BRANSON, Mo. – Its star-studded days have passed, but Branson remains one of the country’s most popular — and motorcoach friendly — tour destinations.
“Last year we welcomed in excess of 8 million visitors and 7 percent were coming by motorcoach,” said Lynn Berry, director of communications at the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We have motorcoach parking down after 25 years,” Berry said. “We treat our drivers with a red carpet. Of course drivers enjoy seeing the same shows as their passengers, but if they do want to sit down and get comfortable, we have green rooms for them as well.”
The bureau’s marketing firm estimated visitation at a record 8.8 to 9 million in 2016. If the Missouri Ozark Mountains region were a country, it would have placed just behind Egypt (9.3 million) as an international tourist destination.
From 1996 to 2002, Branson was considered one of the country’s top three motorcoach destinations, with tour buses delivering around 15 percent of visitors to the area’s shows, lakes and outdoor activity parks, Berry said.
“We know we are probably still one of the top 10 motorcoach destinations.”
The exodus of celebrity stars from Branson’s many music shows has reduced repeat visits by charter customers, said Jeff Arensdorf, president of Village Tours & Travel, which is based in Wichita, Kan., and operates from additional facilities in Salina, Kan.; Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.; and Fort Smith and Springdale, Ark.
“It used to be a very popular destination, but it has declined since the early 2000s and leveled off about five years ago,” Arensdorf said. “In the late 1990s our company would run 60 tours there a year. Now we run maybe 16.
“Branson used to have new shows coming all the time with big names — Andy Williams, Wayne Newton, Mickey Gilley, Roy Clark. There were reasons for people to go back. Now Branson is geared more toward families,” he said.
Louise Yoder, tour manager for Mid-American Coaches in Washington, Mo., said destinations such as Nashville and other large entertainment centers will experience big booms and everybody rushes there.
“That can go on for six or eight years, then all of a sudden they get in a flat spot,” Yoder said. “Some of the big-name entertainers have left Branson. I only offer it a couple of times a year unless there is something that really stands out.”
One of this year’s hits is the story of Moses at the Sight & Sound Theatre, she said.
“It was a big seller. I offered it this year and it sold out again. We also will do a Christmas tour. Christmas is big in Branson.”
The Sight & Sound Theater often is called “the Christian Broadway.”
Motorcoach operators that offer trips to Branson highly recommend it as a coach destination.
“It is the most motorcoach-friendly town we go to,” Arensdorf said. “They have dedicated bus loading and unloading areas at most of the attractions. The hotels are used to handling luggage for buses because they cater to lots of groups. A lot of the theaters have driver lounges and treat our drivers and tour directors very well.”
Yoder said her customers feel like they get good value for the money they spend in Branson.
“They can count on good quality entertainment and the meals are, for the most part, pretty good,” she said.
Branson, located in the scenic, forested Ozark Mountains of southwest Missouri, began to build a tourist industry after World War II around the region’s 1,000-plus miles of shoreline on Table Rock Lake, Lake Taneycomo and Bull Shoals Lake.
Later came a few homegrown country music shows. Branson emerged as an entertainment Mecca around 1991.
Theaters were built to house extended-run shows by country music stars including Boxcar Willie, Mel Tillis, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. Pop stars appealing to an older generation of tourists also moved in, notably Andy Williams and Bobby Vinton.
A Time magazine story prompted more national media coverage. In 1991 the CBS-TV news program “60 Minutes” proclaimed Branson “the live music capital of the entire universe.”
Even with fewer celebrities on stage, the Branson/Lakes area’s tourism industry attracts $3.1 billion in consumer spending annually. About four dozen theaters in Branson hold 60,000 seats, a total that surpasses Broadway, the convention bureau claims.
The region also offers 14,080 hotel rooms, 5,274 condo units, 2,870 camping sites, 200 restaurants and more than 100 specialty shops.
“This week we have 115 different shows and a large variety of family attractions,” Berry said. “Some are one of a kind and the newest in the U.S. The third pillar of our hospitality would be our outdoor adventures.”
Silver Dollar City is an 1880s-themed amusement park filled with rides, theatrical performances and crafts demonstrations. The Shepherd of the Hills Theater, long the venue for a popular historical drama set in the Ozarks late in the 19th century, failed to open this spring following a bank foreclosure. New owners purchased the property in June and have announced some events scheduled later in the summer.
Christmas has become Branson’s annual highlight, with some shows attracting 15 to 20 buses at a time.
“The Christmas season for them starts 30 days ahead of Christmas,” Arensdorf said. “We probably do over half of our tours to Branson during that time.”
Branson is located a few highway hours from a number of major cities: 209 miles from Kansas City, 252 miles from St. Louis, 273 miles from Memphis, 305 miles from Oklahoma City and 418 miles from Dallas.
“It’s not so far that people have to stay on the bus for 12 hours,” Yoder said.