By Kathryn Buckstaff
Seven years after the concept was first suggested, meeting and event planners have an exciting new option, the Branson Convention Center.
Its spectacular 220,000 square feet of flexible exhibition space and the attached Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel allow this popular tourism destination to compete in the mid-sized market, serving up to 4,500 attendees with cutting-edge technology, innovative design and a breathtaking setting.
Meeting planners who have used the facility since it opened in September say the facility and services are top-notch. But the location sets it apart.
• It is a block from one of the most beautiful lakefronts in the world.
• It’s across the street from Branson Landing, a 95-acre lifestyle center with a boardwalk along Lake Taneycomo, more than 100 shops, live entertainment, a dozen restaurants and a $7.5 million water attraction that merges water, fire, lights and music designed by the company that created the Las Vegas Bellagio Hotel fountains.
• It’s in the heart of Branson’s historic downtown with unique shops, antique stores, an old-fashioned trolley and horse-drawn carriages to transport visitors.
• And it’s in Branson, one of the country’s most popular tourism destinations.
The convention center features an urban-meets-nature design; wood and stone trim abounds. An expanse of curved glass along one side reflects the sky. And in the 23,000-square-foot ballroom, guests will marvel at the high-tech light and sound ceiling fixtures affectionately known as “the birds,” representing Branson’s geographical position on one of North America’s major migratory paths.
Ozark Hospitality Abounds
One of the first events in the new facility was a meeting of 400 members of the Missouri School Boards Association.
“We have several events throughout Missouri every year, and have high expectations for such events and what is needed,” says associate executive director Joel Denney. “The best evidence I could give to manifest the performance we felt we were given is the fact that we will be returning next June and next August. The facilities were not only more than adequate with all the amenities we expect in a property, but it all gets down to the people and the degree to which they are accommodating, and we were very pleased.”
That’s the goal, said Mark Hartman, general manager of Hiltons of Branson. Hilton also manages the Branson Convention Center under a contract with the city of Branson, which owns the convention center.
“Hospitality is always our top priority,” Hartman said. “Our team members understand that they’re not just the face of Hilton, they’re the face of Branson.”
Ambiance Attracts Attendees
Jim Cox, owner of the Branson Collector Car Auction since 1989, holds bi-annual events that draw buyers from around the world and large crowds of spectators. Cox has struggled to find the perfect facility to suit his unique needs.
“In my office is the roll of plans for a convention center I had drawn 10 years ago,” Cox said. “I was so frustrated, I was going to build my own.”
Over the past 15 years, several developers touted plans for convention centers, but none materialized until HCW Development Co. of Branson emerged. The partnership of Rick Huffman, Marc Williams and Sam Catanese also developed Branson Landing. HCW Development Co. was selected from among several applicants to do the project under a lease agreement with the city of Branson, which owns the lakefront property.
And they did a great job, Cox said. “Many of the elements are way beyond any expectation I ever had.”
Cox was so thrilled with the convention center’s design, and so confident with the developers, that he was the first to sign an event with the convention center two years ago, with construction barely under way.
“It scared me to death, but I’ve believed in it,” he said.
Choice of Accommodations
The attached 12-story, 294-room Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel is a plus, Cox said. He took a gamble that paid off. Before his October auction was announced, he personally guaranteed 200 rooms with Hilton Hotels.
“We exceeded our room commitment three weeks before our final brochure went out in the mail, and that’s a big deal,” Cox said. “It tells us a lot about the people who are coming. They want to walk down the hall, come into a beautiful show space.”
“The venue alone will elevate the status of the event,” Cox says. “I’m booked for the next three years.”
Hilton Hotels also owns the 242-room boutique hotel Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing, another option convenient for convention attendees. Both feature Hilton’s trademark luxurious amenities.
But convention planners need options, so Hilton Hotels works cooperatively through the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau to assure clients can find what suits their needs among the town’s 200 hotels and 20,000 rooms.
High-Tech and Secure
The Branson Convention Center and attached hotel feature Wi-Fi throughout. Another innovation is that exhibition hall utilities, including electricity, water, data lines and compressed air, are embedded in the floor on 30-inch centers. No wires hang from the ceiling nor snake across walkways. The compressed air outlets fill needs from airing up a tire at a car show to filling balloons.
