Despite the challenges over the past year caused by the coronavirus pandemic, South Dakota still attracted some 12.6 million visitors in 2020, who in total spent $3.4 billion while they were in the state, according to Gov. Kristi Noem.

Noem, who addressed an in-person and virtual crowd during the South Dakota Governor’s Conference on Tourism in January, said 2020’s visitors number was a decline of 13% from the year previous and cumulative visitor spending was down 18%.

“A lot of credit goes to all of you,” Noem said, thanking business leaders across the state, as well as her staff including Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen, for helping South Dakota’s tourism industry. “You fought to create opportunities for your businesses, for your communities and for our state. And while other cities and states estimated visitor spending losses of as much as 50%, South Dakota was able to finish strong.”

Noting visitors’ economic contributions to the state, she said that in 2020, “that was a big win. You not only outperformed other states, you outperformed industry expectations. … Now, in one of the most challenging years our state has ever seen, you're able to keep things rolling. And our state is so thankful that you did this, because now it's clearer than ever that travel matters to South Dakota.”

Hagen, who interviewed with Prairie Business a few days after the conference, said the state’s plan for tourism in 2021 is similar to its 2020 plan.

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The theme for the state’s campaign this year is “Go Great Places,” he said, a tweak from last year’s “Great Places are Waiting.”

“We're optimistic about 2021 as we look at surveys that are being conducted. According to the Consumer Sentiment Survey, travelers are starting to feel much more optimistic about traveling, they're feeling more optimistic about the state of the world, about the state of the pandemic. I do believe that the vaccines are helping with that state of mind.”

He said a lot of indicators point to June, July and August when more visitors are considering taking trips to the Mount Rushmore State. Hagen said the new campaign will hit some of the traditional platforms, including television and cable buys, digital marketing efforts, and print advertising.

“But with all that being said, the most important thing to us is that we're really closely watching what consumers are sending in, how they're feeling about travel,” he said. “Our message will occur when we feel it's right and when consumers are saying it is right. Ultimately what we're conveying is that when the time is right for you, Great Places are waiting.”

Hagen said the state receives visitors from all over the world -- and it’s not just to the state’s iconic Mount Rushmore that they’re visiting. The national memorial had around 2 million visitors last year, but for the first time in its history so did Custer State Park.

In total, the number of people who visited state parks in South Dakota, was more than 8 million for 2020, an increase of 31%, he said. Over the past couple of years the target audience for its marketing campaign has been closer to home, those potential visitors in regions of the upper Midwest, Hagen said, but noting it still attracted visitors from many other states.

“One thing that we consistently find is that South Dakota really is very appealing to all Americans in all 50 states,” he said. “We have the national parks, the national memorials, the history and the culture that are really appealing. We really are the ultimate road trip, because we've got some of the most famous roadside attractions in the world.”

Other notable numbers according to the state’s economic impact report include hotel occupancy, which averaged 46.3% for the year, surpassing the national average of 44.7%. In total, 3.9 million hotel room nights were booked in 2020, and some 883,000 room nights were booked on AirBNB or Homeaway in 2020, a 22.3% increase.

One significant decrease (48%) was airport arrivals, which totaled 408,000 at Sioux Falls and Rapid City Regional Airports.

North Dakota

If there was a way to describe 2020, Sara Otte Coleman, director of Tourism and Marketing for the state of North Dakota, said it was a “different animal for us last year with the pandemic,” noting how hospitality and tourism businesses were disproportionately impacted because of travel and other restrictions.

Those challenges continue to be noticed this year. In January, the state noticed some $1.3 billion in lost visitor spending, she said, partly attributable to the lost Canadian passenger vehicle trips because of the border closure.

“That definitely impacted us dramatically,” Coleman said.

For at least part of last year, North Dakota focused its marketing campaign in-state in an effort to entice residents to travel and explore within the Peace Garden State. Later in the year it pivoted to attract more out-of-state visitors, and this year’s marketing efforts will be something similar.

The Red River offers some great recreational opportunities, including this segment of the river in Grand Forks, N.D.
The Red River offers some great recreational opportunities, including this segment of the river in Grand Forks, N.D. Image: Greater Grand Forks Convention & Visitors Bureau

“We just postponed it a bit and had really good results from the marketing campaign,” Coleman said. She said the state saw a 52% increase in its website traffic last year, attracting visitors from most of all 50 states.

“I think what's probably the most remarkable is that 92% of our visitors were first-time visitors,” she said. “These are people who have never been to our website before, so that was good.”

Coleman said in 2020 $3.5 million in room nights were booked in North Dakota hotels, down from about $5 million in 2019.

“We really do feel that number would have been much worse if we weren't aggressively out there talking about safe opportunities here around the state,” she said. “That's kind of where we ended the year. We weren't going to market in Canada last year, and so we took those dollars and kind of repurposed them in the state and (shifted the campaign to) the border strategies. We really bolstered up content and pushed scenic drives and road trips because we knew that was what was trending. And those will continue to trend through 2021.”

Visitor numbers at North Dakota state parks, unlike national parks, were up dramatically in 2020, Coleman said.

“I think we saw pretty solid good traffic on our trails, our lakes and rivers, and even our park trails within cities,” she said.

Minnesota

Minnesota’s outdoor attractions did well in 2020, according to state Tourism Director John Edman. He said the state this year is focusing on the availability of outdoor activities within the state instead of on specific destinations.

“Since the start of the pandemic, according to Oxford economics, we've lost about $7 billion in sales of the leisure and hospitality industry,” he said. “There were a lot of people who were interested in our resorts, lakes and campgrounds, and a little more interest in small town activities. Because of that there are certain pockets of the state that did well, and pockets that did not do as well, particularly in the metro area with the loss of conventions, theaters, and sporting events, and things like that.”

Minneapolis and St. Paul were significantly impacted. The state is hopeful for a gradual recovery, Edman said, but different segments will notice that recovery differently than others.

“The leisure market is going to come back a lot faster than, say, the business side of travel or the international side of travel,” he said.

Minnesota this year plans to market the many activities there are to do in the state instead of specific tourist destinations.
Minnesota this year plans to market the many activities there are to do in the state instead of specific tourist destinations. Image: Courtesy of Explore Minnesota

This year the state is encouraging people to plan early for their summer trips, telling them to imagine the fun and relaxation they can experience in Minnesota. A theme this year: “Find Your True North,” all the time focusing on things that people can do safely in Minnesota.

“We're basically using the phrase ‘Summer Safely in Minnesota,’” he said. “We’re trying to be aware that the timing has to be right for the consumer, the right time for the industry, and so we're kind of gradually getting back to some of the marketing that we've done a little more aggressively in the past. But it's going to be a very different message and a different kind of recovery than what we've seen in the past.”

He said consumer confidence goes a long way in helping 2021 get on the books.

“I see a continuation of a lot of what we saw last summer. I think consumer confidence in their own health is going to greatly impact travel,” Edman said, noting that as more people get vaccinated that confidence will likely increase.

“You're going to see more and more people wanting to get out. I've talked to a couple of the big resorts here in Minnesota and they're saying that they're already booking for this summer. It's indicative that people still are going to be cautious about traveling too far, that they're going to want to do things that are safe, things they can do within their own state. Those kinds of activities that really cater to that are the ones that I think are going to do particularly well.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com.