BRANSON, MO., IS STAR-STUDDED

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BRANSON, Mo.-The word around here is that Elvis must really be dead because he's the only one not building a theater in town.

But theaters aren't the only hot commodity in this Ozark Mountain community, where entertainment and tourism virtually are the economy.

In the past few years, the available amusements have grown from exclusively country tunes to include Andy Williams, the Osmond Brothers, illusionists and Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff.

Whether the economy keeps growing depends on the quality of the entertainment and the number of people who are drawn to Branson by the stars on stage.

And that takes marketing.

"This is an advertising driven town," Mr. Smirnoff said.

The skinny about Branson for tourists has been that you can't get there from here, and if you did, once there, it was a hassle. That still rings true to a certain extent, but it's changing along with Branson's marketing tune.

Branson has been waiting for infrastructure improvements to extend its marketing efforts, said Jan Pinkerton, executive director of the Ozark Marketing Council.

Ms. Pinkerton expects 6 million visitors to the southwest Missouri town this year, up 6.3% from 1993.

"We felt the floods in the Midwest hurt us last year," Ms. Pinkerton said. "Where the floods hit is our main drawing area."

But floods notwithstanding, tiny Branson-with a population of 3,700-is the nation's No. 1 tour bus destination and the No. 2 overall automobile destination behind Orlando, according to the American Automobile Association and Destinations.

Last year, about 13,000 tour buses poked along two-lane highways in Missouri and Arkansas to deliver their 55-year-old-plus, Midwestern, family entertainment-oriented passengers to Branson, located about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City. And when they arrived, they moseyed some more down Route 76, a narrow, two-lane road that runs through the city's theater district.

Residents say it's Ms. Pinkerton's job to see that Branson keeps its top tourism records and it's Branson's job to create an infrastructure to ease visitors through traffic and to help attract workers to settle there.

But a visit to Branson will reveal that everyone, from the bus boys in restaurants to Ms. Pinkerton, are major marketers.

This year, Ms. Pinkerton and her staff are armed with a record $1.25 million marketing budget, up from the $300,000 the council started with in 1988 and up 7.8% from the $1.16 million of last year.

This year, the council created TV spots proclaiming, "Thank goodness there's Branson," to run on Cable News Network, the Family Channel and the Nashville Network, along with spot TV in St. Louis, Kansas City and Dallas-Fort Worth. Camelot Communications, Dallas, handles media buying.

There are also print ads in travel publications.

"We feel this system will help us gain 2 million more visitors by 1999," Ms. Pinkerton said. "Millions are our favorite denominations."

Branson also gets a major share of the state's tourism TV campaign this year, as several of the town's stars are shown touring Missouri's other attractions.

The marketing program is being met with a $275 million project to build more and better roads into town, as well as a network of back and side streets. The project also includes new water treatment and sewage plants. And there's talk, albeit a few years away, of a city transit system between hotels and theaters.

But $1 million isn't enough for Branson to market itself, said marketing council members. Ms. Pinkerton said an additional $250,000 is needed to add another TV market for a five- to six-week schedule. And she won't buy less than a four- to five-week schedule.

"We don't really have any money," said Steve Presley, chairman of the council's marketing committee and owner of Presley's Jubilee theater.

A couple of new taxes were the impetus for pushing the budget past $1 million. And, Ms. Pinkerton said, the amount will grow slightly each year.

So what of the future?

Mr. Presley and Ms. Pinkerton say help should be coming shortly through first-time corporate sponsorships for various events. Branson officials are also undertaking a feasibility study of a center for small and midsize regional conferences.

Currently, Branson's main tourist season runs from late March to Thanksgiving. And, as Ms. Pinkerton, noted: "A conference center would bring in people year-round."

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