A LITTLE BIT OF COUNTRY … AND A WHOLE LOT OF FAMILY FUN

A LITTLE BIT OF COUNTRY … AND A WHOLE LOT OF FAMILY FUN

Boone, Elisabeth

Small-town values and big-time entertainment spell Eranson, Missouri, home of the Akers & Arney agency

What do world-renowned violinist Shoji Tabuchi, country and gospel group The Baldknobbers, and master illusionist Kirby Van Burch all have in common? You might be scratching your head and saying, “Nothing”-but you’d be wrong. What brings together these performers, and a myriad of other bigname stars and local acts, is a small town in the Missouri Ozarks that in less than a generation has gone from a dot on the map to family fun capital of the world: Branson, USA. With a year-round population of just 7,700, Branson graciously plays host to millions of visitors to the theatres, hotels, restaurants, and other attractions that line a hilly strip along U.S. Highway 76-and at the same time maintains its identity as a close-knit rural community that cherishes God, family, and country. Walk through the door of any local store or office and you’ll find the same brand of old-fashioned courtesy and down-home warmth that prevailed long before the Branson boom. But don’t be fooled by appearances: That grizzled old codger in the faded John Deere baseball cap might just be the millionaire owner of a waterfront resort or the hottest barbecue place in town.

According to the Motor Coach Association, Branson is the #1 motor coach destination in the country, and has been for the last several years. The city is home to 40-plus theatres with close to 60,000 seats that host more than 60 shows-more theatre seats than Manhattan’s famed Broadway. There are 198 lodging facilities with 17,000 rooms; 392 restaurants with more than 34,000 seats, and more than 15,000 condominium and timeshare units. Branson draws between 7 million and 8 million tourists annually and is expected to top the 10 million mark within the next several years.

Modest, folksy, and down to earth, Branson hasn’t let fame go to its head. Thanks to carefully planned growth, local residents haven’t been forced out of their homes or driven from their Main Street businesses by skyrocketing property values. Instead they’re mapping-and profiting from-their town’s transition from Mayberry RFD to the country’s hottest destination for family entertainment.

Squarely at the forefront of Branson’s business community is Akers & Arney Insurance Associates, a leading independent agency with strong ties to the town’s past, present, and future. Established in 1952, Akers & Arney began serving Branson when it was a little-known destination for outdoor lovers. All four of the agency’s current partners graduated from Branson High School between 1960 and 1986, and its office is still located on East Main Street, just two blocks from its original headquarters. Just up the street are such Branson fixtures as the Fudge Shop and Dick’s 5 & 10, where locals and tourists alike enjoy a visit back to yesteryear.

Hometown leadership

The senior partner of Akers & Arney is Edd Akers, CIC, CPCU, who serves as chairman of the board. Edd is a native of Ozark Mountain country and was born at home in the back of a general store located near what is now called Branson West. Edd is the son of the late Elven Akers, founder of the Akers Insurance Agency. David Arney, president and co-owner, joined the agency in 1987, bringing strong experience in advertising, communications, and banking. Edd’s son, John Akers, came on board in 1992 and is vice president and a co-owner with responsibility for the life, health, and financial services department. Last July, John was voted Outstanding Young Agent of Missouri by the Missouri Association of Independent Agents. Heading up the business and family unit, which handles personal lines and small commercial accounts, is Tim Huddleston, LUTCF. Also a co-owner, he joined the agency in 2000 after serving 14 years as an agent with a local office of Farmers Insurance. Akers & Arney also owns Akers & Arney Financial Services, which operates separately from the agency and works mainly from referrals provided by the agency’s producers. The unit’s business is handled by Mike Tucker, who acts as an independent contractor.

Akers & Arney has a staff of 16 employees, 12 of whom are licensed agents, and owns its 4,400-square-foot building in downtown Branson. The van bearing the agency’s logo is a familiar sight around town as producers call on clients and prospects. “We have to be careful,” Edd Akers says with a chuckle. “Sometimes we’re asked what we were doing parked in front of a liquor store at ten in the morning, and we have to explain that we were visiting with an insured.”

Of the agency’s total premium volume, approximately 65% is commercial lines and 35% is personal accounts. Between 30% and 35% of total revenue is comprised of life, health, and benefits business. Akers & Arney’s clientele runs the gamut from small, local businesses to major accounts like the area’s leading hospital, Skaggs Community Health Center, and the Grand Palace, which at 4,000 seats is Branson’s largest theatre. The agency operates within a 25-to-30-mile radius of Branson, serving Taney and Stone counties in the Tri-Lakes region that encompasses Lake Taneycomo, Table Rock Lake, and Bull Shoals Lake.

Akers & Arney represents a diverse array of national and regional carriers, including Allstate, Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Missouri, Columbia Insurance Group, Encompass Insurance, General Casualty, Lincoln Benefit Life, Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance, Auto-Owners, Progressive, Safeco, St. Paul, State Auto, and Berkshire/Hathaway. Earlier this year, Akers & Arney won distinction when it was voted Best Small Business of the Year by the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. For the past four years, the agency has been chosen a Best Practices agency by the Big I.

