In February 2021, Forbes ranked Branson, Mo. fourth in its top 10 places to travel right now and avoid the pandemic. But the city’s handling of COVID-19 isn’t the only draw to this midwestern tourist destination.
“What people may not know is what awaits them in this beautiful little city in the Ozarks: unexpected levels of service and facilities, luxury resorts, a modern and walkable convention package, genuine hospitality, one of the top golf destinations in the world, and an unending variety of off-agenda fun,” said Samantha Gutting, senior vice president and chief sales officer of Explore Branson. “Branson has an unbelievably strong sense of community, and our community is one of hospitality.”
Gutting said this sense of community was a key factor in Branson’s approach to pandemic protocols. “In April 2020, the Branson community came together with the Chamber of Commerce and created Peer to Peer Guidelines,” she said. “Our theaters, restaurants, retail, lodging, and attractions went above and beyond the local and federal guidelines to create a sort of ‘toolbox’ for our community to best protect, as much as anyone could, the health and safety of our community and guests.”
One such venue operating under these guidelines was the Branson Convention Center. According to general manager Sam Voisin, the center closed briefly last April while administrators determined a course to navigate the pandemic, reopening the next month with new safety practices.
“ASM Global Facilities created and instituted the VenueShield Program within operations at the Branson Convention Center,” Voisin said. “Key components of the program are focused on new environmental hygiene, operational protocols, and standards needed to meet evolving guest expectations in these unprecedented times. This program was deployed early on throughout the ASM Global network of facilities worldwide.
“Our goal is to deliver a best-in-class safety program that delivers the highest standard of care and safety within our managed venues. Clients have voiced a high level of confidence in their ability to host safe meetings in Branson due to this program.”
This approach and ones like it have contributed to the relatively low spread of COVID in Branson. According to the New York Times, as of June 1, 2021, Missouri’s Taney County and Stone County, where Branson is located, have both reported a seven-day average of 10 or fewer new cases since March 15, 2021.
This led the Branson Board of Aldermen to vote unanimously to repeal the mask ordinance in April. Mayor Larry Milton further cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) projected flat trend in COVID cases in Missouri and relaxed CDC protocols for fully vaccinated people, including Branson’s vaccination numbers at the time.
“Branson is fully open for business,” Gutting said. “Of course, we encourage care and awareness by physical distancing and wearing masks if personally preferred. If business owners prefer to require customers to wear a mask, we absolutely support that choice.”
When it comes to continuing to attract meetings and conferences to Branson, Voisin said hosting safe meetings is their priority and the center “has proven, through best practices of VenueShield and other safety protocols, that Branson continues to be open for business and better than ever.”
A major gathering to be held in Branson in the next year will be Rendezvous South 2022, ConventionSouth’s own hallmark annual event. This limited attendance event caters to event planners, destination teams, and destination, convention, and hotel representatives from across the American South and provides an intimate experience to network and “talk shop.”
Attractions and amenities
While serviced by both Branson Airport and Springfield-Branson National Airport, Branson is also less than one day’s drive for one-third of U.S. residents, according to Explore Branson. Branson lies in the Ozark Mountains and boasts among its natural attractions three lakes, including the Lake of the Ozarks.
Promoting itself as a family-friendly alternative to Las Vegas, the city hosts 45 theaters and music venues including Dolly Parton’s Stampede, retail and dining complex Branson Landing, Silver Dollar City amusement park, and a wide variety of lodging, meeting, and conference options.
Despite the pandemic, several new attractions have popped up in the last year, according to Gutting. This includes the $53 million Aquarium at the Boardwalk.
“The attraction has definitely brought the ocean to the Midwest,” Gutting said. “Also in the Entertainment District and near the Aquarium is Wonderworks, which is an upside-down, science-focused, indoor amusement park for the mind. There are four floors of nonstop ‘edutainment’ for all ages.”
Branson is also widely regarded for its golf courses, and 2020 saw a major addition to the ranks.
“Tiger Woods opened his first public access course with noted conservationist and Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris,” Gutting said. “The stunning course, named Payne’s Valley, features a spectacular 19th hole and is located at Big Cedar Lodge.”
Gutting said Explore Branson has positive projections for visitor and tourist traffic, with the third and fourth quarters of 2021 expected to be at or above 2019 numbers. And while all these numbers are promising, Gutting’s major takeaway is one of gratitude.
“We are so fortunate that our community pulled together and safely continued to move forward through 2021 keeping a positive momentum going as related to our tourism economy,” Gutting said.
Christopher Jennings is a freelance writer based in New Orleans, La. His most frequent topics are arts, culture, and nightlife. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Loyola University New Orleans and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University.