Eye on KELOLAND: Sioux Falls tourism suffering in COVID-19 pandemic


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The consequences of COVID-19 for the Butterfly House & Aquarium are familiar to pretty much any organization or anyone who is experiencing this pandemic.

“It means everything changed entirely very quickly,” CEO Audrey Otto-Willard said. “It’s certainly been an adjustment, and I think we’re learning more every day.”

“Our attractions have been pretty much closed down,” said Teri Schmidt, executive director of Experience Sioux Falls.

Experience Sioux Falls is the new name of what used to be called the Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“COVID-19 has really been a hard hit for Sioux Falls tourism,” Schmidt said. “You know, when people stop traveling, our industry is hurt. We live on the traveling public, and we’ve always known that people love to travel, that they’ll continue to travel, but with this COVID-19, people are afraid to travel.”

Schmidt said on Monday that hotel occupancy was at “15 to 20 percent.”

“And that’s on a good day,” Schmidt said.

The Butterfly House & Aquarium has turned to the internet. On its Facebook page, you can see the stonefish doing its thing.

“We had to get creative, and we went online with quite a lot, we created some educational content and some relaxation contents, you would sit and watch the jellyfish swimming around and try to get a little stress relief in these crazy times, and also did a lot of educational content,” Otto-Willard said.

They’ve also gotten some help from Uncle Sam.

“We had a strong cash reserve built up, so we’re doing pretty well, but certainly not where we want to be,” Otto-Willard said. “And we’re doing well because we got the PPP loan, that was a big saver for us, where we’re able to cover our payroll and our utilities and those costs with the PPP for two months, and that was a huge relief for us.”

COVID-19 has been harmful not only to people, but the way people enjoy themselves. Tourism in Sioux Falls, Schmidt says, is being hit hard.

“The bottom line is, the impact is tremendous,” Schmidt said. “It’s very sad, it’s devastating for our tourism industry in Sioux Falls, and this is happening all over the country, it isn’t just Sioux Falls, but COVID-19 is devastating our industry.”

It all begs the question, can Sioux Falls tourism recover from this?

“I think we’ll be able to recover, Dan, but I think it’s going to take a long time,” Schmidt said.

That’s why several Midwestern cities including Sioux Falls are joining together.

“One of the things that we’re doing, is we’re really going strongly with social media, so we partnered with Omaha, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Des Moines, and we’re doing virtual tours of our five cities in each other’s markets all together,” Schmidt said.

They’re not far from each other, so could work as a day trip or a weekend get-away.

“So if we join together and promote each other, maybe we can get people to do those drive trips. That’s another thing- people are not, the research is showing they’re not ready to fly,” Schmidt said. “They will drive, in their own car, but they’re not willing to fly yet.”

Time will tell when tourists return.

“I really think we can bounce back, but it might be September, October before we see a real light at the end of the tunnel,” Schmidt said.

According to Richard King, deputy director of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, in April 2018 the airport saw 82,066 passengers. In April 2019, there were 89,025 passengers. In April 2020, there were 4,341.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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