued leadership, the tribe’s business development has greatly increased and employment opportunities have more than tripled.

Stewart is reluctant to accept credit for these accomplishments, however. “I attribute our success to good government and leadership,” he said. “We have the good support of our chief and tribal council. That made it possible for us to make wise decisions, such as the separation of the management of our business development from the management of the government. That allowed us to pursue our business strategies more aggressively. Timing and opportunity are the keys to any progressive business, and we have been able to move quickly in our endeavors.”

The first Hard Rock Cafe opened its doors in London, England in 1971. Since then, the name has become an internationally-identifiable brand. One of the hallmarks of the Hard Rock, its stellar collection of rock and roll memorabilia, is said to be the largest collection of its kind in the world. The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa features signature pieces of that collection, as well as Cherokee cultural items, commissioned artworks and crafts, and items that reflect Oklahoma’s musical history.

“By bringing these together, we’ve created an exciting experience that you simply won’t be able to find anywhere else,” Stewart said.