BRANSON, Missouri—The recession might have hit many hotels in U.S. tourist destinations hard, but hoteliers in Branson, Missouri, which brands itself as the “live music show capital of the world,” have something to sing about.
“What I’ve gathered from many hotel managers here is that they either saw a slight increase in business last year or remained relatively flat from 2008,” said Lee Thomas, president of the Branson Lakes Area Lodging Association. “Flat is the new up.”
During 2008, Branson hotels saw an 8.1-percent decline in demand compared with the previous year, according to data from STR. During 2009, that decline slowed to only 5.8 percent. Through April 2010, demand is flat.
Branson, Missouri, hotel market performance
Overall, the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau reported a decrease in tourism revenue for the city of 3.8 percent in 2009.
Bill Tirone, assistant GM of The Hiltons of Branson, which comprises the 294-room Hilton Promenade on the Branson Landing and the 243-room Hilton Branson Convention Center, said Branson was hit hard in 2008—not by the recession, but by another disaster.
Hilton Promenade on the Branson Landing
“We had severe flooding in 2008 in Taneycomo, as well as Table Rock and the other connecting (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) lakes,” Tirone said.
Tirone said it’s unknown if high gasoline prices, which spiked in the summer of 2008, had any additional effect on the economy in Branson and the surrounding Ozarks, which began flooding that spring.
The Branson area has been shielded from most of the effects of the recession, for two reasons, said Thomas.
“We are within a half day’s drive of seven major markets,” said Thomas. “We also offer a lot of value for the vacation dollar.”
Adding more bang for the buck
The Welk Resort in Branson might be more than 15 years old and its name might bring to mind a bygone entertainment era, but the Welk Resort Group, still owned by Lawrence Welk’s family, has kept adding amenities to the property.
The resort invested US$30 million to upgrade the facility by adding timeshare lodges, a 10,000-square-foot water park, a clubhouse and a fitness center. Dathan Atchison, general manager of the Welk Resort Branson, said he believes the new amenities helped the hotel increase revenues in 2009 by 7 percent. The value-added amenities, along with the on-site theater, which books Branson favorites such as Ray Stevens, will help the hotel stay on the upward trend this year, he added. So far this year, the hotel is experiencing a 5-percent increase in revenue.
The Welk Resort in Branson
Making a huge investment in a property might not always be feasible, Thomas said.
“There are approximately 165 hotels in Branson, and many of them are locally owned,” he said.
The Branson Lakes Area Lodging Association discourages its member hotels from advertising room rates on their marquis, which only leads to price-cutting wars. Instead, the organization has encouraged its 88 members to partner with local entertainment venues to offer packages to add value to their room rates. Thomas said the 201-room Grand Oaks Hotel, where he is the general manager, is using this tactic rather than reducing prices to generate business.
“We have access to tickets to some of the shows and that gives us more flexible custom packages,” Thomas said. “We maintain room revenue by negotiating with the shows for better rates.”
Additionally, his organization has been holding informational seminars so smaller hotel owners can learn to use their websites and travel sites to book rooms.
“People used to drive through town and pick a hotel when they got here,” Thomas said. “Now 50-60 percent of our guests book in advance on the Internet.”
Branson: a bellwether
Tirone is expecting both of his Branson Hiltons to experience about 7-percent revenue growth this year.
Approximately 65 percent of the guests at the Hilton Promenade in Branson are leisure travelers, and the Hilton Convention Center records about 65 percent business and group travelers. Leisure travel bookings are up. This is a big year for Branson, with two of its main attractions, Silver Dollar City and Shepherd of the Hills, celebrating their 50th seasons. The area is also home to three new zipline attractions and new shows. And the flooding on the lakes in 2008 has resulted in a surplus of fish, which are drawing outdoorsmen.
“It seems people are starting to book farther out and plan vacations again,” Tirone said.
The corporate convention business, which resulted in “quite a few cancellations” for the convention center last year, also seems to be showing improvement.
“I hope this is a sign for the travel industry throughout the country,” Tirone said.