Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Branson officials expressed optimism last summer about 2021 being a possible record year for tourism tax revenues. As it turned out, the prior record of $13.57 million wasn’t only surpassed; it was shattered.
According to city data, 2021 tourism tax revenue exceeded $16.8 million, a nearly 24% increase over the all-time high reached in 2018. Jason Outman, president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city typically has tax revenue continue to come in weeks late. The total should creep closer to $17 million when all money is received, he said.
“Either way, it’s a record,” he said, noting tourism tax revenue last year was up over 112% from 2020 and nearly 33% over 2019. “It was a tremendous year all across the board.”
The tourism tax applies a 4% rate for admissions and lodging and a 0.5% rate on food and beverage sales. The 2021 total caps a rapid rebound for the tax revenue’s 2020 total of $8.64 million, a year-over-year decrease of roughly 33%.
The chamber currently is utilizing the services of Springfield-based firm H2R Market Research to estimate Branson’s 2021 visitation totals, but Outman said another record is expected to be set.
“Most likely, our estimated visitation will be a little over 10 million for the year, which is 1 million new visitors to the Branson region. In 2019, our previous record was 9.1 million,” he said. “It’s such a significant increase, especially coming out of a pandemic. We were hoping for any kind of an increase over ’19.”
Outman said tax revenues also are going to be a record total for the Branson/Lakes Area Tourism Community Enhancement District, which assesses a 1% sales tax in Stone and Taney counties. Through November, the most recent data available, $9.6 million has been collected. That’s already surpassed the $8.9 million high point reached in 2019. While Outman said collection totals are regularly delayed a couple months because the money goes through the state Department of Revenue, he expects last year’s total to surpass $10 million.
The tourism tax district’s revenue is used to market Branson and the lakes area. According to past Springfield Business Journal reporting, the district tax was first approved by voters in 2005 and renewed in 2014, extending it until 2025. In April 2021, voters also supported renewing the tourism tax, started in 1997.
Outman credited pent-up demand and extra money visitors had to spend due to federal government-issued COVID-19 stimulus checks as key factors in the tourist market’s growth last year. A mix of outdoor recreation, including easy access to lakes, golf and a growing roster of attractions, such as Aquarium at the Boardwalk and science-focused venue WonderWorks – both of which has their first full year of business in 2021 – were attractive options for people, said Gail Myer, vice president of operations for Myer Hospitality Inc.
“Economically, there are two ways to see increased sales tax [revenue]. One is more people coming to Branson and one is increased prices. The results that we’ve seen are a combination of both,” Myer said. “We did see a lot of folks in Branson this [past] year.”
Myer said he was encouraged by the uptick in business for his family company’s six hotels in Branson, which combined have roughly 670 rooms. While he declined to disclose last year’s occupancy levels or revenue, Myer said more visitors occupied rooms than in 2019, prior to the pandemic.
“It was a lot more individuals. The group business was OK, but it wasn’t back to 2019 levels,” he said, noting typically 10% of the company’s room bookings are from groups. “We’re very appreciative of having first-time visitors.”
Another attraction drawing visitors is Branson Landing, which is coming off its most successful year to date, said Rick Huffman, CEO of HCW Development Co. LLC, the builder and owner of the 16-year-old outdoor retail center along Lake Taneycomo. He said retail sales reached $132.6 million last year, a $33 million increase over 2020. Sales from restaurants made up $40.4 million of the total. The restaurant lineup includes newer additions like Guy Fieri’s Branson Kitchen and Bar, Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen and Ramata Italian, which opened in December and also is owned by HCW.
“It was a great year for Branson,” Huffman said, noting the visitor interest in partaking of shopping, eating and entertainment options at Branson Landing went beyond pent-up demand. “Whenever you drop several billion dollars into the economy from the federal government, people have a lot of extra money during that time. That truly helps.”
Huffman said Branson Landing’s occupancy rate is “pretty stable” at 91%. New activity is on its way, he added.
“There’s two brand new major tenants coming into the center that hopefully we’ll be able to announce in a few weeks,” he said.
Building on growth
Although the post-Christmas winter season is slower at the outdoor mall, Huffman said he maintains an optimistic retail outlook for the year.
“We expect it to be a great year again,” he said. “We won’t see the type of increase we saw, but we’ll likely maintain what we did last year.”
At the chamber, Outman said staff continue to push visitation through targeted digital marketing to reach an increasingly younger demographic.
“We’re drastically dropping in age,” he said of the new average visitor to Branson. “In past years, our biggest visitation has been the 55-plus empty nester. Our research from H2R is now showing the average age of our adult is 44, and 62% of our visitors are families.”
Eyes outside the Branson community are taking notice.
Golf Digest recently named Payne’s Valley, which opened in 2020 at Big Cedar Lodge in nearby Ridgedale, as the best new public course in North America. The course is No. 2 overall on the publication’s annual list of the best new and renovated courses, ranked by a panel that visited golf attractions in the United States and Canada. That announcement followed Golf Digest in 2019 naming Big Cedar’s Ozark National as the best new public course.
Branson placed third in Tripadvisor’s Top Trending Destinations in the U.S. for 2022. The travel website says it created the list “based on the quality and quantity of reviews and ratings” of places across the United States and worldwide, regarding accommodations, restaurants and activities. The Big Island in Hawaii was ranked first, followed by Charleston, South Carolina.
Outman said the chamber is extending its marketing efforts to areas such as Dallas, Chicago and Memphis, Tennessee.
“We’ll be expanding beyond a 300-mile radius to increase that visitor total because in order for us to grow, we’ve got to spread that reach,” he said.
Exceeding the visitor and tax revenue records of 2021 will be difficult this year, he admitted.
“We’re really looking for growth off of 2019,” he said. “That would be a success for us.”
For most, winter offers a break from gardening. But there’s plenty of action at Amanda Belle’s Farm on East Primrose Street, a Springfield Community Gardens project at the edge of the Cox Medical Center South campus.