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Destination Branson? City bets on regional travel, pent-up demand

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After years of record visitors – topping at 9.1 million in 2019 – Branson businesses are betting on pent-up demand for travel and regional appeal as they plan to reopen for the summer.

Business owners say while operations and procedures may look different, the tourism town is preparing for travelers now that the Branson Board of Alderman lifted stay-at-home restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic on May 4 and announced plans to follow Gov. Mike Parson’s reopening guidance.

“Families are not taking extravagant vacations or going to Europe or even Disney, but are making investments in time and money to stay local and go to the lake,” said Bob Cox, co-owner of State Park Marina and The Harbor. “There’s a funny feeling I have that we’ll come out stronger than ever.”

That emphasis on relying on regional visitors is echoed by Jeff Seifried, president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said with COVID-19 still a threat nationwide, Branson should attract visitors within 300 miles as many will avoid air travel. In 2019, that footprint represented two-thirds of visitors to Branson, according to chamber data.

“We feel that we are well positioned to take advantage of this pent-up demand knowing that we can protect our visitors and guests, frankly, like we always have,” he said. “There will be a rush to travel.”

But six weeks of stay-at-home orders and closures of nonessential businesses has taken its toll on the city’s bottom line, as well as businesses. An update from the city’s finance department outlined a 45% shortage in budgeted tax revenues, including most notably an expected $6 million drop in tourism fund revenues to $7.5 million for the year.

“As much as it pains me to say, we don’t need a ton of visitors today because we need to make sure we’re fleshing out all the policies and procedures we put in place,” Seifried said, adding he’s encouraging businesses to reopen by Memorial Day weekend. “No one wants to get this wrong. No one wants to have another shutdown. No one wants to be the cause of an unsafe situation.”

Hospitality center
Gail Myer, vice president of operations for Myer Hospitality Inc., said this is not the first storm in his family’s 53-year-old business.

“We seem to have some sort of an event every 10 years, but in general, tourism is very stable,” he said. “People like to have fun, and they like to come to the Ozarks mountains.”

Myer said the company’s six hotels representing roughly 670 hotel rooms in Branson have been closed since early April. He said he furloughed 100 employees, but he was able to bring back 50 to prepare for reopening through a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. He said at least one of his hotels, though he had not determined which one, would reopen June 5.

“I’m very confident in the hotels we can keep customers and team members safe,” he said. “Our decision is around the gathering of theaters and attractions. That drives business to Branson. Once they drive business to Branson, we will be there to support them.”

Some attractions, like The Dutton Family Theater and shows at Americana Theatre, reopened May 16. However, Tina Cooper said the Clay Cooper Theatre is delaying the return of its shows until early June.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing right by Branson, especially,” said Cooper, who co-owns the theater. “We can hopefully minister to these people and bring them a little bit of joy since they’ve been experiencing so many different things at home. That’s one time where entertainment is so important.”

Following current social distancing guidelines, groups will be spaced three seats apart with seating in every-other row, she said. Front-of-house employees will wear masks, and the team is working on protocols to bring people in and out of the theater, to the restrooms and to purchase concessions.

“This normal is never going to be what we used to experience,” she said. “I truly believe Branson will be OK, eventually. Enough people love this town and love what we have to offer.”

Cooper said she’s had some reservations made for the summer from as far away as California, though she expects most of the theatergoers to be from the region.

Lake life
While theaters and attractions are working through opening with social distancing measures in place, Cox said his marina business has those procedures built in.

“We actually call it nautical distancing,” he said. “Now more than ever, boating makes so much sense. It allows folks who have had cabin fever literally for months, to get out on the beautiful Ozarks waterways and enjoy their family and be spaced out.”

He said he budgeted for a 35% cut to business at both the State Park Marina and The Harbor, but as business ramps back up he doesn't think it will be that steep, especially with boat sales.

“Our business turned off like a tap,” he said of The Harbor, which was deemed an essential business because of its management of personal property. “It’s surprisingly, and thankfully, turned back on almost as quickly as it turned off just in the last two-and-a-half weeks.”

While the marina side is still in flux, he noted only two summer reservations have canceled amid thousands. The marina was closed for six weeks due to Branson city orders.

“We’re so dependent on folks coming to the Branson area, finding lodging, finding other things to do and spending a day or two at the lake. That’s a little foggy for us right now,” he said. “We literally haven’t had the season start yet.”

Neither company furloughed employees, he said, which was supported by a PPP loan with an undisclosed amount. Team members worked to reopen the marina on the day stay-at-home orders were lifted, but under new procedures. He said people renting boats can book and pay online and never have to step into the store. In addition, boats are only rented out once in a day to give staff time to clean the vessels.

“When it’s warm, they are just crawling all over us down here to get out on the water. That gives us a lot of good challenges,” he said. “We’re in a fortunate situation with an outdoor-based business.”

Unknowns
Even as many Branson businesses prepare to reopen, a huge draw to the area has yet to set an opening date as of press time. Silver Dollar City ended 2019 with record attendance of 2.22 million visitors. The park pushed its mid-March opening until at least May, according to spokesperson Lisa Rau, and announced in mid-April it would furlough 257 employees.

While not speaking of Silver Dollar City in particular, Seifried voiced concern for businesses after several weeks of lost revenue.

“I’m highly concerned, personally and professionally, of the survivability for many businesses of this pandemic,” he said. “Businesses that have been in Branson for generations are frankly at high risk.”

At the chamber, CVB and Taney County Partnership alone, 14 of the 30 employees have been furloughed and budgets have been cut by 50%, said spokesperson Rachel Wood.

Seifried said the chamber has offered peer-to-peer guidance manuals for restaurants, attractions and hotels, as well as ideas to safely reopen, which are available on its website.

“This is an excellent time to open your business in a limited capacity and start to get used to the new cleaning procedures and crowd control and getting those bugs worked out,” he said. “It’s not a light switch. A lot of people think you can just turn on the business tomorrow. It’s not an easy and quick process.”

Myer said Branson was built on a foundation of hospitality and gathering, and he’s confident that will return, while keeping employees and customers safe.

“The shame of it all is, this has been a beautiful spring,” he said, “but 2021 could be a historic year in Branson. Tourism for a while is going to be more regional and more road trips and we are perfect for that.”

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