Branson launches visitors campaign

The ads focus on what differentiates the town from its competitors.
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) -- Tourism officials in Branson are focusing on a new group of potential visitors known as "resisters" -- people who shun vacationing in Branson because of perceptions about what it has to offer.
A new strategy aimed at converting this group is being unveiled this spring with ads for television, cable, radio, newspapers, travel guides and the Internet, along with improvements to the Web site.
The tiny town is one of the top 20 overnight family vacation destinations in the country. But of the estimated 7 million people who go to Branson each year, 80 percent are repeat visitors.
"Our loyal visitors have a good sense of what Branson is, and they have a blast when they come here," said Dan Lennon, vice president of marketing for Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But only 20 percent of visitors are first-timers, and that is "too low for a thriving tourists' destination," Lennon said.
"Our goal is to raise that to 30 percent in three years while continuing to grow overall visitation."
There are two types of resisters, according to a study by Sterling Group, a national brand consulting firm. One group is made up of empty-nesters or new retirees over age 45, who perceive Branson as offering little more than second-rate country music shows, the study shows.
The second group of resisters are 25- to 45-year-old parents who return to the same vacation destinations each year because they know their kids will be happy there.
Vacation invitation
Sterling Group invited some of these resisters to take a Branson vacation last July, Lennon said. The 29 people who participated in the offer were given no guidance or restrictions on what to do there, but they were reimbursed for their expenses.
"Not only were they pleasantly surprised by their experience, but they became self-professed ambassadors for Branson," he said.
Converts include Dan Reardon, a St. Louis-area engineer, married with four children. He admits to liking "the finer things in life," and says that past family vacations had "leaned toward the higher-end type of places."
His impression of Branson before visiting? "A two-lane road with T-shirt shops and busloads of wonderful nice older ladies going to see these country shows," he said. "I'd drive 12 hours to Florida before I'd drive three hours to Branson."
But Reardon changed his opinion after taking one of the free vacations offered to "resisters."
"We had the best time," he said. "It was just a really fun environment." He and his family saw shows, went to restaurants and even loved the "Dixie Stampede," a comical show with farm animals.
"The kids were riveted by it," he said. He also appreciated how family-friendly the service was. For example, food was brought to their seats while they watched the show, and it was served quickly -- making it easy to dine with impatient little ones.
Reardon says they'll be going back for more; he's even done a radio spot promoting Branson.
Lennon traces some of Branson's image problem to a 1991 CBS "60 Minutes" segment that is credited with starting Branson's boom, but that also cemented its image as a destination for retirees with retro tastes in music.
Overcoming that perception is the town's challenge.
"It's not enough to tell them about Branson, we have to show them," said Linda A. Antus, of Antus Marketing, in nearby Hollister.
Selling points
Antus said the new campaign seeks to brand Branson by focusing on what differentiates it from its competitors -- destinations like Orlando, Nashville, Las Vegas and Wisconsin Dells, a water park resort popular in the Midwest.
Officials settled on two main concepts to express what's unique about Branson. One, Branson is "up close and personal," a reference to a customer-service approach in which entertainers and staff interact with guests, sign autographs, recognize birthdays and the like. And two, Branson offers a broad mix of activities -- not just the shows, but also golf, fishing, water sports and shopping.
The new ads, already airing in some parts of the country, depict a game of charades being played in a suburban living room. One person imagines and then tries to act out fishing, golf, musical instruments, dancing and other activities. The word he's trying to get the other players to guess is Branson.
This year the town's 49 theaters will offer more than 100 shows. Performers range from Branson perennials, like comedian Yakov Smirnoff, to stars with one-time gigs, like magician David Copperfield, booked in Branson from June 13 to 26. Other shows include a production of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Broadway hit, "Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the Acrobats of China, and a revue called "Broadway! The Star-Spangled Celebration."
Crooners like Andy Williams and Bobby Vinton still court tourists, but new country artists like Tracy Byrd, Brad Paisley and Neal McCoy do short engagements as well.
A new attraction this season is the Powder Keg, a $10 million roller coaster with a 110-foot drop, open at Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-style park with an Ozarks heritage theme.
"There's a gap between the reality of what Branson is and what some think it is," said Lennon. "Our goal through branding is to close that gap."
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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