From neon to nature _ Branson, Mo., looking to attract younger tourists

Tuesday, August 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRANSON, Mo. (AP) _ After spending more than a decade building its reputation as an entertainment mecca, Branson is turning to the outdoors in a bid to draw younger visitors.

Some here are concerned that Branson is known only for the theaters and shows along its traffic-clogged main street.

``The past 10 years have brought a lot of attention to the neon side of Branson,'' said Jim Langham, chairman of Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. ``Now we have to invite visitors to experience the roots of Branson that attracted people to the area a century ago.''

Many people still show up to fish lakes like Taneycomo and Table Rock or see the rainbow of fall colors in the surrounding Ozark Mountains. But ever since CBS's ''60 Minutes'' declared in 1991 that Branson had become the nation's country music capital, everything else has taken a back seat to the strip.

Some of the most popular entertainers of the 1950s, '60s and '70s play morning, noon and night here. There are 61,714 seats _ more than Broadway _ in Branson's 49 theaters. Andy Williams is here singing his 1962 hit ``Moon River,'' and Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff is still telling KGB jokes and exclaiming ``What a country!''

It's not that the city of 6,000 isn't grateful for the 7 million tourists who show up each year. But most visitors are retirees in the 50-70 age group, with an average age of 55.

Chamber spokeswoman Claudia Vecchio said Branson needs to draw more people ages 25 to 50, and it can do that through its outdoors appeal.

The chamber's summer TV commercial includes entertainers, but it also features people paddling a canoe, riding horses, fishing, swimming and hiking.

``Branson isn't trying to reinvent itself,'' said Hank Phillips, president of National Tour Association, which represents 4,000 package tour operators across North America.

``To expand and to diversify what they offer to people is smart,'' he said. ``Folks today, regardless of their age, are looking for more diversity of activities and experiences in their travel.''

Baby boomers, in particular, seem to want hands-on experiences, Phillips said. They like being entertained, but they also want to be physically active.

Friends Deb Bruggeman and Robin Mitra, both 46 and from the St. Louis area, spent a weekend in Branson and didn't see a single show.

``I would rather be doing something outdoors,'' Bruggeman said. ``We're both very active and enjoy new adventures.''

They're just the type of visitors that Ty Lewis is counting on. His company, Down Hill Bikes and Trek The Ozarks, lets visitors experience southwestern Missouri on guided kayak, canoe and bicycle tours.

``The Ozark Mountains are one of the best-kept secrets in the country,'' Lewis said. ``The theaters are sort of 'the goose that laid the golden egg,' but there's so much here beyond that.''

Cindy Merry, publicist for comedians Smirnoff, Jim Stafford and singer Buck Trent, said anything that draws new visitors is good.

``The vast number of customers who end up here are coming for the entertainment,'' she said. ``But what also makes Branson a wonderful attraction is that it has beautiful landscape.''

Lewis is convinced it's the way to draw the younger set to Branson.

``Branson definitely has the stigma of being a vacation place for seniors,'' he said. ``When people get out and see the lakes, go kayaking or mountain biking, they're hooked.''