Weathering the Storm

December 23, 2012


By Julia M. Johnson

February 29, 2012, was a day the city of Branson won’t quickly forget. In the early morning, an EF2 tornado plowed through this southern Missouri entertainment capital, leaving a swath of splintered glass, twisted rooflines, downed signage and crumbling bricks. No lives were lost, but the effect on area commerce was sobering.

At the same time, the storm threw open a window toward refurbishment and renewal. Once the dust settled, hospitality facilities such as the city’s Hilton hotels and convention center parlayed the damage into an opportunity to shine even more brightly than before.

The 294-room Hilton Branson Convention Center was one of the hardest-hit structures in town, says Branson Hilton’s general manager Bill Derbins. The hotel’s insurance claim totaled $20 million, including replacement of the roofing, pool area, carpeting, wallpaper, furniture – and all 3,400 of the property’s windows. It was shuttered for several months while repairs took place, but reopened ahead of schedule in September 2012.

Across the street, the 242-room Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing sustained less damage, but still had to take 60 guest rooms offline for several weeks’ worth of repairs.  And the adjoining Branson Convention Center, which the city owns and Derbins’ Hilton staff manages, saw about $3 million in damage and closed for six weeks.

The award-winning properties had only been open for about five years, so the refurbishment efforts came a bit ahead of the normal schedule. But according to Derbins, the $420 million development’s renovation has turned into a win-win situation for guests and meeting planners alike. Located next to the Branson Landing waterfront entertainment district, the hotels and convention center are ship-shape and ready to show eventgoers a grand time.

According to Derbins, if there was any concern that the facilities’ repair period would put a dent in meeting and event bookings, those fears were quickly allayed. “At first, we weren’t sure of the scope of the damage,” he says. “We spent a month figuring that out. We just reopened the convention center hotel in September, and as of October, we already had 4,500 group rooms on the books.”

“For the groups we already had booked at the time of the storm, we did everything we could to keep them in Branson, including getting them space at other local hotels,” he says. “It was nice that many of them wanted to stay in the area, help the local economy, and keep their bookings for future years.  Their loyalty was very touching.”

Now that repairs are complete, Derbins says he and his staff are looking confidently into the future, and they are excited about encouraging meeting planners to book space. There are lots of event and guest room options to be enjoyed.  And all the properties are certified “green” by the state of Missouri, Derbins says, so environmental responsibility is an important focus.

Of the Hilton Branson Convention Center’s 294 rooms, 90 are suites. There are indoor and outdoor pools and a workout facility, among other amenities. The Level 2 Steakhouse and Clear cocktail lounge offer spaces where guests can eat, drink and enjoy, and a business center and audio-visual equipment are on-site as well.

The hotel is attached to the Branson Convention Center, which offers 220,000 square feet of meeting space in a variety of configurations. “There are an exhibit hall and ballroom on the same floor, and they can join for convenience,” Derbins says. On the facility’s second level, there are 20 breakout rooms.  “It’s all easy to use because there are only the two levels, and everything is enclosed and adjoining,” he says.

Step across the street and you’ll find equal elegance at the Hilton Promenade. One hundred forty of its 242 rooms are suites, many of which have full kitchens with refrigerators and stoves.  There are an indoor pool, whirlpool and workout facility, and easy access to Branson Landing, which includes 100 shops and 15 bars and restaurants. There’s also a small ballroom that can accommodate 120 seated guests. It is undergoing a remodel that should wrap up in December 2012, according to Derbins.

“One of the nicest things about our properties is that we book and run the hotels and the convention center, so you work with one sales staff member for everything,” he says. “Planners get our full attention, and they can feel taken care of.”

Bill Derbins shares some changes his staff implemented following the February 2012 tornado:
1)     We have weather radios in all our offices, but security staff members are always walking the hotels during the overnight shift. We have purchased portable weather radios for these employees, so they can react much more quickly if there is a severe weather emergency.
2) When guests check in during a threat of severe weather, we give them a printout explaining that they should watch local TV channels to stay informed.
3)     We also let guests know that if weather sirens go off, they should go into the guestroom baths for safety. We had severe damage to our larger hotel during the tornado, but every bathroom stayed intact and undamaged.

Derbins says the hotels and convention center attract a mix of corporate, nonprofit, association, faith-based and education groups.

“State Farm Insurance is a client, and so is Coca-Cola,” he says. His staff also works with groups such as the Arkansas Bankers Association; Billye Brim Ministries, which brings in religious speakers and about 4,000 convention guests; and smaller pharmaceutical companies that book 30- to 40-person meetings. Schools and teachers’ groups are frequent clients as well.

In 2013, the facilities will host a large auto convention for Bumper to Bumper Auto Parts.  And the Branson Auto Auction has been a major client as well. Derbins says the convention center is an ideal spot for “wheeled” gatherings of this kind. “Guests and buyers can walk around the exhibit floor and view display autos, which can then be rolled straight into the ballroom for an auction, because it’s all on the same level,” he says.

Jim Cox, who owns and operates the Branson Auto Auction with his wife Kathy, says he was sold on the Hilton and convention center complex before its walls even went up.  “We had been ‘touring’ Branson with our collector car auction, holding it at various locations around town,” Cox says. “Then in 2005, (former Director of Sales and Marketing) Bill Tirone called on me.  He showed me what the property was going to look like. With everything on two levels, it seemed perfect for our shows.”

“Two years before they even broke ground on it, we signed the very first contract,” Cox says. “It was a leap of faith, but I had a vision of how it would work for us.” The Coxes’ three-day event is held twice a year. It features 250 cars, draws about 5,000 attendees from surrounding states, includes a fund raiser for autism research, and requires ample space for equipment such as auto ramps and turntables. Cox says the facility staff is always adept and accommodating, and he enjoys the pleasant surprise of attendees who love not having to drive between a hotel and an auction site.

Much of the Hilton and convention center facilities’ clientele is drive-in, according to Derbins, but that’s changing.  “Branson’s new airport is attracting major airlines, which will draw people from cities such as Chicago, Nashville, Houston, Atlanta and Orlando. It’ll expand our market,” Derbins says.

“These are beautiful hotels, and they’re close to entertainment, golf, shopping and restaurants. The main thing is, Branson’s Hiltons and convention center are back in business and ready to go.”

Hilton Branson Convention Center
200 East Main Street
Branson MO 65616

Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing
3 Branson Landing
Branson MO 65616

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