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Hoteliers bet on a changing Branson

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From cedar soaking tubs and a coffee and wine bar to family bunk-style rooms and a natural creek-side play area, developers of The Ozarker Lodge are looking to bring a different experience to Branson tourists.

Two groups have joined in the 102-room venture. One is the local team of Jeremy Wells and Dustin Myers, partners in hospitality marketing firm Longitude LLC and investment group Flyover Developments LLC.

The other team is national investment firm Eagle Point Hotel Partners, with offices in New York, San Francisco and Honolulu. Eagle Point has invested $1.5 billion over the past 10 years in luxury properties like Anvil Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming, named to Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List in 2018, and Calistoga Motor Lodge in Napa Valley, California, a restored road-trip motel that won the 2018 America Hotel of the Year Award for renovation from industry publication Sleeper. Its offerings also include destination high-rise and midrise hotels in Manhattan.

Eagle Point’s website states that it reimagines underappreciated and underperforming real estate through new construction and adaptive reuse, and that seems to be what’s happening at the former Fall Creek Inn & Suites, located on State Highway 165.

The Ozarker Lodge is a $10 million project, Wells said, including the acquisition cost and about $6.5 million in renovations. The Ozarker’s booking website lists summer rates as $122-$171. The hotel is on track to open this summer.

The outdoor pool will be an activity hub at The Ozarker, with food trucks to be parked beside it and a concert stage nearby. Meredith Tatum, director of guest experience, is working to schedule yoga retreats.

Sheldon Pruiett, general manager of the property, provides some unexpected continuity for the hotel, as he previously managed Fall Creek Inn. When asked if he thought he’d see very many of the same customers, his answer was definitive.

“No,” he said.

He and Wells acknowledged, though, that some fishing parties may provide a little overlap, and those former guests who came to Branson for the outdoors might find The Ozarker, with its creek-side trail, to their liking. Wells said the developers envision the lodge as a basecamp for adventuring in the Ozarks.

It’s a little difficult to figure out what kind of visitor might show up in Branson, as nearly everyone in the market acknowledges things have been in flux since the pandemic and even before.

When developers of Manhattan high rises start to take notice of a lodge by a creek, it’s a good sign a change may be coming.

Tourism by the numbers
Branson had a record 10.2 million visitors in 2022, beating its record of 10 million from the year before, according to figures provided by the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau.

H2R Market Research, which crunches tourism numbers for the Branson chamber, found that the activities travelers most associate with Branson are live shows and original music artists, at 71%-75%. Branson was built as a tourist destination based on live performances, coming to full flower in the 1980s and 1990s, with national names like Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley and Andy Williams opening theaters in the city.

The H2R research shows natural attractions, including lake and water activities, outdoor recreation and Table Rock Lake, are slightly lower on the list of associations, at 60%-64%.

The Ozarker Lodge developers are betting these associations will rise. Some of their rooms are designated as mountain bike rooms, with mounts on the wall for bike storage.

“When we first viewed the property in November 2021, really the highlight was the pristine natural setting,” said Wells. “It was quintessential Ozarks.”

The developers are betting that visitors will enjoy sitting at firepits under the stars, and they have hired Grant Williams of Vox Landscape Design LLC, best known locally for designing the patio area at Springfield’s Tie & Timber Beer Co. LLC, to set the vibe.

“We hired him specifically because we liked what we saw there,” Wells said.

Pruiett noted a lot of hotels serve as a jumping-off point to visit local attractions, but at The Ozarker Lodge, the hotel is the attraction.

“We want people to stay as opposed to leave,” he said. “We want them to stay and experience everything we’re offering.”

The research shows that those tourists who reported having attended shows while in Branson caught an average of 2.9 shows per party. Visitors stayed an average of 4 nights. Those visitors in the 35-54 age group, the largest segment, also spent the most money, at $1,196 per party, according to H2R.

The Ozarker Lodge model challenges Branson’s entertainment revenue stream, with visitors lounging by the pool and occasionally hitting a food truck while taking in performances that come to them.

Jonas Arjes, interim president and CEO of the chamber and CVB, said the important thing is that visitors choose Branson.

“Our role as a destination marketing organization is to put all of our efforts into capturing that traveler’s attention and convincing them to make the decision to travel to Branson,” he said.

Are visitors changing?
Arjes is philosophical about tourism.

“There’s a seasonality in the market,” he said. “We get empty nesters in the spring and fall, families in the summer; a certain percentage of those demographics are represented throughout the year.”

The last few years have looked somewhat different than normal, and the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the analytical works, according to Arjes.

“Your broader question is, is the Branson visitor changing?” he said. “I don’t think the visitor is changing; what consumers want and what they’re spending money on is probably changing.”

The age of visitors has dropped, Arjes said.

“It’s a little too early to tell if that’s going to stick,” he said.

He said it is clear visitors prefer to spend money on experiences rather than possessions.

“They’d rather go spend a weekend or a week at a lake house and have family time versus buying things,” he said.

Attractions like ziplining, Pink Adventure Tours and the Howler Bike Park help to scratch this itch, Arjes said.

The chamber recently hosted the Branson/Tri-Lakes Area Trail Summit to consider linking up trails between Branson and other markets – for instance, one joining Bass Pro Shops in Springfield with Big Cedar Lodge and maybe on down to the Bentonville area.

“As we’ve seen, some markets do these things; it’s totally possible,” Arjes said. “As communities, are we willing to put forth the effort and resources to make that happen?”

Challenges remain, including workforce housing that would allow Branson to address its workforce shortage.

“When we revive our efforts to recruit from Puerto Rico, housing is going to be a determining factor of how many we can bring over for a period of time for an employer,” he said. “It’s a big concern locally; obviously, this market has a long history and reputation of being very customer-service oriented, and hospitality is a big thing. Being short-staffed really makes that a challenge to deliver on those expectations.”

Hotel stock has remained static since about 2016 as well, he said, but noted nightly rental inventory – meaning short-term rentals like Airbnb and Vrbo – have been increasing significantly since before 2020.

For now, The Ozarker Lodge developers are betting there’s a change in the air, and that it may outlast local officials’ projections.

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