This section presents the findings of the investigation of the Branson, Missouri traveler information system. This section is organized into three subsections. The first presents an overall profile of the Branson area and the traveler information systems. The second section presents study findings, organized broadly into three areas: system usage, customer satisfaction, and management and deployment issues. The final section summarizes findings and presents conclusions.
4.1 Site Profile
This section describes the general characteristics of the Branson, Missouri area, including its location and transportation system; the tourism characteristics of the area: and the traveler information systems serving Branson.
4.1.1 General Characteristics
Branson is located in Taney County, in southern Missouri, approximately 10 miles from the Arkansas border. Figure 4.1 shows the location of Branson and the area roadway network. Branson is a small town; its total land area is about 16 square miles and the 2000 Census population was 6,050.17 The nearest large town is Springfield, located approximately 40 miles to the north. Compared to the State of Missouri overall and to the City of Springfield, the proportion of older residents is higher in Branson, about 20 percent compared to the state and Springfield figures of around 14 percent.18
The transportation system in the Branson area is dominated by two roadways: State Highway 76 which runs east-west, and US Highway 65, which runs north-south and provides the primary link between Branson and Springfield, Missouri to the north and Arkansas to the south. Highway 76 is a two-lane road with a center continuous two-way left-turn lane. US 65 is a four lane divided controlled-access highway that intersects Highway 76 in the eastern portion of Branson. The Branson central business district, including the city offices, is located in the area east of the Highway 76/US 65 Interchange. Nearly all of the theaters and other tourism attractions are located along Highway 76 west of the US 65 Interchange.
Figure 4.1. Branson Location and Detail Map
As will be discussed further in the context of the traveler information system, Highway 76, which runs along the crest of a ridge, appears to be the only obvious east-west route through the area and most logical way to access most of the attractions. However, there is in fact a well-developed network of alternate routes that roughly parallels Highway 76 and provides excellent access to points along the entire Highway 76 through Branson. These routes do not appear as obvious alternates to Highway 76 in part because of the topography of the area. Viewed from the high ridge of Highway 76, these routes drop down into side valleys and quickly wind out of view. To an unfamiliar traveler, it would not be at all visually clear that these routes parallel Highway 76.
Traffic is a significant concern in the Branson area. The main tourist season in Branson lasts approximately 9 months, from April through December. This period accounts for just over 90 percent of total visitation. During this period, severe traffic congestion is common on Highway 76 (Figure 4.2 shows a minor off-season traffic queue) from mid-morning through late evening, with traffic at a near stand-still during the peak periods in the evenings when the shows let out.
Figure 4.2. Traffic Queue on Highway 76
Under low-volume free-flow traffic conditions, the approximately 5-mile trip along the length of Highway 76 from the US 65 in the east to the western end of the Highway 76 development strip will take no more than 5 minutes. There are only two traffic signals along this stretch, one at either end of Highway 76. According to local key informants who were interviewed for this study, the same trip can take over an hour during peak traffic conditions. Traffic congestion and delay are at their most extreme on holidays, with the day after Thanksgiving being one of the most congested days of the year.
Traffic congestion on Highway 76 is the primary motivation for implementing a traveler information system. Traffic conditions have been the frequent focus of transportation studies for the area and research by the Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau (CCCVB). A transportation study has recently been initiated by the City of Branson which is focusing on Highway 76 traffic congestion and the CCCVB surveyed their members in March 2004 regarding the value of the Highway 76 alternate route system.
There is no public transportation in Branson. However, there are several local private shuttle services that serve hotels and theatres.
4.1.2 Tourism Characteristics
Branson is a major tourist destination. Branson hosted an estimated 7.2 million visitors in 2003 and tourism spending in the area for that same year is estimated at $1.4 billion.19 The Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau describes tourism as the "chief industry" of the Branson area and reports that Branson is "the 16th most visited destination in the USA" and is ranked as the "#1 motor coach destination" in the United States.
As was discovered to be the case in many areas, there is a growing emphasis on outdoor recreational tourism activities (e.g., fishing and hiking) in Branson. Those activities, as well as the more general appeal of the rolling Ozark Mountain countryside, were a major component of the traditional tourism economy in Branson. However, by far and away the biggest tourism attraction in the Branson area is the approximately 45 live performance theaters featuring more than 80 shows, primarily musical and comedy acts. (See examples in Figure 4.3.)
