Branson plays the same tune

“Stick to what you know” could be the motto for Branson this year, as the Ozark resort town focuses on its wholesome country, pop-music and family-entertainment roots, plus recent upgrades in shopping and hotels, to ride out the national economic downturn. Branson tourism leaders are hopeful they can continue a track record of outperforming the national industry, projecting between 2 percent and 3 percent more visitors than last year's 8.4 million. That would be just at or above the Travel Industry Association's forecast of 2 percent growth in leisure travel nationally. “We are promoting our values and our value,” Dan Lennon, vice president of the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “We want people to think about Branson as great place to bring families together.” Branson officials say costs for tourists there are below national averages. The average daily hotel rate is $75.90, compared with a national tab of $103, according to industry research group Smith Travel. The average show ticket in Branson is $29, while Las Vegas shows average $130 to $150 per ticket. During the 2001 recession, Branson saw a 1.4 percent decline in tourists, but it rebounded in 2002 with 3.5 percent growth as people stayed closer to home after the Sept. 11 attacks. In the past two years, Branson's numbers grew 14 percent, while the national figure was 3 percent. Tourism expert Steve Morse says Branson stands a good chance of meeting its growth goals this year because many Americans will pick destinations they can drive to rather than fly. With jet fuel even more expensive than gas, airlines have raised fares and cut back on capacity. “The drive-to destinations will do better than the fly-to ones like Orlando,” said Morse, an economist and director of the Tourism Institute at the University of Tennessee. The two biggest new attractions in Branson this year fit the template of wholesome family fun. One is a huge new theater with a wraparound stage the size of five basketball courts that will open May 24 for the debut of “Noah – The Musical,” based on the Biblical story. The $65 million, 2,085-seat Branson theater is the first new location for Lancaster County, Pa.-based Sight & Sound Theaters, which bills itself as “the Christian Broadway.” The family-owned theater company specializes in bringing Gospel epics to the stage with massive sets, glossy production values, dozens of actors, and in the case of Noah, 100 live animals and 200 animatronic animals. Another major newcomer is the $2million Roaring Falls water ride, which drops visitors five stories. It's part of an expansion at Celebration City theme park. Morse said Branson and other destinations will likely also profit from tax rebate checks that are the centerpiece of President Bush's $168 billion rescue package for a wobbly economy. In the coming weeks, the rebates will put up to $1,800 in the wallets of a couple with two kids. And higher gas prices mean that people will want to drive to places closer to home. “When gas prices go up, people in the Midwest say, ‘Let's go to Branson instead of Galveston, Texas, or the Gulf,'” Morse said. That fits Branson's pattern of visitation. About 60 percent of visitors typically come from more than 300 miles, with an additional 28 percent from between 100 and 300 miles and 12 percent from the local area, city officials say. The resort town is targeting its advertising in smaller Midwestern cities this year to net those vacationers who want to travel no more than a day's drive. It is pulling dollars it used in the big metro markets of Chicago and Dallas last year to advertise instead in cities such as Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., Paducah, Ky., Champaign, Ill., and Des Moines, Iowa, said Branson Lakes Area Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Ross Summers. Peter Herschend, co-founder of the Herschend Family Entertainment company that owns major Branson attractions including Celebration City, said the focus this year is on the things that have worked for Branson in the past. “It is not only the theaters. It is the Ozarks, which make Branson unique; the lakes; and the world-class attractions,” Herschend said. He also mentioned a recent addition: Branson Landing, an outdoor pedestrian shopping center on Lake Taneycomo that opened two years ago with its own Hilton hotel and across the street from a new Hilton convention center. “Strolling around Branson Landing, not just the shopping, is turning into a major attraction,” Herschend said. The Landing has a lakefront walkway, a water and fire fountain, waterfront restaurants and stores from Victoria's Secret to Bass Pro Shops. The Landing was among the additions in the past few years aimed at drawing more families and boomers on top of a traditional clientele that came looking for country music. Newer shows featured more pop music, including the Beatles tribute band Liverpool Legends and Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater.