As expected, the tourism industry has taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether by automobile or airplane, people are not traveling like they used to.
This has caused smiles across the country to turn upside down, including travel and tourism agencies in the upper Midwest. But they are hopeful that the industry will rebound sooner than later, and when it does they say they’ll be ready.
“By all indications this was pointing to be an unbelievable year,” said Jim Hagen, secretary of tourism for South Dakota. “We've had 10 straight years of record numbers and this year was going to be one of them from just the number of inquiries we were getting, the number of website visits, the number of advanced bookings -- everything was looking to go through the roof. And then suddenly everybody's world turned upside down.”
By the second week of March there was a great pause. He said about 75% of the department’s marketing budget was frozen. Research found, however, that that there was still a viable market to tap.
“Most everybody was held down and so they were on their computers surfing the web," Hagen said. "We wanted to make sure we were getting (in front of that) audience who was still interested in South Dakota … still interested in planning a vacation. And so we kept a very limited digital marketing effort going and that, frankly, has been really successful; we have seen some really great interaction with that, including very targeted emails that are going out. The interaction with those emails has been phenomenal.”
The North Star State also is looking ahead to the time when people are able and willing to travel.
Caitlin Hannah, social media strategist for Explore Minnesota, said the state’s $16 billion travel and tourism industry receives 37% of its revenue in the spring and summer season, but the pandemic has knocked that down tremendously.
“It is difficult to quantify in specific terms, but we know Minnesota tourism is suffering tremendously and we’re doing everything we can to support one of our state’s largest industries,” she said. “The bulk of tourism spending starts with families that travel with the ending of the calendar school year. But beyond family travel, there is a significant loss in meetings, conventions and business travel to the state in the spring. It is yet to be seen if many of those events reschedule or simply cancel, in which case it would be a loss we cannot make up.”
Looking ahead, she said the state is doing everything it can to build traveler confidence now for when people travel later. That means, “whenever they do travel, they are informed, can anticipate their experience and feel safe.”
Hannah said she anticipates the state's tourism industry will begin to rebound once travel restrictions are loosened.
“We’re working with the industry to develop protocols and prepare to meet the needs of travelers today,” she said. “The work of our industry, combined with the mindset of travelers wanting to get out soon, leads us to believe that our industry will bounce back. But it may take time."
Resorts and retail shops are open and more sectors will open "when the time is right," she said. "It’s a balance of reopening tourism businesses while maintaining the health and safety of staff, guests and each community.”
The draw for Minnesota, she said: its many outdoor resources and venues.
Explore Minnesota has prepared an interim marketing campaign focused on a wide range of activities that are available “when recovery is on the horizon,” she said. “It will run regionally and stress that when you are ready to travel, we’re ready to welcome you.”
A snapshot of how the Peace Garden State has been affected by the pandemic looks like this:
US Travel has been working with Tourism Economics to measure lost visitor revenue in each state, according to North Dakota’s Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman.
“Through April 25, North Dakota has lost $281 million in visitor spending and $6 million in local and state taxes from visitors,” according to North Dakota’s Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman. “Hospitality businesses have been impacted greatly.”
She said accommodations and food services have had more than 11,100 unemployment claims since March 21, arts, entertainment and recreation had 2,738.
However, she said the state has developed a multi-phased approach to marketing.
North Dakota, which touts having “wide-open spaces, dramatic scenery and unique entertainment and attractions spread over 70,000 square miles of the Northern Plains,” offers virtual trips on its website. While visiting a place virtually may not have the same effect as experiencing the place in person, it is hoped that the virtual tours will whet visitors’ appetites for when leisure travel sees an uptick.
“When we can safely move about the country again, remember what you saw here, then go see it in person,” North Dakota’s tourism website reads, urging visitors to “Dream now ... Travel later.”