The local entertainment tradition in Branson dates back to the early 1950's when country music performer Red Foley moved to Springfield to host the "Ozark Jubilee." Over the years other performers followed suit, many of them building their own theaters along the major east-west route through Branson, Highway 76, also known as "The Strip." Other national artists who performed in Branson and/or opened theaters include Roy Clark, the Osmond Family, Dolly Parton and Andy Williams. The reputation of Branson as something of a Midwestern Las Vegas was cemented in the early 1990's when the CBS news magazine television program "60 Minutes" dubbed the area the "Country Music Mecca."20
Figure 4.3. Musical Theaters
In addition to the fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation attractions and the theaters and shows, other important elements of the Branson tourism environment include both large—e.g., "Silver Dollar City," a 61-acre, 1880's Ozark Mountain-themed amusement park opened in 1960—and smaller amusement venues such as miniature golf, go-kart, water slide, and others typical of those found in resort areas. Retail shopping, outlet malls in particular, are also important visitor attractions in Branson. Retirement communities and time-share properties, some including golf courses, are a significant, growing and more recent addition to the Branson area tourism environment.
Figure 4.4 identifies the percentage of visitors who report visiting each of several different tourism attractions. The most visited attractions are shows and shopping, with at least three-quarters of all visitors indicating that they have visited these types of attractions.
Adults over the age of 65 and families comprise a significant percentage of Branson visitors, amounting to more than half of annual visitors. The overwhelming majority of visitors to Branson-86 percent-travel to Branson via personal vehicle. The average length of stay is about 4 nights. Fifty-three percent (53%) of visitors come from within a 300-mile radius.
Source: Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, "2004 Fact Sheet".
Figure 4.4. Percentage of Branson Visitors Attending Various Types of Attractions
4.1.3 Traveler Information Systems
There are three major traveler information systems in the Branson area, each of which is described below:
- A multi-faceted, publicly-operated traveler information system;
- A low-tech, publicly operated color-coded alternate route identification system; and
- Maps and other information provided through a multitude of privately operated "visitor centers."
The Branson area traveler information system is "Branson TRIP" (Travel and Recreation Information Program). The full system became operational in 1998. The TRIP system was developed and implemented as a joint effort of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), the City of Branson, and a consultant, under sponsorship of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). FHWA contributed a substantial portion of the funding of the system as a rural ITS field operational test. The TRIP system focuses on providing information on Highway 76 and several alternate routes.
Figure 4.5. Static and Dynamic TRIP Signs
The TRIP system contained the following elements as originally deployed in 1998:
- Two (2), later increased to five or six, closed-circuit television (CCTV) traffic surveillance cameras intended for use by the Police Department for monitoring traffic conditions and as a primary source of traffic congestion information to be provided to travelers via the Internet.
- A network of inductive loop traffic detectors imbedded in roadways which feed the system with real-time traffic density and volume information.
- Two (2) dynamic message signs (DMS), both located on US 65, one to the north of the Highway 76 interchange and one to the south (see DMS sign example in Figure 4.5.)
- A highway advisory radio (HAR) system that provides an AM radio message on traffic conditions and special events.
- An interactive voice response (IVR) telephone system that provides automated information on traffic conditions for various zonal origin-destination pairs in the City of Branson (e.g., from "southeast" to "northwest.")
- An Internet website (www.bransons.tripusa.com) that was intended to include a real-time color-coded traffic congestion map, icons and text reports on incidents, and information on various local attractions, lodging and restaurants. The private TRIP partner, an ITS consulting firm, was charged with maintaining the tourism/traveler services content on the website.
- Traveler information kiosks deployed in hotel lobbies and private "visitor centers" that allow users to access the TRIP Internet website. Placement of the kiosks in the private facilities was the responsibility of the TRIP private partner.
- A central incident database housed on a computer server located at the City of Branson Police Department and intended to be monitored and updated by Police Department Dispatch staff.
- CCTV Cameras – The cameras utilize voice grade telephone lines to link back to the Police Department. According to MoDOT and the City of Branson, the system experienced considerable down-time and has not worked reliably.
- Traffic Detectors – Along with the website, the traffic detectors have proven to be one of the few highly reliable components of the system. They have reliably fed the color-coded traffic congestion map and IVR system which utilizes the same data, and have provided a useful source of traffic counts to the City of Branson.