Security is at a premium these days. For security and crowd control, everyone enters the convention center from the second floor of the building. From the lobby of the Hilton, visitors climb the sweeping staircase or take elevators to the second floor. That staircase has already been booked for weddings, according to Bill Tirone, director of sales and marketing.
From the parking garage, visitors cross Sycamore Street through a glass-enclosed bridge to the second floor. From the parking lot, visitors go up the escalators and elevators to the second floor.
A wide concourse runs the length of the second floor, and that’s where guests register or pay entrance fees before entering the ballroom, meeting rooms or the exhibit hall. The concourse is beautiful with its exposed timber beams and curving glass wall. The concourse is also equipped with electrical and digital outlets for displays and booths.
Another unique feature that’s a plus for convention attendees is the second-floor balcony with a view down into the first-floor exhibit hall. It allows people to have an overview of the booths and exhibits. It’s the solution to the single-door exhibit hall where most people crowd through the entrance and go to the right. In the Branson Convention Center, there’s no “first booth” spot, Tirone said.
It’s the Citizens’ Center
From early discussions about the convention center, city leaders including then-Mayor Lou Schaefer made sure the local citizens had a say. Through years of planning there were hundreds of public meetings, some lasting into the wee hours of the night. Citizens voiced opinions on every aspect of the building from its location to carpet color and light fixtures.
At the ribbon cutting for the Branson Convention Center, current Mayor Raeanne Presley paid tribute to the past and present Board of Aldermen members and the city staffers who put so much effort into the project.
That first weekend, the exhibit hall hosted the Branson Vendor Fair and invited Branson businesses to set up booths, and invited the public to attend the free show and get acquainted with the new facility.
“This is the future of Branson commerce,” Mayor Presley said. “Our goal is to offer meeting planners, who always wanted to book big groups in Branson but couldn’t because of a lack of space, the opportunity to bring their clients to experience the charm and hospitality of Branson. We know this convention center will make us a major meeting destination.”
The facility was always a priority for the residents because of the opportunity to bolster a year-round economy and create a sound job environment.
“It really is a new beginning for our town,” said Ross Summers, president of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re the number one destination in the state for leisure travel, and now we’re shooting for the number one convention destination.”
Among those invited for opening events were meeting and event planners from across the country. Jill Cornish is president and publisher of Association Trends, a newsletter serving association executives, the decision makers for trade associations and professional societies. Most of her 7,000 subscribers are in Washington, D.C., and New York, she said.
Cornish said she was impressed with the facility and the community. “I believe people will find something here that they won’t find elsewhere,” she said. “They’ll find people who have been here a long time. This is a community where people stay.”
She asked how the facility had been built, and was pleased to hear it was a private/public enterprise. The city put up $80 million in bonds for the building and infrastructure, and state legislators supported the effort by approving $45 million in tax-increment financing, the largest tax-sharing program approved to date in Missouri.
“I care that this is community owned, and that this large project was supported by this little community,” Cornish said. “That it is open today free to the public is a big deal.”
At one of the many planning meetings, Branson Convention Center architects Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates suggested – somewhat cautiously – a unique lighting system for the ballroom.
The “flyway” concept was based on the fact that Branson is midway between two of the four major migratory bird paths in North America. The lighting system was designed by Illuminating Concepts, the company that designed the fountain light show at the Bellagio Hotel and at Branson Landing.
Citizens scratched their heads, some giggled, some guffawed. But in the end, the consensus was: “Why not?” from a community that’s never been afraid to try something new.
The light fixtures suggest a bird in flight. Seventy-two hang from the high ballroom ceiling. In daylight, they look a bit perplexing. But when the room darkens, the birds put on a show. Each is equipped with two L.E.D.s and a tiny Bose speaker. The facility’s audio/visual manager has been trained to program the birds to change color and intensity to suit the mood of each event. The lighting is coordinated to music and creates a vibrant and dynamic effect. At times, it seems the birds are flying across the room, changing direction, going in circles.
“When guests see and hear this one-of-a-kind system, it will take their breath away,” Hartman said. “Best of all, it allows groups to put their personal stamp on an event by giving guests a unique and very memorable visual experience.” MM&E
(Kathryn Buckstaff is a contributor from Hollister, Mo.)
Branson Convention Center
200 West Main Street
Branson, MO 65616
Phone: (417) 336-5401
Fax: (417) 332-3434
Bill Tirone, CMP
Director of Sales & Marketing