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For Tourist Town, a Mix of the New and Old

Marketing: Officials in Branson, Mo., are pushing the concept of 'grandtripping'--when grandparents bring along the little ones.

September 08, 1996|From Associated Press

BRANSON, Mo. — The screams from carnival rides can be heard at the entrance to a tranquil crafts village. Shari Lewis and her puppets are singing with the Andy Williams orchestra. And the cave that once held square dances now is hosting a National Children's Festival.

Branson has found a fountain of youth, of sorts. Its source? Grandparents.

As the southwest Missouri entertainment town tries to market itself as more of a family destination, tourism officials and attractions are pushing the concept of "grandtripping"--when the older folks bring along the kids.

"Branson is known regionally as a family destination, and nationally as a senior destination," said Beth Wanser of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Grandtripping is an opportunity to bring those two markets together."

Earlier this year, tourism officials noticed a large number of older couples traveling with small children. So the chamber commissioned a study of visitors to determine whether grandtripping had appeal.

Of 579 grandparents surveyed, 60% said they had taken a grandchild on an overnight trip without a parent. And of those, 92% said they were happy they did.

Those figures led to a marketing drive to encourage the trend. Theaters and theme parks have responded with their own offerings.

Mutton Hollow, which for 27 years has offered trail rides and a craft village, now has several carnival thrill rides, including the Zephyr, Sea Dragon and Paratrooper.

"We're all starting to see that we have to attract and appeal to an entire family," said Peggy Roberts, the park's administrative assistant. "[Branson attractions] were so interested in trying to build our spring and our fall and especially Christmas, we somehow forgot what Branson started with, and that was families."

Until the early 1990s, Branson was visited mostly by those in the region for its lakes, a few country music shows and Silver Dollar City, an artisan village built around a cave where locals once had square dances.

Then big-name theaters started to dot the highway. Within five years, the city of fewer than 4,000 year-round residents blossomed into a destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. Tickets for theater shows now average more than $22 each.

"They've priced themselves out of the family market," said Nona Stephens of Springfield, who brought her 2-year-old granddaughter, Kelsey, to Mutton Hollow. "Our children make good money, but it's just that food and lodging and the shows. . . . It's just too expensive."

Yet compared to other family destinations, like Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Branson is a bargain. And many of the older folks who travel with children appreciate the city's patriotic, wholesome image.

"We were here last year ourselves and because of the shows we saw, we told her about it, and she wanted to come," said A.L. Mix of Atlanta, pointing to his 5-year-old granddaughter, Ashleigh Cawthen. "It's a great town for [families]. Even the big shows--they're all very clean."

Lewis, spending six weeks at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre, said she was struck by the favorable response from the Branson audience.

"I always do a wholesome show," she said. "However, I don't always get thanked for it."

Barbara Webb, who lives in Springfield and has a home on nearby Table Rock Lake, said she and her husband travel with grandchildren at least one week each summer. Branson is a great destination for them, she said.

"This gives us the chance to give the parents a break and get to know the kids, because they live so far away," she said after a visit to Mutton Hollow with Tiffany, 7, and Buddy, 6. "When the parents are around, they're naughty. We're of the era of making them mind."

Tiffany, who was holding a tooth fairy box from Mutton Hollow's crafts village, said she liked vacationing with the grandparents.

"It's just having fun, talking to each other, playing and all that," she said.

The grandparents have fun, too, Mix said.

"Grandparents tolerate more. They try not to get as irritated with [children] as their parents," he said. "The role grandparents play, they're supposed to be kind of tolerant--and spoil them a lot."

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