East Coast agents browse through Branson

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BRANSON, Mo. -- "It was like the twilight zone, where all of a sudden you were in this area that was not part of the U.S.," said Kathy McConnell, co-owner of Kathy & Mac's Cruises and Tours in Allentown, Pa. "The people were so friendly. It was like Oz, a magic place."

McConnell's reaction to the friendly atmosphere and total-entertainment environment of Branson was shared by most of the 150 East Coast retailers who visited the city on an Apple Vacations fam trip.

The agents also were surprised at the range of entertainment possibilities in the Midwestern tourism titan. After packing several shows, attractions and hotel inspections into the two-day jaunt, most of the agents said they were surprised at how much more there was to Branson than they had expected.

Cindy Arbogast, manager of Boscor's Travelcenter in Selinsgrove, Pa., said, "I thought it was country music all the way. But there's a wide variety of things to do, and it's still growing. I know I'll be able to sell it."

Apple Vacations and the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau are hoping the positive responses from the fam participants is indicative of things to come.

Apple operates charters from 25 cities across the U.S. to the Missouri town, where the local population of 6,000 welcomes 7 million visitors a year.

Although Branson is typecast as a destination best suited for seniors, research conducted by the bureau in 2001 found that the largest segment of visitors is ages 55 to 65, with only 3.3% over 65.

Branson's top attraction, Silver Dollar City, attracts groups of teen-agers, families with children and mature travelers.

"Before the fam, we were concentrating on the mature market," said Ray Daley, executive vice president at Apple Vacations.

"After hearing the feedback of travel agents, we have tacked on everybody [except the under-30 age group] because Branson has something for everyone."

Branson's tourism boom was born when country music star Roy Clark opened a theater in 1983, building on a tradition that began with the Presley family theater in 1963.

Other entertainers, such as Ray Stevens, Boxcar Willie and Glen Campbell, followed Clark's lead, and the city became a mecca for entertainers with an entrepreneurial bent.

When the CBS television show "60 Minutes" profiled Branson in 1991, tourism skyrocketed.

Still, for all its big numbers, the destination draws little of its business by air from the coasts. Seeking to fill that gap, Apple targeted Branson last fall as a new destination for East Coast-originating charters using its new airline, USA 3000.

The operator is testing the market with charters out of Philadelphia scheduled to begin in the fall.

Brenda Punchak, co-owner of Cruisetime in Allentown, Pa., said, "I think I could sell it in a group situation.

"To me Branson is for the older generation. I would recommend doing a structured tour. Apple is perfect for it."

Daley said there was an immediate increase in booking from the agents who attended the fam.

"The only measurement I look for is pure empirical evidence -- numbers," he said. "And there was a spike."

Apple's senior manager of sales, Mike Farrell, said the booking activity from the agents who participated was especially strong on the group side.

"If Branson works, there are other things we could try," said Daley.

"If it doesn't work, we'll try something else."

Upcoming events in the city

BRANSON, Mo. -- The following is a sampling of events planned for the city for the rest of 2002:

• The Downtown Branson Main Street Association will hold its eighth annual '50s-'60s Street Dance on June 21.

For more information, call (417) 334-1548.

• Silver Dollar City will hold a National Children's Festival through Aug. 25.

For details, visit www.silverdollarcity.com or call (800) 475-9370.

• Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers will return to the Will Rogers Theatre for an extended Christmas show in December. They will also perform 39 shows from Sept. 12 to Oct. 19.

• The 4,000-seat Grand Palace's schedule for 2002 includes the Oak Ridge Boys, Tracy Byrd, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, George Jones and the Radio City Rockettes.

For details, visit www.grandpalace.com. -- D.C.

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