By Dawn Erickson
Meeting planners who want something a little out of the ordinary can find it in many forms in America’s self-titled entertainment capital – Branson, Missouri.
As small-town Branson grows to meet the needs of meeting and event planners, it has found creative ways to use existing space in theaters, theme parks and entertainment complexes.
Branson’s entertainment venues are attractive alternatives to the typical meeting room. Speakers on a stage with professional lighting, musical accompaniment and visual aids on large video screens put a different spin on a meeting, according to Tate Womack, director of sales at the Jim Stafford Theater. “Holding a meeting in a theater is just more, well, ‘theatrical,’” he said. “The theatrical aspects are a neat twist that we can offer to meeting planners. It’s a niche that a convention center can’t duplicate.”
“Custom” is a keyword for meeting space in Branson. Non-traditional meeting space is available at most entertainment venues in Branson. Based on availability and each property’s amenities, venue staff members are happy to customize each meeting and organize the details. Catered meals, concession snacks, break-out space when available, and live entertainment with Branson stars can be packaged as part of a meeting. For instance, a two-hour meeting at the Jim Stafford venue can be simply a meeting at the facility. Or, it can lead up to and include one of the three top-quality shows regularly performed at the theater, as scheduling permits. A third option is a special one-hour show staged as part of the meeting, Womack said.
“A corporate meeting in Branson will be more revved up and inspired,” said Cindy Merry, owner of a marketing agency that represents the Jim Stafford Theater, Yakov Smirnoff Theatre, New Shanghai Theatre, the new Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theatre and other venues. “That is one of the reasons that meeting planners choose Branson. They don’t feel like they are working.”
Merry’s client theaters can accommodate a range of meeting sizes and needs. Stafford’s theater and the Dick Clark theater seat about 950 people each, and Smirnoff’s venue seats 1,800 to 2,000. Stafford’s and Smirnoff’s venues each have additional meeting space outside the auditoriums. The Dick Clark complex offers complete meeting facilities with the theater, restaurant and lounge. A balcony above the theater lobby provides additional space. The complex is located next door to the Ramada Inn and Conference Center on Branson’s famous Highway 76. Occasionally, more than one venue is needed for a meeting or event, and Merry’s clients network together to meet the needs.
Networking is standard operating procedure in Branson, and the Grand Palace and its neighbor the Radisson Hotel are a prime example. They have formed a partnership to solicit meetings, conferences and special events. As Branson’s largest theater, the Grand Palace hosts gatherings of up to about 3,800 people. Coupled with the Radisson’s meeting rooms, restaurant and comfortable lodgings, the partnership can handle meetings as large as can be accommodated by the Chateau on the Lake Resort Hotel and Conference Center, Branson’s largest traditional meeting and conference venue.
The luxurious Chateau on the Lake Resort Hotel on Table Rock Lake near Branson offers 43,500 square feet of flexible meeting space for groups of 24 to 4,000 people. Fine dining and upscale amenities are standard fare. The cleverly designed conference area can combine seven of the 14 meeting rooms into a “Great Hall” of almost 32,000 square feet. A trade show of up to 90 booths can also be accommodated. The Chateau also offers a video theater for up to 50 people. Non-traditional aspects of Chateau on the Lake are its large marina on Table Rock Lake, full service spa and outdoor event venues, as well as its proximity to all of Branson’s entertainment.
College of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, just across Lake Taneycomo from downtown Branson, offers its own spin on unique meeting facilities. The four-year liberal arts college built the Keeter Center to host meetings, conferences, receptions and special events for groups up to 500 people. The center offers an auditorium seating 350 people and seven additional rooms and areas, as well as lodging and dining.
College of the Ozarks pioneered the college sports conference industry in the Branson area by bringing in the 32-team NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship for several consecutive years. The week-long NAIA event overflows to many other Branson area tourism businesses. One of them is a popular dinner hosted by Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction.
