PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — State government’s marketing efforts that brought South Dakota’s tourism back from the COVID-19 pandemic at the fastest pace in the nation are headed into the shop for a tune-up.

Work has started on developing a new strategic plan, deputy secretary Wanda Goodman said Wednesday.

She told the state Tourism Advisory Board that emails will be sent Thursday to businesses and attractions throughout South Dakota for “candid input.”

The consultant who helped assemble the current plan five years ago is working with the state Department of Tourism again.

“We want to hear from everyone in the industry on what are the challenges you’re seeing — we’ve heard a lot of them today — but if you have ideas or things you would like to share with us in terms of where you’d like to see tourism in South Dakota go in the next few years, we want to hear about those things,” Goodman said.

A stakeholder retreat for a smaller group will follow.

“We just want to hear your candid feedback, and at that retreat we’ll be going a little more in-depth on some of those topics, as far as where you want to see tourism in South Dakota go…over the next three to five years, what are some of the things you’d like our department to focus on, all of that stuff,” she said.

Kirk Hulstein, the department’s director of industry outreach and development, showed slides on how well South Dakota performed in comparison to the record-setting pre-pandemic year of 2019.

In May, South Dakota and Florida became the first states to have their tourism and travel industries bounce back from the COVID-19 downturn, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

“So this is not a down year we’re comparing to. This is extremely good,” Hulstein said.

2021 visitation was up 15%, visitor spending rose 9% and hotel occupancy was even again with the first five months of 2019.

“I should have just dropped a slide in here that had the number 1,” Hulstein said. “To come out ahead in May as the first state to fully recover was awesome.”

Tom Biegler, president of U.S. Hotel and Resort Management, said tourism businesses didn’t know what to expect one year ago as COVID-19 spread throughout the nation and around the world. The Sioux Falls-based company manages four lodges in Custer State Park and many hotels and restaurants.

“When I think about the fact we’re number one in tourism in the entire country, I mean it’s just such a testament to the hard work that goes into what these people have done,” Biegler said about Secretary Jim Hagen and his staff.

Biegler predicted South Dakota’s numbers will be “off the charts” for this year. “I bet we’ve never seen anything similar,” he said. “But we have an opportunity to showcase who we are much more so than where they are in the next six months.

“I would implore everybody that’s in an industry where you have people come face to face on a daily basis with customers to really examine exactly what it is that you’re doing, to exacerbate their customer service role. Show them, teach them, don’t expect it to just happen, because it’s not just going to happen, because everybody knows that we’re all like up to here” — he raised his arm above his head — “we’ve got this much business, we’ve got 35 hours worth of business in a day, and we’ve only got 24 hours.

“But we have to make it fun, and if we make it fun, customer service comes second nature.”