- Dynamic Message Signs – The two dynamic message signs have suffered from technical difficulties (e.g., maintenance problems) and have exhibited some down-time over the years but have operated more-or-less continuously since their deployment in July 1998. However, the signs are not utilized to provide real-time traffic information as originally envisioned. For the most part, the signs are used to note special events and provide general advisories about heavy traffic conditions which are typical of those periods, and to refer travelers to the highway advisory radio.
- Highway Advisory Radio – The original plan calling for the system to be updated by a local commercial radio broadcaster did not work well. Responsibility for the HAR system then shifted to MoDOT and an automated system is now utilized to update the system with one of 40 pre-recorded messages depending on the traffic congestion information being reported by the IVR system. As with the DMS, the HAR system provides general traffic and travel information associated with annual special events and holidays, the start of the school year, general tips for driving in the rain and in snow and ice, and referrals to the IVR phone system. By far the most salient aspect of the HAR system operation is that the low power broadcast is essentially impossible to pick up in many cars outside of a ¼-mile radius of the transmitter located at the Highway 76/US 65 Interchange.
- IVR Phone System – The phone system has operated as originally intended essentially continuously since its deployment in August 1998.
- Website - According to various TRIP participants and Branson area contacts, the traveler services/tourism information content very quickly disappeared from the TRIP website and did not return. The Website itself was operational more or less continuously from its deployment in July 1998 through mid-2003, when the TRIP private partner quit hosting the site. The site has been down since that time, although MoDOT is working to get the website back up, this time hosted via a MoDOT server located at a MoDOT facility in Jefferson City, Missouri. Starting shortly after its deployment, the website did not include information on incidents, since the Police Department Dispatch staff did not have the staff resources to maintain that information.
- Kiosks – During the FHWA evaluation period in 1998-1999, only one kiosk was deployed, at a local private "visitor center." The kiosk was operational for only one month, after which the visitor center closed. Since that time, numerous other kiosks have been deployed—some reportedly featuring Internet access to the TRIP website. Lacking a sustaining source of revenue—one deployment featured a for-fee ticketing service via the kiosks-all of them have been withdrawn.
- Incident Database – Due to staff resource constraints, the police department dispatch office was never able to devote much attention to the TRIP database and so real-time traffic incidents have never been regularly included in the system. With limited staff and other higher priority public safety duties, dispatch staff often found that by the time they could input information on an incident, it had cleared.
Color-Coded Alternate Route Identification System
In addition to the Branson TRIP system, there is another public traveler information system in Branson: the Color-Coded Alternate Route System. Not to be confused with the "color-coded real-time congestion information" provided on the TRIP website and IVR, this low-tech, highly literal system utilizes road signs (see Figure 4.6)—and at one time actual painted markings on the roadway surface—to identify various alternate routes to Highway 76. These route designations are noted on the official CCCVB Branson area map as well as a number of the maps distributed by hotel front desk staff and private visitor centers.
Figure 4.6. Color-Coded Alternate Route Signs
Private Traveler Information Sources
In the Branson area there are a large number of private roadside purveyors of "visitor information," including road maps and attraction information. These providers are so numerous that they essentially compose a sub-sector of the local economy. However, as explained by a number of Branson area interview subjects, the primary purpose of these establishments is typically not to provide community or traveler information, per se, but rather to sell tickets to the various theater shows and, in many cases, to pitch time-share condominiums.
In addition to the sheer number of these establishments, what distinguishes them is the extent to which they appear to be, evidently quite intentionally, "official" or "public" outlets for visitor/traveler information (see the example in Figure 4.7.) These facilities typically feature "visitor information" or "welcome center" as their sole signage and have gone so far in their attempts to establish credibility and to draw attention as to utilize the same white-on-blue sign color scheme used by the State of Missouri for official traveler services information, and even to using the word "official" on their signs. The visitor's introduction to these establishments begins on numerous billboards on US 65, starting not far outside of Springfield (to the north) and on the Arkansas side of the Missouri-Arkansas border (to the south).
Figure 4.7. Privately Operated Self-Proclaimed "Official" Tourist Information Outlet
There appears to be minimal coordination between these private visitor information outlets and the Branson TRIP system. However, some of the private centers provide area roadway maps that prominently feature the color-coded alternate route system.
