Branson tourism industry deals with soaring gas prices

Friday, March 2, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — Sue Uygun points out a few of the classic cars at Branson Auto Museum and wistfully recounts what their owners paid for gas when the vehicles were sold.

A 1925 Lincoln Coupe, 20 cents per gallon; a 1935 Ford Coupe, 17 cents a gallon; a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, 29 cents a gallon; a 1982 Chevy El Camino, a whopping $1.30 per gallon.

Today, gas prices are rocketing toward a record peak, with analysts predicting the national average gas price could pass $4 a gallon by mid-summer. In southwest Missouri, gas prices have jumped more than 30 cents a gallon in recent weeks, to about $3.39 a gallon as of last Friday.

With the spring tourism season rapidly approaching, those who rely on visitors for their livelihood hope the stunning gas run-up won't deter travelers. They're looking for ways to entice tourists to the area, possibly by reviving gas vouchers or offering ticket discounts to help take the sting out of a driving vacation to Branson or Springfield.

"In our case, we hope to see locals, regionals and out-of-staters," said Uygun, business manager at the museum. "Recently, we've noticed that more folks are coming in from Louisiana, the Dakotas and Nebraska ... not too far, but a good drive all the same. "

The museum on the Branson strip plans to add antique tractors and farm implements to its lineup, hopefully luring a new group of visitors. Despite the prediction of record high gas prices by summer, Uygun said she thinks Branson will still bring in the tourists.

"We're not worried about attendance this coming season, because the museum and lots of attractions and shows in Branson are very affordable to make up for the high gas prices," she said. "But, anything to entice tourism is probably a good idea, especially free gas."

Both Springfield and Branson have offered vouchers to tourists in the past to help offset unusually high gas prices. But so far, neither the Branson Chamber of Commerce nor the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau have made the decision to offer the vouchers this year.

"At this point, we are not planning on offering incentives, but that is subject to change," said Tracy Kimberlin, president of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Our spring advertising campaign is already finalized and will start in March, but should gas prices get to record levels we will react somehow. I'm not aware of any plans by local businesses to offer incentives, but they are probably doing what we are — waiting a bit to see what really happens."

In 2009 during the last major gas price spike, the Springfield CVB partnered with Bass Pro Shops to offer $40 gas vouchers to visitors who spent at least two nights in Springfield. They could turn in hotel or restaurant receipts to get one of the gas cards.

Kimberlin said 1,200 cards were given out, at a cost of $48,000.

Branson has offered a "gas buster" discount card in recent years, according to Lynn Berry, spokeswoman for the Branson Convention & Visitors Bureau, to help make a family visit to Branson more affordable.

The Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB teamed up to give the card to anyone who presented a valid drivers' license and a minimum of $40 in gas receipts incurred within 48 hours of their arrival at the Chamber's Welcome Center.

"In 2009, we gave away 4,000 gas-buster discounts and in 2010 we gave away 3,000 of them," Berry said. "The Chamber of Commerce is looking into doing something this year that would offer visitors a discount, but nothing has been finalized yet."

Berry said the ticket and gas discounts work, as long as people who are considering a vacation in Branson know about them.

"It certainly does bring people in," she said. "Today, people are savvy about these things."

Steve Hartley, owner of Dick's 5 & 10, said soaring gas prices "are always a concern" for Branson businesses. But he is optimistic that Branson's shopping and entertainment offerings will still draw crowds.

"People are still going to take vacations," he said.

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