Tourism is king

“Everything in Branson is driven by tourism,” Edd Akers says. He’s quick to add that Branson was a popular tourist destination long before its highways were lined with theatres, restaurants, hotels, and shops. The White River, which subsequently was dammed to create Lake Taneycomo, drew campers and outdoor lovers as far back as the early 1900s. “In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, the area attracted mostly working class families from Kansas City and St. Louis who would rent a cabin and enjoy a week of fishing and swimming,” Akers explains. “There were youth camps, church camps, and plenty of floating and canoeing.” In the 1950s the Branson area was the site of training camps for the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees, and ecstatic local youngsters could catch a glimpse of legendary sluggers like Mickey Mantle and Bill “Moose” Skowron.

That was then; this is now. Today, motor coaches, recreational vehicles, and minivans throng the strip along Route 76, called Country Music Boulevard, where visitors are dazzled by the cornucopia of neon signs beckoning them to Branson’s more than 40 theatres. Billboards blaze the names of the legends of country music, gospel, comedy, and old-time rock ‘n roll. Also flashing a brilliant welcome are the signs of hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts; restaurants, shops, and family fun venues like miniature golf and GoKart tracks. The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, an IMAX entertainment complex, and the Branson Scenic Railway just add to the fun. Luxury condominiums, upscale restaurants, and top-rated golf courses cater to the sophisticated crowd, and nearby Lake Taneycomo draws droves of campers and water sports enthusiasts. A few miles up the road, visitors browse native arts and crafts and enjoy down-home country and bluegrass music at Silver Dollar City, a tourist favorite since 1960. Branson visitors also flock to nearby Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to see The Great Passion Play, performed from April through October at a huge multilevel outdoor theatre. Branson is home to three jam-packed outlet malls plus a dazzling array of shops offering everything from 3 for $10 T-shirts to exquisite handmade quilts.

While legalized gambling has gained a foothold in many U.S. cities, especially Midwestern riverfront locations, Branson has firmly resisted pitches from casino operators. Eager to maintain the “good clean fun” reputation that reflects residents’ values and draws millions of families each year, Branson has few nightclubs and taverns, and very little liquor is served in its theatres. The lack of nightlife has had no discernible effect on revenue, which grows steadily as tourism increases.

Tourism, of course, isn’t just about glitzy attractions and jam-packed hotels. Branson’s transformation couldn’t have happened without significant improvements to the area’s infrastructure, Edd Akers points out, and municipal leaders have been visionary in accommodating the area’s rapid growth. U.S. Highway 65 was widened to accommodate the increased traffic through downtown Branson, and feeder roads were constructed to ease congestion along the Route 76 strip that houses most of Branson’s 40-plus theatres plus countless hotels, motels, restaurants, and shops. Water, sewers, electricity, gas, sanitation, law enforcement, fire protection, and health care resources also have been expanded to support the businesses that cater to Branson’s 7 million to 8 million visitors each year. All of these facilities require insurance and risk management services, as do the commercial and residential contractors and engineering firms that build infrastructure and construct buildings.

Diverse clientele

Not surprisingly, the wide array of risks that compose Branson’s economy make for a diverse client base for local independent agents. Akers & Arney writes a significant amount of this business. “Because of the variety of risks, we have to be generalists rather than specialists,” Akers says. At the same time, he adds, “We’ve had to grow in areas where most agencies don’t normally grow. Our three largest sources of premium volume are theatres, lodging, and restaurants.” These classes account for some 35% of the agency’s premium volume.

When the Branson boom began in the 1970s, Akers says, many of these businesses were small and locally owned. “The first theatres originally had only a few hundred seats. The Presley Theatre (no relation to Elvis) expanded from 900 to 1,600 seats. The Grand Palace today has more than 4,000 seats, making it the largest in Branson.” The same was true for lodging, Akers says. “In the 1970s and ’80s, we had a lot of 40-unit motels run by families, who were able to make a nice living. We still have a few, but most hotels and motels today are run by chains.” Something that sets Branson apart from many entertainment destinations, Akers points out, is the fact that many stars live right in town. “A lot of our performers established theatres here because they were tired of touring all the time and wanted to settle down with their families,” he explains. “We see them around town all the time.”

Despite the trend away from local ownership, Akers & Arney insures about a third of Branson’s theatres, including the Grand Palace, which hosts such country music legends as Eicky Skaggs, the Oak Ridge Boys, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Alison Krauss, Mel Tillis, and Charley Pride. Other clients are the Yakov Smirnoff Theatre, where “the world’s funniest Russian” draws crowds who love his raucous “What a country!” humor; Sullivan Productions, which produces shows for Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers; and The Baldknobbers Theatre, home to Branson’s oldest act, which has been delivering its unique brand of country, gospel, and comedy since the 1950s. Another major client is the newly opened Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum and Happy Trails Theatre. Akers & Arney writes the group insurance for Kanakuk Kamps, one of the country’s largest Christian sports camp organization, which has 11 locations in the Branson area.