This section presents data on traveler information usage, customer awareness and satisfaction in Branson. Also presented are the findings from interviews with key informants who provided important perspectives on the traveler information services.
4.2.1 System Usage
1998 FHWA TRIP Evaluation
Since it is over 5 years old, and because a number of changes have occurred in the system since that time, the 1998 FHWA evaluation results do not reflect current conditions. However, they do provide a picture of how the system was utilized during its early, most robust period of operation.
The 1998 FHWA evaluation examined system usage data for a seven month period beginning immediately after the system became operational, in September 1998, through March 1999. The results indicate that of the various traveler information user interfaces for which usage observational data were available (kiosks, phone and website), only the TRIP website was utilized frequently. The average number of website user sessions had reached approximately 15,000 per day by the end of the evaluation period and appeared to be on an upward trend. It was not possible to determine how many discrete users accessed the website, or from where they accessed the site. Usage of the phone system never rose above more than an average of 3 or 4 calls per day during the 1998-1999 evaluation. No quantitative data on the one briefly deployed kiosk were available.
Awareness and usage of the various user interfaces was also measured using tourist intercept surveys, conducted at a variety of locations throughout Branson, including hotel lobbies and outlet malls. A total of 640 usable surveys were obtained. The average age of survey respondents was 54 years.
Figure 4.8 summarizes those results. Note that "radio" included both the HAR and any other non-TRIP-related radio traffic reports, and therefore does not provide a pure indicator of HAR awareness. "Route signs" refer to the two DMS on US 65. Both awareness and usage levels were highest for the user interfaces that featured prominent roadway infrastructure—the DMS and the color-coded alternate routes—where awareness levels ranged from approximately 60 to 75% and usage ranged from 30 to 55%. By contrast, the less visible phone system and website had usage levels of less than 10% and awareness levels less than 20%.
Figure 4.8. Monthly IVR Phone Usage and Average Call Durations
Recent TRIP System Usage
There have been no formal evaluations of the Branson TRIP system performed since the 1998 FHWA evaluation. Likewise, neither MoDOT nor the City of Branson has closely monitored usage of the system over the last several years. The only visitor surveys performed in Branson are done by the CCCVB and do not include questions relating to TRIP or travel planning. Data on website usage were lost when hosting of the website was transferred from the TRIP consultant to MoDOT in mid-2003. The only usage system data that are now available are for the IVR phone system.
Phone system usage data are available for September – November 1998 and February 2001- February 2002. The number of calls by month and the average call durations are shown in Figure 4.8. After the high of 138 calls during October 1998 that was noted in the FHWA TRIP evaluation (equating to 4 calls per day), the number of calls to the TRIP system has never risen above 36 calls per month (June 2001)—an average of about one call per day—and are more typically less than 25 calls per month. With the exception of the peak month in October 1998 when call durations were significantly longer, most calls to the TRIP system have averaged between about 30 to 90 seconds.
Business Community System Utilization
Results of key informant interviews indicate that at least one tourist business in the Branson area valued and utilized TRIP data. A local entrepreneur who operates a ticketing and shuttle bus operation and a web design/information services company had used the TRIP traffic count data to analyze visitor volumes for business planning purposes for several years, until the website became inoperative in mid-2003. He had also been using both historic traffic count data from TRIP and the real-time traffic conditions map to monitor traffic conditions as part of the daily management of his shuttle operations. This individual considers the TRIP traffic volume data an under-appreciated resource for business planning and believes that the TRIP map strengthened the appeal and utility of his website. He was frustrated that the website went down and indicated that if and when the site was back up he would continue to utilize it as in the past.
The inherent value of the TRIP traffic map as part of a value-added private sector website or kiosk operation was seconded by another local entrepreneur. This individual operates a large tourist services operation in Branson providing lodging reservations, show tickets and tour packages. He had previously deployed over 100 non-TRIP-related kiosks in the Branson area, primarily in hotel lobbies, and intended primarily to support show ticket sales. He also felt that the TRIP traffic map was a useful resource that could be packaged with other complimentary tourism information, as was the plan with the original TRIP kiosks. Independently, his company has developed a working version of Internet cell phone software that converts the color-coded traffic information on the TRIP traffic map to text messages, and he is considering usages for the system. He also expressed frustration that the TRIP website is down and suggested that he would consider contributing to the local hosting of the site.
