By Dawn Erickson
“High profile” describes the Radisson Hotel Branson in more ways than its 10-story height overlooking the famous tourism town’s entertainment district. Being Branson’s first full-service convention hotel and its first high-rise building as well, the hotel set a standard of service and hospitality that has helped to take Branson to the top of the list of destinations that welcome group travelers.
Radisson staff members helped to pioneer the meetings, events and convention business in the 1990s during the “Branson phenomenon,” when hundreds of news media converged on the town and brought international attention to its attractions and live entertainment. They have hosted countless celebrities, families and groups of all types and they continue to seek new segments of the meetings and events market.
For example, the Radisson’s most unusual group event in the past year featured one of the highest-profile people in the world. Santa Claus, or rather, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, gathered at the Radisson in July for the first-ever international convention. The 250-or-so Santas were so pleased with the accommodations and service that they will return for another convention in 2008.
Training results in dedicated staff
Although the hotel operated under other names in its early days, for several years it has been a member of Carlson Hotels Worldwide. The hotel subscribes to Carlson’s “Yes, I Can” philosophy. Staff members undergo training in what is perhaps the most thorough and aggressive program for lodging staff in Branson. The benefits of the training include great service to guests, job satisfaction and dedication for staff and little job turnover for the hotel.
Staff turnover has long been an issue for most lodging businesses in Branson. The tiny town of about 7,500 residents is home to more than 200 lodging businesses offering about 18,000 units within the city limits. About 5,000 additional lodging units are nearby, outside the city limits. Competition can be intense, at times, between lodging businesses to keep qualified employees. The credit for the Radisson’s success at keeping its staff goes to its corporate management and its general manager, Tammy Johnson, who has been with the hotel since its opening in 1993.
Michael Capps, the Radisson’s director of sales and marketing, describes Johnson’s management style. “She is definitely focused on customer service but she does it ‘inside-out,’” he said. “The employees represent her well.”
The 180 employees receive more than orientation, Capps said. “They learn how valuable our customers are. They learn the importance of their jobs, and how important that connection is to our clients,” he said. “The training helps every employee to understand the ‘Yes, I Can’ service to guests. They get an opportunity to make a guest’s stay a little more special.”
“They consistently go above and beyond for our customers,” said Senior Sales Manager Annette Wood. She cites a benefits program and “employee of the month” cash and prize rewards as incentives and reinforcement for the training.
Management at the Radisson also benefits from Carlson’s certification and training programs. As the international corporation discovers new ideas and techniques, they are sent throughout the organization through conferences, training programs and education, Capps said. Staff members can even sign up for “Webinar” Internet classes.
Upgraded surroundings and customized service
Constant improvement reaches beyond the staff to the physical surroundings for the guests. The hotel is currently updating its 472 rooms with Sleep Number® beds and complimentary wireless Internet service. New carpeting, furniture and vanities are being installed. Down comforters are taking the place of the traditional bedspreads seen in most hotels. The main lobby is being redecorated as well as the ballroom foyer area to make them more socially friendly, Wood said.
The Radisson offers 15,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space and banquet services for up to 500 people. When more space is needed for larger groups, the Radisson partners with its adjacent neighbor, the Grand Palace, for events and meetings. The Grand Palace is Branson’s largest entertainment facility at 4,000 seats.
Customized catering is also a specialty, from formal plated dinners to pizza buffets. “We will arrange whatever works to satisfy the guests,” Wood said.
In addition to the banquet space, the Radisson has a restaurant seating 160 people, a cocktail lounge and an ice cream and specialty coffee shop.
The Radisson’s sales staff develops a personalized Web page for each meeting and event that it hosts. Rooms can be booked directly from the Web site for the convenience of attendees. The staff often works with ticket and travel agencies in Branson to book show and attraction tickets, transportation and other needs of their groups. The hotel also has a full concierge service.
Location is an advantage
The largest groups accommodated at the Radisson are religious in nature, Wood said. An example is an annual conference that brings 1,500 teenagers to the hotel each December. A Kiwanis-related group will bring 1,000 to 1,500 teens to the hotel this season. “They love this location because the kids can walk to theaters, attractions and shopping,” she said.