Akers & Arney also insures general, trade, and specialty contractors and subcontractors; hotels, motels, condominiums, apartments, and campgrounds; restaurants that run the gamut from family and fast food to fine dining and specialty offerings; and a number of retail operations.

Marketing challenges

Being a small-town agency with big-ticket clients can present some major marketing challenges. How does Akers & Arney find a home for its theatre and hospitality risks?

“Over time, we’ve learned which of our markets are most receptive to the kinds of business we write,” Akers says. “We’ve put together a matrix that shows at a glance which carrier is most likely to accept a theatre, a hotel, or a museum.” In today’s constricted market, Akers & Arney often comes out a winner with its carriers, he observes. “What a company won’t write elsewhere, it will write here,” he says. “We work at building strong relationships with our companies’ regional offices.”

Adds Arney: “Branson has some unique exposures for a small town. We have to find underwriters who aren’t too conservative to look at our business.” What’s more, he says, “Not many carriers want to write theatres because of the hazards they pose. Business interruption is a big concern: A power failure during a show can shut down a theatre and cause substantial losses in revenue. Contingent business interruption also conies into play because one business depends on another.” All theatres are not alike, Arney points out. “Theatres differ in their capacity, operations, and clientele; some cater to bus groups, and others attract seniors,” he says. “Our main carrier for theatres is St. Paul; several carriers, including State Auto and General Casualty, will look at our smaller theatres.”

The severe injuries sustained by illusionist Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy, who was clawed and bitten by a white tiger during an October performance in Las Vegas, have put the spotlight on shows like Branson’s Kirby Van Burgh Magic Show that uses wild animals in its acts. Akers & Arney expects to see premium increases and underwriting caution that reflect insurers’ new awareness of this exposure.

In the lodging arena, Arney says, size is a key criterion. The agency has two programs: one for small motels and one for luxury resorts. Carriers for this business are Columbia Insurance Group, AutoOwners, and Safeco.

Another underwriting concern is the seasonal nature of Branson’s attractions. Although Branson is no longer strictly a summer destination, “Seasonality is a dirty word to insurers,” Arney comments. “We work as partners with our underwriters to help them understand our clients’ exposures and feel comfortable insuring them.”

A key factor in successful smalltown marketing, Arney says, is developing relationships by becoming involved in local service and service organizations and the school and hospital boards. Edd Akers serves on the board of Skaggs Community Medical Center, a state-of-the-art facility that is the agency’s largest client. Skaggs is rated among the top orthopedic facilities in the country, and it recently began to participate in a cardiac program with the prestigious Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Akers & Arney partners sit on other boards and are also involved in the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, where they have served as presidents.

A key objective of Akers & Arney is to achieve trusted advisor status with its business clients. The agency joined the Sitkins Group five years ago and has used its precepts to restructure into four departments: business accounts (large commercial risks), family and business (auto, homeowners, and small business), life, health and benefits, and financial services. “I attended a CEO training camp in late 1998 and became familiar with the Sitkins philosophy,” Arney says. “A great deal of what Roger says is common sense, but most agencies just don’t pay attention or follow through. Roger spells it out in what he calls ‘a blinding flash of the obvious.’ ” Sitkins, Arney says, “has helped us achieve a key goal: to move Akers & Arney from a small-town operation to a Best Practices agency.” As mentioned earlier, the agency has been honored as a Best Practices agency by the Big I in each of the last four years.

Extended season

As Branson’s attractions and supporting infrastructure have grown, so too has the length of its tourist season. “Until the early 1970s, the season ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Akers says. “Now our busiest time is between mid-September and mid-December.” A fall crafts festival at nearby Silver Dollar City draws visitors to the glowing autumn foliage of the Ozark Mountains; and Branson’s Festival of Lights, which begins the first week of November, welcomes tourists to a small-town Christmas celebration that features a lighted manger scene on a wooded slope near the end of historic Main Street. “In November of 1988 we had almost no visitors,” Akers says. “This November and December, we expect 1 million or more.”

To attract visitors during the dreary days between Christmas and spring, Branson has launched a new initiative called Hot Winter Fun. Featuring fishing, outdoor activities, and special events, plus shows and shopping, Hot Winter Fun is billed as “the cure for cabin fever” and is expected to draw visitors from Missouri and neighboring states from mid-January to mid-March.

Thriving as a wholesome family destination, Branson is growing and changing almost daily-and so is Akers & Arney Insurance Associates, which has been proudly serving its community for over half a century.

For more information:

Akers & Arney Insurance Associates

Web site: www.akersandarney.com

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Jan 2004

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