Other Current Usage Perspectives
Based on on-site observation, it is not surprising that usage of TRIP is low. The TRIP system has a low profile—the handful of static signs referencing the system tend to fade into the busy background of billboards, marquees and competing private tourism information advertisements. Study team attempts to utilize the phone system during the March 2004 site visit were unsuccessful, as the system was experiencing technical difficulties. It would appear unlikely that large numbers of tourists are able to utilize the HAR system because of its extremely limited range. During the site visit, the study team was able to pick up a listenable HAR signal within an approximately ¼-mile radius of the transmitter located at the Highway 76/US 65 interchange.
Several key informants agreed that the current TRIP system is not very visible and unlikely to be well utilized by visitors. City of Branson staff and the operator of Silver Dollar City and other major attractions agreed that, if it were not for their own personal experience in developing the TRIP system, they doubt that they would be aware of the system and felt that it was probably used by few tourists. They agreed that aside from the DMS, the system is essentially invisible. The low general awareness of the TRIP system in Branson is evidenced by the fact that the CCCVB representative was only vaguely aware of the system and was not aware of all of the user interfaces.
Clearly, the current TRIP system is not well utilized. The website is now down, the phone system logs only a few calls per day, no kiosks are deployed, and the HAR can only be heard within a very small area. During the early stages of TRIP, usage of the website was robust. Due to the lack of recent data, it is unclear whether use of the website continued at high levels until it went down in 2003. It can be theorized that the great majority of website usage occurs pre-trip, as tourists are investigating Branson as a potential destination and doing their general trip planning, since this is the only time that most Branson visitors (families and seniors) likely have convenient access to the Internet.
Tourist surveys conducted in 1998 when TRIP was first deployed indicate that the most visible and most utilized user interfaces were those that could be used passively (i.e., didn't require users to make a call or visit a website) and featured physical roadway infrastructure or markings: dynamic message signs (61% aware and 30% using) and the color-coded alternate route system (77% aware and 55% using).
TRIP data are valued and utilized by at least two local tourist business operators, one of which used the TRIP traffic data for business planning, as a surrogate for tourist visitation volumes, and real-time traffic data to coordinate his daily shuttle operations. Appreciation for the inherent value of the TRIP information is evidenced by another local entrepreneur who has developed an application that accesses the TRIP traffic map data via Internet phones.
4.2.2 Customer Satisfaction
The only available customer satisfaction data are the tourist survey results from the 1998 FHWA evaluation and the results of a recent survey of businesses on the color-coded alternate route system.
FHWA TRIP Evaluation Tourist Survey
Although not representative of current conditions, the 1998 TRIP evaluation tourist survey results provide an indication of customer satisfaction when TRIP was essentially fully functional. Highlights of the survey results consist of the following:
- Most TRIP users found the information to be of high quality: between 50 and 80 percent of tourists felt that the information provided by TRIP was accurate, understandable and easy to obtain.
- For all user interfaces except radio, which included HAR and all commercial radio broadcasts, between 50 and 65 percent of respondents indicated that the information saved them time. Approximately 43 percent of radio users indicated this impact.
- Except for the phone system, between 10 and 60% of respondents reported that with TRIP information they confirmed their route, changed their route, changed the attractions they visited, or chose an attraction of which they were not previously aware. TRIP usage had the greatest impact in confirming that the correct route was taken and in choosing attractions not previously known. Between 35 and 60 percent of respondents, varying by user interface, cited these impacts.
- Between 20% (phone system) and 63% (dynamic message signs) of TRIP users indicated that the information helped them to avoid traffic congestion.
Color-Coded Alternate Route Chamber of Commerce Survey
Local tourism-oriented businesses are an important customer, or stakeholder, in a tourist-oriented traveler information system like TRIP. In March 2004, the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau conducted a short three-question survey of all of their members regarding the color-coded alternate route system. Respondents were asked whether the route system is useful, for comments or suggestions for how to improve the system, and ideas for alternatives to the route system. The survey was sponsored by the City of Branson Advisory Transportation Committee. The results, summarized below, provide perspective not only on the route system, but also on how businesses more generally view tourist-oriented traveler information.
