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Branson’s latest hit

All photos courtesy Branson Lakes Area CoC

Since the Baldknobbers began entertaining crowds on the street corners of Branson, Mo., 50 years ago, the spotlight there has been on live entertainment.

From that small start, Branson has become the self-proclaimed “Live Music Show Capital of the World,” with 52 theaters running 110 shows, some of them seasonal, all of them family-oriented.
Even though more than 4 million people visit the town of 6,050 in the Ozark Mountains just north of the Arkansas state line each year, Branson has flown mostly under meeting planners’ radar.

With convention center comes change
But, in the last two years, the addition of a convention center, two convention center hotels and an airport has given Branson new capabilities, and the city has thrown out the welcome mat to event coordinators everywhere.

“We are centrally located for regional and national meetings, since we’re right in the middle of the country,” said Vienna Bowling, director of meeting and convention sales for the Branson Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re also very affordable. You can get a lot of meeting for your money in Branson.”

Branson is a nonunion town, which keeps costs down; and going to see a show here costs a fraction of what it does in New York or Chicago.

Located about 45 minutes south of Springfield, Branson has long depended on that city’s air service. But last May, a privately owned and operated airport opened in Branson.

First new airport in 40 years
It is the first new commercial service airport to open in the United States in 40 years in a city with no previous airport. And that has ratcheted up Branson’s ability to attract the attention of meeting planners nationwide.

“People here wanted an airport for a long time,” said Jeff Bourk, the airport’s executive director. “So a group of investors from across the country decided to do it. Construction only took 22 months, and I think that’s because we didn’t have any federal red tape to cut through.”

With AirTran and Sun Country the only carriers so far, there are now 11 flights each week from Orlando, Fla.; Atlanta; Shreveport, La.; Minneapolis; and Rockford, lll.

During the winter off season, flights dropped to seven a week, but the airport expects to make announcements of new airlines and flights soon that will give it as many as 45 flights a week.
The terminal has four gates, and the interior was built using recycled wood from barns and factories in the area.

Affordable air connections are key
“In this facility, we can handle more than a million passengers a year,” Bourk said. “Good, affordable air service is important for markets that want to attract meetings. This is very exciting, operating an airport as a business. It’s a new way of doing things, and, in my eyes, that’s why I took this job. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to effect change. This project will have an impact on the airline industry.”

Because it is a private operation, the Branson Airport places more importance on customer service than other airports, said Bourk.

“If there’s a weather delay, we’ll give out playing cards and put warm corn muffins on the flight. We want the customers to feel good about this product. That’s how we came up with the Branson Wave.”

The Wave is a group good-bye, during which all airport employees line up on the tarmac to give a big “be sure to come back soon” wave to departing passengers. They do so with every flight although with only a flight or two on average now, that’s not a big deal.

About a 20-minute drive north of the airport in historic downtown Branson, the Branson Convention Center has catapulted Branson into the meetings business since it opened in August 2007.

Adjoining it is a 294-room Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel; there are another 242 rooms in the Hilton Promenade across the street. The Hilton also manages an 89-room Hampton Inn, 15 minutes from the convention center.

Hiltons help draw planners
“The convention center has changed the market,” said Bill Tirone, assistant general manager for Hiltons of Branson and the Branson Convention Center. “More conventions are flying in here since the airport opened, and Hilton travelers come here to earn or redeem points [in Hilton’s Frequent Traveler Program]. So many meeting planners are looking for a leisure component, and we have a lot of that. This gives those associations a new venue.”

The convention center architects incorporated the beauty of the Ozarks into the building. Its curving walls and windows mimic the lines of Lake Taneycomo, which the convention center overlooks. Wooden ceilings in the hallways recall Branson’s past as a top pencil manufacturer.

Within the center is a 47,000-square-foot exhibit hall, five breakout rooms that are named for the streams and tributaries that feed into Lake Taneycomo and a 23,000-square-foot ballroom, which is connected to the main exhibit hall. Ceiling fixtures that look like migratory birds in flight are actually lights that can be synchronized to music for special events.

For breaks, try Branson Landing
For lunch or after a day of meetings, attendees can walk to Branson Landing, which sits on the banks of Lake Taneycomo and has more than 100 shops and restaurants.

Jim Bridger, director of franchise services for AmericInn International, brought 550 hotel owners and managers from around the country to the Branson Convention Center for an annual meeting in early 2009.

“We knew we had a budget in mind, and we needed to make a value-conscious decision,” he said. “Branson seemed like a fun place because of all the shows and events. We stayed at the Hilton Convention Center Hotel and the Promenade. Everyone was happy because all the shops and restaurants were within walking distance when they had some free time.”

The meeting space at the convention center also impressed Bridger, who said it’s difficult to find spaces that meet all of his criteria.

“We asked for a lot,” he said. “We have a three-day event with a large general session in the main ballroom, and we also need breakout space for meetings on the second and third days. And we have a trade show with 125 vendors that sets up in the second-largest space. I was surprised Branson could accommodate all that. It seems like a small place, but everything was state of the art. We got real value for our dollar.”