The City of Branson’s Parks and Recreation Department follows the College’s lead by pursuing other sporting events. The City’s new “Recplex” sports and recreation center provides multiple sports fields, two gymnasiums, an aquatics park, community rooms and other amenities on its 42-acre site.
Venues that offer one show daily, such as Presleys’ Mountain Music Jubilee, have a scheduling advantage over theaters that offer several shows. Raeanne Presley said the theater recently hosted a Goldwing motorcycle convention awards presentation for about 700 attendees. Theaters that record daily performances and make them available for sale on DVDs can also offer the service to meetings to record special events.
Tri-Lakes Center, originally the Mel Tillis Theatre, reinvented itself as a popular meeting and conference location. It’s a worship center and a theater featuring such international celebrities as Mel Tillis, Dino Kartsonakis and Daniel O’Donnell in limited engagements. It has also hosted such large and diverse events as the Gary Smalley couples conference, Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, World View Weekend, Heritage Keepers, Destined for Branson travel and trade shows and many local charity events. In more than 150,000 square feet of space, its auditorium seats 2,600 and the lobby can accommodate 3,000 people. The vast lobby, exhibition halls and meeting rooms are marketed to conferences, conventions, seminars, workshops, family reunions and television productions.
The IMAX Entertainment Complex in Branson presents a variety of meeting options and services to groups of up to about 500 people. Inside an enclosed mall are a live theater seating 210, the IMAX theater seating 534, and three cinema auditoriums seating up to 181 each. A popular full-service restaurant, food court and some interesting shops fill the complex. Above the food court, another area provides seating space for about 100 for meals or breakout space, said Joy Sorokes, group sales representative.
Branson’s famous Silver Dollar City theme park and its sister businesses Celebration City, White Water and the Showboat Branson Belle are popular venues for meetings on a seasonal basis. The Showboat frequently hosts meetings prior to its cruises and it is occasionally chartered by groups of up to 700 people.
Marketing representatives from many of Branson’s 50-plus venues attend conventions for meeting planners in various industries. The venues also receive leads from the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Chamber/CVB actively courts meeting, convention and reunion business and distributes planning kits for student travel and incentive travel planners, travel agents, group tour operators and military and family reunion planners.
Meeting planners contact the Chamber to send out a request for proposals (RFP), which is sent to Chamber members who have facilities and amenities that meet the planner’s needs. Responses to an RFP are either sent directly to the planner from each responding business, or they are collected on behalf of the planner by the Chamber and forwarded to the planner. RFPs are processed at no cost or obligation to the planner, according to Chamber/CVB Director of Sales Lenni Neimeyer. She said the Chamber/CVB processes about 500 travel planner requests per year, and she expects the number of requests to continue to grow.
The uniqueness of Branson’s alternative meeting space appeals to many meeting planners, and it is expected to complement the 220,000-square-foot convention center that will open in the spring of 2007 at Branson Landing. The city-owned convention center and 294-room Hilton Hotel will allow Branson to bring in conventions and conferences on a scale that the community has had to decline in the past.
“The convention center will enhance what is already here,” Neimeyer said. “We will be able to host conventions that we couldn’t host before. And we will continue to present the uniqueness of our alternative meeting space to the groups who want something nontraditional.”
(Dawn Erickson is a contributor from Branson, Mo.)
• Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce (800) 214-3661
• Branson RecPlex (417) 294-3484
• Chateau on the Lake (888) 333-LAKE (5253)
• Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater (417) 332-1960
• Grand Palace Theater (800) 884-4536
• IMAX Entertainment Complex (800) 419-4832
• Keeter Center (417) 239-1900
• Presley’s Theater (800) 335-4874
• Radisson Hotel Branson (800) 333-3333
• Showboat Branson Belle (800) 775-BOAT
• Jim Stafford Theater (417) 335-8080
• Tri-Lakes Center (417) 335-5715
Branson with a New Beat: An Update on the Branson Landing
Branson, a popular meeting destination, just became even more desirable with the opening of the biggest single investment in the city’s economic history. Branson Landing, an upscale shopping, dining, lodging and convention complex on Branson’s downtown lakefront, was introduced to the public in June.