Forty-one (41) of the 62 survey respondents—about 66 percent—agreed that the color-coded system was useful. Supporters noted that the system is literal, simple and appears on a number of area maps. Among supporters, criticisms and recommendations for improvements focused on more aggressive and coordinated promotion of the system, including training hotel desk staff in how to give directions using the color-coded alternate route system and making the system more visible. Many respondents said they use the color-coded routes in providing direction to tourists and that the tourists notice and use the color-coded route system. Several respondents noted how important the simple travel tool was to Branson's many senior visitors.
The 21 respondents who think the color-coded route system is not useful to visitors cited many of the same criticisms as supporters, most commonly that the system is inadequately marked and promoted (including educating front desk staff to refer to the map in giving directions). Additional concerns include the system being too confusing; unrecognizable by tourists because the system is unique to Branson; not referenced on all maps or by all businesses; and Branson being too full of other visual distractions. Perhaps symptomatic of the low visibility of the TRIP system, one respondent even suggested that a "dial-in" traveler information system was needed.
Lack of data prevents the formulation of any conclusions regarding current customer satisfaction with TRIP. However, the 1998 FHWA evaluation indicates that, when the system was essentially fully functional, it was viewed fairly positively and seemed to be positively impacting a substantial percentage of tourists. A high percentage of survey respondents found the information to be of high quality. Lower, but still considerable, percentages of visitors (between 20% and 65% depending on the user interface) indicated that the TRIP information confirmed that they took the correct route, resulted in choosing an attraction of which they were not previously aware, or helped them to avoid traffic congestion.
Most businesses support the (non-TRIP) color-coded alternate route system, finding it both necessary and useful. This suggests that there is a genuine perceived need for traveler information among the businesses that serve tourists. There were no concerns expressed among businesses about the system being used to detour potential customers away from their front door. The criticisms about the color-coded system appear to be those that would apply to TRIP, and any traveler information system, namely that the system and how to use it are not promoted aggressively enough to tourists or the front desk personnel who answer tourists' questions.
4.2.3 Perspectives of Key Informants
The investigation of management and deployment issues featured a site visit to Branson in March 2004 and interviews with key informants representing local and state TRIP development/operating experience and representatives of the local tourism business environment. Table 4.1 identifies the interview subjects and briefly summarizes their relationship to TRIP.
|Interview Subject(s)||Relationship to TRIP|
|Assistant Engineer, Missouri Department of Transportation||Participant in TRIP since early planning stages; TRIP Program Manager for the last four years. Located in Springfield, Missouri.|
|City Engineer and Assistant Engineer, City of Branson||Active in the planning and deployment stages of TRIP.|
|Communications Officer, City of Branson Police Department||Involved in the planning and development of TRIP and during early operational stages, Police Department was responsible for inputting incident information into the TRIP database.|
|Owner, Shuttle Operation and Computer Services Firm||Participated in original TRIP development as a subcontractor (developed website); has continued to use TRIP traffic data and incorporates (repackages) the traffic map on this website.|
|Owner, Ticket Sales/Tour Package Firm||Participated in deployment of over 100 ticket sales kiosks (not part of TRIP program).|
|Director of Governmental Relations, Major Attraction Operator||Involved in early TRIP planning activities; a member of local Transportation Committee.|
The following summarize the common themes and major findings of the Branson key informant interviews.
TRIP traveler information is valuable – Despite various concerns and frustrations regarding the way that TRIP was implemented and has been operated, all of the key informants, including representatives of the tourism business community, believed that the real-time traffic condition information available through TRIP—especially the color-coded congestion map—was inherently valuable. They felt that both residents and visitors are interested in information that would allow them to avoid severe traffic congestion on Highway 76. The private shuttle operator found the information useful to his own business, both for general planning purposes (the historic traffic volume data) and for day-to-day fleet management (the real-time traffic condition information), and he believes that the information is useful to tourists and provides an additional draw to his website. The ticket sales and tour promoter also felt that the TRIP traffic map was useful and would help attract tourists to a website or kiosk. Both business operators emphasized the importance of packaging as many types of tourism information and resources as possible together in one place. Although largely unfamiliar with TRIP, the Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau representative also agreed that the TRIP concept was valid. The positive results of the business community survey regarding the color-coded alternate route system, not technically a part of TRIP, also suggests that tourism business owners believe that there is a need for traveler information and, if properly promoted and marketed with signs, tourists will utilize it.