Theme park fun at Silver Dollar City
Bridger’s group mixed fun with its business meetings. The day before the meeting began, attendees were offered discounted tickets to Silver Dollar City, a theme park with thrill rides, crafts, festivals and family entertainment. A bus took them to and from the park, about a 30-minute drive from the Hilton.

For the welcome reception, Bridger likes to plan events that bring people together to talk and socialize before meetings begin. He booked the Branson Belle, an elegant 1890s-style paddle wheeler with a capacity for 700 passengers that cruises Table Rock Lake.

“That was the highest-rated event of our convention,” Bridger said. “Since they don’t serve alcohol, we contracted with a local winery to bring wine in and had the entire boat for dinner, a show and an extra two-hour cruise around the lake. It was fantastic.”

Chateau lives up to stately name
Five minutes from the Branson Belle and about 20 minutes from Branson Landing is Branson’s second-largest meeting venue, Chateau on the Lake, a 301-room, castlelike hotel that sit majestically on a hilltop overlooking Tablerock Lake.

Its 32,000-square-foot Great Hall dominates the hotel’s 43,500 square feet of meeting space, all on one level. The meeting space can be broken into as many as 19 meeting rooms; there are also three corporate boardrooms and a 54-seat theater.

Three-quarters of the groups who meet at the Chateau customize their menus in some way, and events can be customized as well. For a recent Boys and Girls Club Christmas party, the theme was the Wild West, with rides on a mechanical bull and a laser tag shootout.

For quieter gatherings, the Library is a bar off the lobby with a fireplace, a piano, comfortable chairs and a lake view. Outdoor cocktail receptions are popular poolside or in an adjacent grassy area.

North of Chateau on the Lake, about 20 minutes up Route 265, past the turn for Silver Dollar City is Stonebridge Resort. Branson’s only private, master-planned golf community is about half developed now, with 91 units on 3,200 acres, but more accommodations are planned. Guests can choose from standard rooms, suites, condos, lodges and one patio home.

Stonebridge is surrounded by woods and has an 18-hole golf course that Golf Digest has rated No. 2 in the state. Meeting space is limited, with a 2,875-square-foot ballroom and three other meeting rooms, all with woodland views.

Interestingly though, that dedicated space doesn’t always come into play when meetings are held there. For example, Nancy Bogart, founder and CEO of Jordan Essentials, a home-based business that sells bath and body products, chose the freestanding patio home on the Stonebridge property for her gathering.

“We had about 30 people for this meeting and decided to use the house as our central meeting space, and some of the women stayed in that property,” Bogart said. “The rest of us stayed close by in other condos. We did a popcorn and pajama party one night, and another night we made ice cream sundaes. We got the chance to be close and connected.

“I’ve been in business for 10 years, and I’ve done a retreat every year, but this was the best one ever. I would recommend it.”

Big Cedar builds it reputation
Wooded vistas are also a selling point at the 246-room Big Cedar Lodge, a 15-minute drive from the airport and 10 miles south of the Branson central business district.

The lodge got into the meeting business in a bigger way in October 2008 when it opened a 20,000-square-foot conference center. The ballroom can seat 1,000 theater-style.

“This conference center is really our crown jewel,” said Kenny Smith, regional sales manager. “All of our boardrooms have lake views, or they look out on a waterfall.”

A five-minute drive south of Branson is the College of the Ozarks, where students are educated tuition-free, because they run the school’s restaurant, catering facility and hotel.

There, 95,000 square feet of meeting space vastly outweighs the 30 guest rooms available in the Mabee Lodge and the Good Center. Some of the school’s venues are obviously designed for learning, such as the Royal Oak Forum with  320 executive-style seats and ergonomically correct lap desks.

Others are more social in nature, like the 4,300-square-foot Silver Dollar City Parlor, with twin 20-foot stone fireplaces, hardwood floors and french doors opening to a 2,700-square-foot veranda.

Students who don’t work the front desk or take lunch orders can be found making fruitcake or jelly, working in the grist mill grinding flour, or weaving baskets and tablecloths. The students also care for 481 different varieties of orchids in the greenhouse.

200 holes of golf
The beauty of the Ozarks can also be experienced on the 200 holes of golf that can be played in the Branson area.

“We are now starting to be recognized as a great golf destination,” said Bowling. “As a matter of fact, Branson Creek Golf Club [four miles south of Branson] has been called the Pebble Beach of the Midwest.”

Beyond golfing, meeting planners can organize events at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, an arena that holds 1,000 people for dinner and entertainment.

A number of theaters are willing to book their space for meetings during their off hours; theaters are also happy to offer group seatings for shows; if the size of a group exceeds one theater’s availability, they will work with several others to offer the group members a choice of shows.
Many Branson entertainers are also available for private bookings.

“So many people are surprised when they see our facilities here,” said Bowling. “Many people expect Branson to be hokey or hillbilly, but we are well equipped with hotels and convention centers. I love selling this city, because whatever quirky or unusual idea you may have, we can fulfill it.”