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Branson chamber CEO arrives amid tourism challenges

Jason Outman looks to boost visitor numbers under budget constraints

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As the tourism industry struggles through the coronavirus pandemic, a new Branson leader said he’s ready for the challenge.

Jason Outman, president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau, started his new role Jan. 19. He arrived from South Carolina, where he’s served the past six years as executive director of destination marketing organization Experience Columbia SC.

Outman is tasked with leading the 25-employee organization that had a $13 million budget in 2020. He replaces Jeff Seifried, who served in the Branson chamber leadership role for five years before leaving in July to become president and CEO of Connell Insurance Inc.

Mary Kellogg, board chairperson of the Branson chamber & CVB, said Outman was selected out of six finalists narrowed from 60 applicants.

“Before the interview process, because I had not been here, my wife and I felt it was our duty to jump on a plane to come and visit and spend some time in the market so that we knew what Branson had to offer,” Outman said. “What really turned me on to Branson is first, you can’t overlook the beauty of the area. … When I had the opportunity to interview with the board, it just led me to talk to them about their desire for Branson to grow and increase visitation and put it higher on the map than it already exists.”

Facing challenges
While Branson reached an all-time high of 9.1 million visitors in 2019, the pandemic undoubtedly will produce substantially lower numbers when final 2020 data is reported next month, said Lynn Berry, the chamber’s communications director. She said visitor numbers are released quarterly, noting estimates through late October put it just over 5 million – a drop of roughly 32%.

Year-over-year tax revenue for the Branson/Lakes Area Tourism Community Enhancement District also is down considerably. Through November – the most recent month available – revenue is off 20% from 2019, when the 1% sales tax generated $8.9 million, Berry said.

Visitor and tax revenue projections, as well as the organization’s budget for 2021, remain a fluid situation and likely will stay that way until spring or early summer, she said.

“In 2020, there was nothing that was going to follow a projection,” Berry said of tax revenue after the pandemic hit in March. “We projected it being down 50% [in 2020] when we first started dealing with this.

“We’re unsure of how the vaccine rollout will be and the number of people who will avail themselves of getting a vaccine,” she said. “A lot of what is still out ahead of us is yet to be determined.”

Outman said the city of Branson is still in the midst of final tax collections for 2020, adding chamber staff will monitor the budget and make adjustments as the year progresses. City of Branson tax data show its 1% sales tax and tourism tax revenues decreased from 2019 nearly 15% and 33%, respectively.

“It’s going to be a drastic reduction,” Outman said of this year’s budget. “It’s going to be several million less than it was previously.”

Building on experience
At Experience Columbia SC, Outman oversaw the organization that marketed the metro area of Columbia, comprising around 900,000 residents. He worked with governmental agencies to drive new business to the region, promoted the University of South Carolina to prospective students and sought to help generate visitor traffic for the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

“Outside of the traditional staff management, it was promoting (Columbia) as a meetings, conventions and leisure destination,” he said.

He said the Columbia, South Carolina, area draws in nearly 15 million annual visitors and has a $2.3 billion economic impact and over 11,600 rooms among its 130 hotels.

Similarly, he said Branson is a big area draw, annually pulling in millions of visitors for its theaters, outdoor activities and family recreation. Prior to 2020, Berry said Branson was attracting around 9 million visitors annually, and it has 16,000 hotel rooms. It has a $3.5 billion economic impact in the tourism district comprising Stone and Taney counties, she said.

Outman said his work with a diverse set of stakeholders in South Carolina will help him in the new job.

“The experience I’ve had sets me up in a great opportunity here to help promote Branson and build this region to where we really should be,” he said. “I view myself as a trailblazer, somebody that wants to continue to grow and lead the pack.”

Outman said the overall goal is to drive visitation, which directly impacts taxes collected in the community.

“From a marketing standpoint, it’s really digging into the research and focus groups and helping grow maybe a new visitor base that hasn’t experienced Branson before,” he said, noting budget challenges amid the pandemic are concerning. “It takes money to market.”

Still, challenges have hit the tourism industry before, he said, pointing to the Great Recession.

“We bounced back,” he said. “Tourism is resilient, and people travel. It’s just a matter of how long it will take.”

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