TRIP provides other useful data – The City Engineering Department representatives indicated that the comprehensive traffic count data provided by TRIP was a real asset for planning and analysis, which, being unable to fund a traffic counting program, they would otherwise not have available. Both the Engineering Department and the Police Department felt that the traffic surveillance cameras—if they worked reliably—would be useful traffic management tools. As noted above, at least one local businessman finds the historic traffic data available through TRIP to be very useful for business planning.
Not all tourists always want to avoid congestion – Despite the fact that all of the key informants agreed that tourists generally would have an interest in using TRIP to avoid congestion, the reality that not all tourists want to avoid congestion on all occasions was noted by several informants. Most of those informants believe that many tourists are happy to sit through the congested Highway 76 traffic during the first day of their visit to Branson, in order to "see the sites" and experience Highway 76 (including the traffic); later in their visits they are motivated to avoid the congestion. The Police Department representative was slightly more pessimistic, citing the experience of officers in the field (directing traffic on the day after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest traffic days of the year) who will point grid-locked motorists to alternate routes only to be ignored. Although not a common sentiment, several informants cast doubt, more generally, on whether tourists, especially the families and seniors who come to Branson, are really strongly motivated to proactively "plan" or "manage" their travel experience. These informants suggested that many tourists may just view traffic congestion as to be expected.
TRIP is not heavily promoted and is not very visible – Nearly all of the key informants felt strongly that TRIP is not adequately marketed and that most tourists (and even residents) are aware of only the DMS and, if so, do not understand them to be part of a traveler information "system."
The local political and business community never fully committed – Several Branson-area key informants familiar with the entire history of the project felt that an important reason why the project has not met expectations is that the local political and business community never fully bought-in on the TRIP project; they never committed to promoting it. Most informants weren't sure exactly why this buy-in did not occur or what it would have taken to achieve such commitment. Some possible reasons are explored in Section 4.2.4.
There is no motivated, local TRIP "owner" – Several of the Branson-area key informants felt that the underlying problem responsible for a number of the TRIP short-comings—most notably the lack of adequate marketing—is that there is no local entity that is motivated to operate and monitor the effectiveness of the system, and has adequate funding to do so. As noted above, the lack of buy-in among the business community and "at City Hall" was another common theme and is related to this one. There does not appear to be any resentment over the way MoDOT has handled, or is handling, TRIP. (MoDOT, specifically the TRIP Program Manager, are really the only ones who have anything to do with the system.) However, the Branson area informants are realistic about how MoDOT budget constraints and lack of local physical presence—the MoDOT TRIP Program Manager is located in Springfield—limit MoDOT's ability to proactively manage TRIP on a day-to-day basis. The City of Branson informants agreed that although the idea of having the police department responsible for entering real-time incident information was good in theory, the dispatch staff responsible for doing so just don't have the manpower.
Tourism stakeholders are sensitive to negative traffic image – Although not a common theme, a couple of interview subjects noted that the City of Branson is concerned about potentially "scaring off" tourists by providing information on traffic congestion. Although they do not seem concerned about the real-time traffic map, which has always been a part of the website, "the City" did veto the original idea of making CCTV camera images available on the website. One informant also indicated that he had discovered that the "the City shut the system down" on major holidays, concerned about the potential bad publicity of showing severe traffic congestion. It was not clear exactly what portions of TRIP were "shut down," but the informant is most likely referring to the stream of data from the traffic detectors which feeds the traffic map, generates the traffic counts, and feeds the phone system.
4.2.4 Study Site Conclusions
The Branson TRIP system is currently only partially functioning and is probably not significantly impacting a substantial number of users. However, it appears that in the past the system has provided some benefits to both tourists and local tourism businesses. Evidence includes some promising early results from the 1998 FHWA evaluation, which indicated very high levels of awareness and high levels of usage of the visible, passive en-route user interfaces that feature roadside infrastructure: the color-coded alternate route system and the two dynamic message signs. The 1998 survey also indicated that tourists felt the TRIP information was high quality. System usage statistics during the 1998 evaluation also indicated heavy, and apparently upwardly trending, usage of the website.
Further evidence of the benefit of tourist traveler information strategies comes from the business community. The 2004 Chamber of Commerce survey on the color-coded route system indicated that the majority of responding businesses felt that tourists need and will use alternate route information, that the existing color-coded route system is effective, and that it could be more effective if better promoted and marked. Finally, two local business owners indicated that the TRIP traffic map is a valuable contribution to their own traveler and tourism services, and they are eager to see the traffic map back on-line.
