S.D. Tourism secretary says he’s optimistic about ‘the new normal’ for visitors industry

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Mount Rushmore

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Many of the businesses hardest-hit by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic are based on travel. That’s been true for South Dakota. State Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen recently answered questions from KELOLAND News Capitol Bureau reporter Bob Mercer.

COVID-19 cases began mounting during March in South Dakota. That timing might have been somewhat less damaging because the tourism season was in a slower period between the end of winter and the start of the spring-summer travel season. Based on sales subject to the state tourism tax, and based on Deadwood gambling establishments being closed for much of that time, what effects have there been on the state Department of Tourism’s spending on marketing? How much did the state department spend on marketing last year and how much was planned this year? 

HAGEN: Although we are still waiting to receive tourism tax and gaming receipts for March, we know the department’s budget has been adversely affected by COVID-19. The virus has hit the tourism industry hard. On March 15, we paused the majority of our marketing — 75% of our spend — until we got to a point where consumers wanted to see tourism marketing again. This is a sentiment we have followed on a weekly basis and arenow finding consumers are split on whether or not they are ready to see active tourism marketing, with calls to action. 

The department has had nearly 75% of its 2020 peak season marketing spend on hold. This includes TV advertising — broadcast, cable, alternative — print, direct mail, digital and out of home efforts.  For our 2019 peak season marketing, the department expended $3.1 million in target markets like Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, Denver, and Omaha, to name a few. The department was and is set to spend an equivalent dollar amount for our 2020 peak efforts.

We’ve just wrapped up national tourism week. Traditionally May has marked the start of the main tourist season in South Dakota. How are businesses responding? Will these changes be the new normal? 

HAGEN: Things will look different this peak tourism season in our state. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in our country as a result of COVID-19. As of May 1, the national tourism industry had shed eight million jobs. The negative economic impact on the industry is nine times greater than what occurred after 9/11.

In South Dakota, travel spending had declined 81% for the week of May 2. U.S. hotel room demand has dropped nearly 80% nationwide. In South Dakota, we are seeing hotel occupancy rates in the range of 20 to 30%, the largest decrease being in the northeast region of the state.

More than 75% of consumers are stating that their travel plans for the summer have been altered or canceled as a result of the virus. The good news is we are beginning to see an uptick in interest and bookings to South Dakota. It should be noted that tourism partners are reporting visitors to our state now, especially in the Black Hills.

South Dakota’s tourism businesses are taking the health and safety of our guests very seriously. We know that if we aren’t making their health and safety our number one priority, we will have no tourism. Weekly surveys gauging travelers’ views of the virus and its impact on travel are showing very clearly that they want to see new operational business practices in place to keep them healthy. 

For example, visitors are now wanting to see guests provided with hand sanitizer, face masks, and disinfectant wipes.  They want to see A, visible cleaning activity in public areas, and B, that businesses have strict cleaning and sanitizing procedures in place that are well explained. Visitors will begin to expect that employees undergo required health screenings before interacting with the public.

We believe these practices are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and will more than likely become common practice, the new normal. We are already seeing these new health and safety protocols implemented in tourism businesses throughout South Dakota. Our industry wants visitors to know that our great places are safe places, too.

Many people are concerned about traveling and about being part of groups. What steps are South Dakota restaurants and eating places taking? What steps are motels and hotels taking? 

HAGEN: We are hearing from many tourism businesses in the state – retailers, casinos, restaurants, campgrounds, gift shops, motel, hotels, bed and breakfasts, rental car agencies, et cetera – about the steps they are taking to ensure the safety and well-being of visitors. The South Dakota Department of Tourism has provided the following ‘best practices’ resources to businesses to assist them as they make plans to implement health and hygiene protocols for visitors and their employees:

  • Travel in the New Normal – Industry Guidance for Promoting the Health and Safety of all Travelers

https://www.ustravel.org/sites/default/files/media_root/document/HealthandSafetyGuidance.pdf

  • Health, cleaning/sanitizing and reopening resources for South Dakota tourism businesses

https://sdvisit.com/covid-19/health-cleaning-and-sanitizing-resources-south-dakota-tourism-businesses

President Trump plans to attend the Mount Rushmore fireworks display July 3. That’s a few weeks after South Dakota is forecast to be at its peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations. What changes will people see at the monument? 

HAGEN: The fireworks planning committee continues to meet and make plans for the July 3 celebration at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In the coming weeks, a decision about fireworks attendance will be shared with the general public. For now, we are directing inquiries to https://www.travelsouthdakota.com/mount-rushmore-fireworks for latest updates. 

Sturgis continues to plan for the August motorcycle rally. Many people crowd the downtown. What do you foresee for downtown? Many people camp during the rally. How will campgrounds change? 

HAGEN: The Sturgis Rally Committee, Mayor Carstensen, and the Sturgis City Council are being very thoughtful and careful as they determine what the 80th Rally may look like. They will be making a decision about the world’s largest and most famous motorcycle rally on or around June 16.  

As for campgrounds in general, like all South Dakota tourism businesses, they are working to ensure that visitors to our state have a safe and healthy experience while they are here.

Custer State Park hosts the bison roundup each fall. That is a major tourist event. What changes will the park make for the event? 

HAGEN: We know Custer State Park – and all of our state parks – have the health and safety of our visitors top of mind. I’d refer you to the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks to learn more about any changes they may be considering for the Buffalo Roundup this fall.

Pheasant hunting in October has long been a traditional ‘coming-home’ event for South Dakota. Airlines add flights to accommodate the many visiting hunters. What can be expected at commercial airports? What can be expected at the sporting-goods shops? 

HAGEN: At this point in time, we are still too far out to determine how airlines may adjust flight operations and schedules for October. Our hope is that we will be back to a more normal travel pattern this fall so we can welcome hunters. We have so many small mom and pop businesses whose livelihood and success depend upon the revenue generated by our hunters. 

What should I have asked that I haven’t?

HAGEN: At the moment, we may not be able to move about the world freely, but we can still inspire travelers to choose South Dakota when they feel safe to travel. Within a matter of days, the Department of Tourism will debut a new campaign called “Great Places Are Waiting.” It will inspire potential visitors with a message that South Dakota’s Great Places are waiting to be explored when the time is right for them, whether that be this week, this month or sometime this summer of fall. 

Consumers are stating that regional travel and road trips will be more important to them when they can travel again.  They will be looking to stay closer to home.  They will be looking for destinations with wide open spaces where they can more easily practice social distancing.  Visitors are also sharing that they will feel safest traveling by car.  All of this bodes very well for South Dakota. With our incredible outdoor offerings and wide open spaces, our state will be the perfect destination for travelers.

Finally, as we all work towards overcoming the many challenges this virus has thrown at our state, I want to put a personal plea out to all South Dakotans to help the tourism industry. We need our state’s citizens, and our out-of-state visitors, to help tourism businesses regain their financial footing. It’s going to take us a while to fully get back to normal, but if we can count on South Dakota’s own Great Faces to do their part by exploring tourism businesses and attractions in their own communities, regions, and the state as a whole, the tourism industry will help lead the way in our economic recovery.

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