The $420 million development stretches more than a mile along Lake Taneycomo in downtown Branson. Branson Landing offers diverse shopping, dining, and entertainment and will soon be home to two Hilton hotels and a convention center.
Linda Antus, director of marketing for Branson Landing, said she hears two comments in particular, over and over.
“People tell me, ‘I had no idea it would be so spectacular!’ and ‘This is so different from what we expected to find in Branson!,’” Antus said. “Branson Landing brings a nice new dimension to the Branson mix.”
When fully occupied, Branson Landing will include:
Anchor stores Bass Pro Shops at the south end and Belk Department Store at the north end, 25 apparel shops, 14 gift and specialty shops, seven shoe stores, 10 restaurants and more than a dozen specialty food shops, five jewelry and accessory shops, and dozens of assorted retail and service businesses including a bank, salons, kiosk businesses and many others.
A $7.5 million water show on Lake Taneycomo at the Town Square area made its debut in June. It features fountains, fire cannons, music and light in a dramatic choreographed display. The 300-foot-long attraction shoots water geysers up to 140 feet from 186 water jet fountains. Fifteen fire cannons shoot fire blasts from eight to 14 feet tall. The display can be seen by up to 5,000 people in the Town Square and is also visible from Main Street in downtown Branson.
• A boardwalk extending the length of Branson Landing over Lake Taneycomo was partially opened in June and is expected to be completed by the Labor Day holiday.
• A marina and floating restaurant will be part of Bass Pro Shops’ complex. The restaurant is expected to open by the end of 2006; the marina’s completion date is pending.
• The Hilton Promenade, a “boutique” hotel scheduled to open this fall, will offer 243 luxury rooms, meeting space, the Liberty Tavern Restaurant and many other amenities. The “Old Glory” meeting room adjacent to the restaurant will accommodate up to 120 people. A “soft” opening is planned for October; a grand opening will be held November 3.
• The Branson Convention Center will include 220,000 square feet of meeting space, event management, on-site catering and all technical services needed for professional meetings and conventions. The convention center and connecting Hilton hotel will open August 17, 2007; the grand opening date is not yet scheduled. Corporation and association events and consumer shows already have been booked, and events are pending as far out as 2011, according to Bill Tirone, marketing director for the Hilton properties.
• The 12-story Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel will offer 290 luxury rooms and suites. The Trofi, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant, will seat about 150 people.
Although the hotels are not yet open, reservations are being taken for meetings, conventions and events. Meeting planners can gather plenty of information and schedule their events at www.bransonlanding.com.
By mid-July, almost all shops and several restaurants were open.
The slightly curving brick promenade is lined on both sides with shops at street level and luxury condominiums above. Six themed districts from north to south are the Station District, Wharf District, Downtown District, Uptown District, Neighborhood District and Country District. Between the Downtown and Uptown districts is the Town Square with an amphitheater, fountain and spectacular water feature. Children can play at a pirate-themed playground in the Wharf District. At several locations on the Promenade, live entertainers provide music of various styles from smooth jazz, “stomp,” country and “doo-wop” to Elvis. Magicians, comedians, a trick roper, dancers, jugglers and other entertainers also perform.
There’s plenty of seating along the Promenade, and a streetcar-style tram provides a lift to parking lots on the north and south ends of the shopping area. A large parking garage also is available near the Town Square and Wharf District.
Antus walks the length of Branson Landing daily, from the south end where she parks her car to the north end where her office is located. “Each little district is different,” she said. “The retailers are very happy. It’s exceeding their expectations. There’s a constant energy level in the Landing. It changes over the course of the day, but it’s always there.
Antus, who has been marketing director of the project since spring 2005, calls its success phenomenal. “It’s exceeding my expectations, and I had pretty high expectations!”
“Branson Landing is uniquely different,” she said. “Differences make for good growth for the area.” She quotes a line that will become part of the Landing’s marketing campaign. “We’re Branson with a whole new beat!”