Despite some success, however, it appears that, on balance, traveler information strategies in the Branson area have fallen short of their ultimate objectives, and of their potential, given the apparent need for traveler information and heavy concentration of potential users. This conclusion is supported by the following observations:
- Phone usage statistics have always been very low
- The website has been down since mid-2003
- The HAR signal seems to be clear only within a ¼-mile radius of the transmitter site
- Based on observation by the study team, the opinions of several key informants, and the glaring absence of references to TRIP in the color-coded route survey responses, the system is not visible or promoted
- The apparent shift away from what is understood to be the original plan, which was to provide real-time, incident-specific information and alternate route information via the DMS and HAR, would seem to have reduced the potential benefit of the system. The signs and HAR do provide useful information on planned (construction, special events, etc.) information, but there is a notable absence of dynamic, real-time traffic incident information.
Analysis of the Branson TRIP experience suggests a number of lessons learned that may contribute to more effective operation of the TRIP system and which may be useful to other deployers of traveler information systems in similar tourism environments:
- Partnering with other businesses competing for travelers' limited attention – As observed by the study team and as noted by a couple of local key informants, the tourist/traveler information environment in Branson is completely saturated. It is unlikely that the public sector could ever "out shout" the private purveyors of information. Instead, these sources of information, which in Branson include the many private visitor centers and the front desks of hotels and attractions, should be utilized to promote the public traveler information resources. In reality, the public information is not in competition with the private—the private providers merely want to attract the tourists' attention so they can engage them in other business; they are not selling the information itself and would not be giving business away to refer their visitors to TRIP for additional information. Unfortunately, such a partnership was not achieved in Branson. The attempts at engaging the local business community were limited to the for-fee advertising on the website and kiosk placements in lobbies—ventures that were the responsibility of a non-local contractor.
- The need to advertise, advertise, and keep advertising – Traveler information systems featuring websites and phone systems are essentially invisible to travelers in that they have no visible roadside infrastructure. Especially in tourist-dense areas where so many attractions are competing for travelers' attentions, it is critical to heavily promote traveler information systems, and to continue to promote them. In the case of Branson, there was a flurry of initial promotion activity (brochures, etc.) which has tailed off to practically nothing.
- Need to commit to long-term operations and maintenance – Despite excellent intentions on the part of MoDOT, and valiant and successful efforts on the part of the TRIP manager to keep the system functioning (and even to improve it), all in the in the absence of practically any resources, it does not appear that the long-term operations and maintenance of the system have been fully addressed. Working remotely (from Springfield) and with very limited resources, MoDOT's ability to strengthen the system, such as through increased promotion and coordination with local businesses, is quite limited. To some extent this reflects a common challenge with ITS investments: difficulty in transitioning from the "project" stage, where full implementation normally marks the "end," to the "program" stage, where operations are the focus. Part of this phenomenon, which occurred to some extent in Branson, is the tendency for projects to be dependent on specific key people, who eventually leave, whereas programs institutionalize the process so that it can survive the coming and going of individual personnel.
- Importance of engaging local entrepreneurs – The shuttle operator/computer services firm owner, and the travel and ticket sales company owner that were interviewed were brimming with enthusiasm for the idea of combining public traveler information with their own traveler resources and were frustrated about the lack of aggressive promotion of TRIP. Unfortunately, these individuals, and the many more like them that are undoubtedly to be found in Branson, were not effectively engaged in the private partner aspect of the TRIP implementation. That aspect was led by a competent, but non-local, firm that, although certainly vested in the success of the system, could (and did) choose to walk away from what was a non-productive investment. Local entrepreneurs—especially those who have "fought the wars" relative to competing for tourists attention and putting together partnerships with other businesses—provide not only partnership ideas that are responsive to local conditions but, being committed to the area and unlikely to leave, are more likely to stay and fight it out to make the business model succeed.
- Cultivating grass roots support. Like many state/local ITS investments, the TRIP system was funded largely with federal funds. Although there was certainly some local support for the project, interviews with key informants suggest that MoDOT Headquarters and the availability of federal funding were the driving forces in making TRIP happen, rather than strong grass roots support. Most local agencies won't say no to state and federal funding, but simply agreeing to the implementation of a traveler information system is no substitute for the kind of local commitment necessary to sustain it over the long term.