“We feel we have a lot to offer the meetings and events industry because of our location,” Wood said. “We’re part of the theater district.” The Radisson’s location is an obvious advantage. It is just off the “Strip,” next to the Grand Palace and the Andy Williams Moon River Theater, and within easy walking distance to specialty and outlet shopping, a championship golf course and dozens of attractions and other theaters.
The Radisson’s group customers fall into a pattern of sorts, depending on the season. During the spring, it hosts many groups traveling by motor coach, Wood said. In summer, most guests are family groups. Motor coach groups return again in the fall. Reunions – family and military groups – are spread out spring through fall, and corporate events are held throughout the year. From January to mid-March, tourism slows its pace throughout the Branson community although plenty of attractions and accommodations are open to serve visitors.
Wood said the sales staff spends a great deal of time working with tour and travel segments of the groups market. They have been very successful with military groups and reunions, she said.
“We are expanding our marketing to bring in more corporate and association events,” Capps said. “We are building relationships by making sales calls and attending social functions. There’s an association for just about everything.” The special effort to build its corporate and association events clientele takes sales staff members frequently to Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, and to cities in primarily a four-state area.
The Radisson’s sales staff members also follow the marketing plan set by the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), which spends the community’s advertising budget provided by a regional tourism sales tax.
The Chamber/CVB provides sales leads to its members so they can follow up with bids on conventions, meetings and special events. The CVB was the initial contact for the Santa convention. The Radisson sent a proposal, and then “Santa Tim” called. He then came to Branson on a site inspection.
Santa Slept Here
The Santa convention was by far the most unusual group the Radisson has hosted, Wood said. “We had everything from a Norman Rockwell Santa to a Harley-riding Santa. We had the Coca-Cola Santa and others that you see on national television. There was a Santa for everyone.”
The convention was in July, when the hotel had many families visiting, she said. “We wondered if it would be troubling to the children, seeing so many Santas in one place. We saw about 15 Santas get off the elevator together, in front of a little girl about four years old who was standing there with her parents. She just stared at them and focused on one of them. She walked right up to him and said ‘Santa.’ He stopped and talked to her, and the others saw that he had it covered and went on their way. She just picked out her own Santa.”
The Santas would stop whatever they were doing to talk to kids, she said.
Wood said, “Other guests said, ‘From now we’re coming during the Santa convention because our kids have behaved so well!’”
The convention offered workshops such as storytelling, “Santa Ethics,” “Santa’s Basic Wardrobe and How to Care for It,” and “Keeping Christ as the Center of our Christmas.” There were also special stores in the meeting rooms where Santas could buy hand-made costumes that cost hundreds of dollars, Wood said.
The Radisson took advantage of the special opportunity by designing a special “Santa Slept Here!” holiday card with photos from the Santa convention.
Branson embraces groups
“Branson has a way of embracing groups like no other destination,” Wood said. “A lot of other destinations are trying to get the Santa convention, but they are coming back here in 2008.”
Other memorable groups include the “Red Hatters,” who throw pajama parties and even require the dance band to dress in nightwear.
The Radisson is also enormously popular with military groups. In 2003, Congressional Medal of Honor recipients made it their headquarters.
The Radisson is “uniquely outfitted” for military events, Capps said. The Hall of Heroes in the ballroom foyer and meeting room hall features hundreds of military items and memorabilia that have been donated to the hotel. The collection began with a donated display or two in 2000 and has grown so quickly that the hotel is considering placing the displays in rotation.
The Radisson is representative of the adaptability that has been a key to Branson’s success. “Branson has never locked itself into an identity and refused to grow,” Wood said. “For such a little community to compete with some of the competition we have in the world, it says a lot for the community as a whole.”
Capps’ career history is an indicator, in a way, of Branson’s impact on the group travel industry. He held a variety of management positions in 17 years of work for Hilton International, based in Guam. He moved to Toronto, Canada for three years, and then 911 changed everything, he said. He looked for the best places to live in the United States, and chose to move to Branson.
“It’s one of the 10 best in the world for the group travel market,” Capps said.
Additional information about the Radisson Hotel Branson is available by calling 1-417-335-5767 or logging on to www.radisson.com/bransonmo.
(Dawn Erickson is a contributor from Branson, MO)