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Sight & Sound Director of Operations Phil Huber says 2010 attendance was down 2 percent at the Branson theater.
Sight & Sound Director of Operations Phil Huber says 2010 attendance was down 2 percent at the Branson theater.

Business Spotlight: Bringing the Bible to Life

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In 2008, when the Ozarks experienced what many referred to as “the 100-year flood,” the Sight & Sound Theatre in Branson opened with “Noah – The Musical.”

As 2011 brings another massive flooding event to Branson and the Ozarks, the Sight & Sound Theatre announced that this will be the final year for “Noah – The Musical” at its Branson venue.

Director of Operations Phil Huber doesn’t know if it’s a sign from above that the show began and is ending during modern local flooding, but he says it’s a business decision based on experimenting with run times in the Branson market.

After closing for the expanded Christmas season on Dec. 31, Sight & Sound Branson will open the 2012 season April 14 with “Joseph.”

For the “Noah” production, the Sight & Sound Theatre in Branson has 200 employees, more than 100 mechanical animatronics animals and 60 live animals cared for on the theater grounds.

“Joseph” is currently running in the company’s original Pennsylvania theater, and Huber says it can cost as much as $500,000 to change sets. Most of the sets are created in house, and the set for “Joseph” will be shipped to Branson at the end of this season. The cost to produce a new show can run up to $3 million.

The vision  
Glenn and Shirley Eshelman founded Sight & Sound Theatre in 1976 in Lancaster County, Pa., after renting property for a summer run of “The Wonder of it All” at Lancaster Bible College during the summer of 1975.

The show, which was designed to bring the Bible to life, played to 30,000 people, which gave the couple the funding to build their own theater.

In 2005, the company expanded and chose Branson for its second destination theater.

“Branson was a good fit for its family-friendly destinations and attractions,” Huber says.

Kate Renfrow of 2 Balance LLC, which handles public relations for the theater, says the cost to bring a Sight & Sound Theatre to the Branson market was $65 million, largely in construction costs.

The 339,000-square-foot, 2,085-seat theater on 50 acres just off of Shepherd of the Hills Expressway is running “Noah” two years longer than the typical show runs in the company’s hometown theater.

Huber says the demographic of travelers are different in the two areas. “In Pennsylvania, Sight & Sound is the destination, while the city is the destination here,” Huber says. “When we did the market analysis, we determined we could run a show for a longer period of time.”

Branson tourism officials say its visitors are known to take their time sampling the town’s 50 theaters and more than 100 shows.

“A typical visitor to Branson may come four times a year and see two shows each time,” says Lynn Berry, director of public relations of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB. “It takes awhile for them to get around to all of the shows they want to see.”

Branson market factors
Huber says that opening the theater at the beginning of a recession that had such a big effect on tourism has made it tough for the theater company to reach its goals in Branson.

Declining to disclose totals, Huber says 2010 attendance was down 2 percent from 2009. Since opening March 26 for the 2011 season, the Sight & Sound has experienced a 15 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

“Originally, I don’t think we had realistic expectations. We established our target based on what we did in Pennsylvania,” says Huber. “We’ve learned a lot.”

Among those lessons was adjusting to a market that largely had no knowledge of the Sight & Sound brand. Renfrow says the company invests about 10 percent of its budget into marketing efforts, which have included television, radio and billboard ads and attending church trade shows.

“More and more we’re seeing people make Sight & Sound a destination within Branson,” Huber says. “Our surveys are starting to show that people are booking their tickets before they come to Branson, which is a trend we want to see.”

Huber says the theater has averaged roughly 250,000 guests per year for its 286 annual shows, which include the regular season through Oct. 15 and the “Miracle of Christmas” presentation that runs Nov. 1–Dec. 31. Per show, it’s an 874-guest average, which is less than half the theater’s capacity.

Berry doesn’t believe the Branson market is oversaturated with theaters. “We only have one theater that is vacant right now, and in this economic climate, we haven’t had a real clamor for people to come and try it out,” Berry says.

In addition to the former Clay Cooper Theatre that is vacant, Berry says the city has only lost two other theaters in the last 10 years.

Huber says after 2008, the company adjusted its business goals and has been meeting its operating expenses the past two years. Adult admission to the theater is $35; teen admission, ages 13 to 18, is $23; and children’s admission, ages 3 to 12, is $16.

“There are a lot of attractions in Branson, a lot of competition,” Huber says. “But I think we’ll continue to see our numbers increase, and next year, with the premier of ‘Joseph,’ it will be a great opportunity.”[[In-content Ad]]

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