Otte Coleman explained the virtual visits, saying: “Initially, we created content to engage our residents and potential travelers with things they could do while we wait for travel to be safer. This included virtual visits, a daily puzzle piece and ideas on how to support local businesses. Also part of this phase was an in-state TV campaign – showcasing the heart and soul of North Dakota with the message that ‘we will get through this together’.”
The next phase will inspire travel with both a new in-state TV ad to encourage North Dakotans to discover their home state this summer and a regional campaign – reworked slightly to acknowledge the situation and showcasing our wide-open spaces.
“As things continue to improve, we will continue our planned 2020 campaign, which is as relevant today as when it was produced last summer. It showcases our wide-open spaces and touts North Dakota as a place where you can follow your curiosity, not the crowds.”
Part of that campaign is what Gov. Doug Burgum announced on May 7. In partnership with AAA of North Dakota and North Dakota Council on the Arts, Burgum launched the 2020 North Dakota Governor’s Photo Contest for Travel and Tourism.
The contest, which is open through Aug. 31, celebrates the talents of North Dakotans and the appeal of the state’s wide-open spaces. Photographers are asked to respect physical distancing, closures and executive orders in place while gathering imagery.
“The images captured for the Governor’s Photo Contest for Travel and Tourism will help us show the story that we have been telling, that North Dakota is a great place to live, work and do business,” Burgum said.
Otte Coleman said looking ahead to this summer’s travel season, much of its success will depend on travel restrictions being loosened in the region’s target states and Canada.
“This is another reason we are encouraging North Dakotans to travel in-state this summer,” she said. “We believe that North Dakota is positioned well for recovery. Our assets have always been the great outdoors -- and consumer research shows hiking, biking and enjoying time outside will be the first activity travelers feel is safe.
“We have great outdoor resources across the state and lead the nation with the largest National Grasslands and the most National Wildlife Refuges in the US. We have also focused our marketing close to home for many years, which should be to our advantage, as travelers plan their summer road trips.”
Hagen told Prairie Business that South Dakota has a lot to promote, including its iconic Mount Rushmore.
“Our message is one of inspiration showcasing South Dakota's ‘Great Faces, Great Places,’ our wide-open spaces and big blue sky and our glacial lakes and rivers and the Black Hills National Forest,” he said, listing off a number of attractions. “We’re just being very inspirational with what we're showing to potential visitors.”
During National Travel and Tourism Week, May 3-9, the state focused on its online marketing efforts, knowing that safety and caution must still be the norm during the pandemic.
Hagen said: “We have no current calls to action. We're not telling anyone to book now or plan now. If they want to get a vacation guide or request a vacation guide they can do that, but our message has been stay at home, stay safe, and when the time is right, great places will be waiting for you.
“That is a new campaign that we've developed – great places are waiting. We have yet to deploy it in our target markets; the time just isn't right. But as we continue to monitor consumer sentiment and we start to see that visitors are interested in taking that next step, such as in terms of being inspired and wanting to learn more and maybe even planning a future vacation, that message will pick up a notch or two."
Hagen also said President Donald Trump likely will be visiting Mount Rushmore this year for its Independence Day celebration, perhaps another darw for tourism in the state. That event will take place July 3, according to a news release from Gov. Kristi Noem’s office.
“This year, after more than a year of diligent efforts, we’re finally bringing fireworks back to Mount Rushmore,” Noem said in the prepared statement.
The Obama Administration shut down fireworks at the national park in 2009 because of fears of growing fire danger in a forest that had been impacted by pine beetles, according to reports at the time.
In late 2018 then Gov.-elect Noem raised the idea of bringing back the fireworks, and in May 2019 she, along with the Department of Interior, agreed to bring them back to the national monument.
“There’s truly no better place to celebrate America’s birthday,” she said.
Hagen said the department is doing everything it can now to promote the future of travel and tourism in the Mount Rushmore State and looks forward to the industry's rebound.
As it continues its message to draw travelers and in other ways further enhanced its marketing efforts, he said: "It will be inspiring to take that next step.”