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Tourism department sells scenic SD with ads, social media

Travelers stop and walk the grounds Thursday afternoon at the Chamberlain rest area in Chamberlain. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

Nearly 500 miles from South Dakota’s border, the Rushmore State was shown in prime position. It was behind home plate at Major League Baseball stadium Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wis., as the Milwaukee Brewers took on their rivals, the Chicago Cubs. On the padding behind home plate during an April early season series, a banner displayed Mount Rushmore, with “South Dakota” written in cursive script. The promotional banner was visible on TV more than 850 times during the threegame weekend series, accounting for more than two hours of television time. The advertising campaign during the threegame series cost about $35,000. It also included a booth in the stadium’s concourse to provide travel information and a 30-second advertisement on the video board before the game.

To some, the banner may have seemed out of place. It’s not every day a banner at an MLB ballpark is viewed behind home plate, enticing onlookers to visit South Dakota’s landmarks and attractions.

But that’s right where South Dakota Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen wants to be.

“You probably couldn’t miss it,” Hagen said this week in an interview with The Daily Republic. “Every time there was a batter at the plate, we were there.”

South Dakota is the fifth-smallest state in the United States by population, but has the 20th largest tourism budget in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.

The advertising method at the ballpark was unique and direct — both of which fi t the state’s strategy to get visitors from the Midwest to South Dakota and create buzz in markets that are mostly new to the state’s ad dollars in Milwaukee and Chicago.

The South Dakota Department of Tourism will spend $8.1 million on market- ing in 2014, most of which will be directed at potential visitors in markets such as Minneapolis, Kansas City, Des Moines and Omaha. The intention is to get visitors to the main attractions of South Dakota: Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, the Corn Palace, Sturgis and its nationally known pheasant hunting opportunities.

Even more than the state-level marketing employees, the small-town businesses owners, the restaurants, hotels and “mom-and-pop shops” are what really make the state’s tourism efforts successful, Hagen said.

“They’re passionate about the state,” he said. “We have so much to offer and people care. They want to share what we have in South Dakota.”

Those early season advertising efforts set the stage for this time of year, because July is the state’s most common vacation month for visitors, followed by June, based on surveys of travelers taken last year at the state’s visitor centers.

The state splits the $8.1 million in a number of ways. They include television and print advertisements, social media and digital advertising, promotions, research and international marketing, including a consortium with North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming to market the region to Europe and Australia. The national advertising is found mostly in publications such as Midwest Living and Better Homes and Gardens, and targeted campaigns in National Parks Magazine and Yellowstone Journal.

And there’s proof the marketing is paying off for the state.

Almost 17 million people stayed in South Dakota in 2013, up from the 16.4 million in 2012, based on Department of Tourism Research. That number is figured based on total stays, or the number of people in a party such as a family of four and how many times they stay. A family of four that stays in the state for two nights would be counted as eight total stays.

Much of the state’s tourism budget is funded by a seasonal tax of 1.5 percent and is assessed on the gross receipts of hotels, campgrounds, vehicle rentals, spectator events or visitor intensive businesses and applies from the months of June, July, August and September. That was expected to produce $9.1 million in revenue for the state. The state also receives taxes from the gaming facilities in Deadwood — about $3 million last year.

Visitor business

Everyone has a different reason for visiting the state.

Al and Carol Hufschmidt, of Cleveland, Ohio, are in South Dakota for its national parks. On Thursday, they were at the Chamberlain Visitor Information Center off Interstate 90, overlooking the Missouri River.

“This is quite the view from here,” Al said, looking to the west.

During a three-week span, they plan to spend time in the Badlands and later in the Black Hills before making their way to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

“We love the national parks,” Carol said.

The couple visited the Missouri River after becoming enamoured with the route of Lewis and Clark.

“It’s really amazing when you consider how long and how far they traveled,” Al said.

Gary Heisz was also headed west. He was traveling with his wife, his daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren on the way to a wedding in the western part of the state. They left at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday from their home in Prairie du Chien, Wis. He estimated it was his first trip to South Dakota in 20 years, and they planned to visit Mount Rushmore, among other locations.

Heisz said he remembered seeing a magazine advertisement to visit South Dakota, and said he’s not surprised there’s strong competition for tourism dollars among states.

“People are looking to travel and there’s always somewhere to go,” he said.

Hagen said South Dakota will always have to market what it has to offer.

“I think there’s only a few states where you think about them and there’s no question what they’re known for,” he said.

On their way back home to Blue Earth, Minn., Reid and JoAnn Ellis were enjoying a packed lunch in Chamberlain with their two daughters and their dog, Amigo.

They’re regular visitors to the western portion of the state because that’s where JoAnn’s parents live.

“It’s interesting because we really have seen a bunch of different license plates on this trip,” JoAnn said, as her daughters rattled off the states they’d seen, from Texas to California. “In the last few years, I think because of the economy, it was primarily Minnesota and Iowa and that’s basically it.”

Hagen said for all of the vacation options people have, a family road trip is still good business.

“We’re still a drive market,” he said. “People have always been willing to hop in the car and come to South Dakota. I don’t know that’s ever really gone away because we have such great attractions for a road trip.”

The state has also become a re-destination, so to speak, for some families, where parents take their children to revisit sites they remember from their youth, Hagen said.

“They were here as kids and they want share that experience with their children as a family,” he said.

Bird budget

It’s less than 100 days until pheasant season open s in South Dakota. Any visitors to the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website can see that, with a large shotgun shell-shaped countdown clock ticking off the time until the new season starts in mid-October.

When summer ends, the state’s second tourism season begins in earnest to bring orange-clad hunters to the state.

CVB Marketing Director Katie Knutson said the effort to get all types of visitors never stops, but the city’s welcoming organization rolls out the “orange carpet” for hunting visitors, including delivering popcorn balls to hunters who stop in the city. On the day before the season opens, the CVB hands out items such as field kits or gun-cleaning materials.

“We have a lot of repeat offenders,” Knutson said, of the visitors to the area.

Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Colorado are the top five states to purchase South Dakota’s non-resident pheasant licenses. An emphasis for Mitchell has been a billboard campaign in Minnesota, advertising Mitchell’s hunting prowess in previous years.

“We send hunting materials all over the country about hunting in the area,” Knutson said. “We always have a lot of interest.”

The state plans to spend money in leading outdoors magazines, including a close relationship with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever magazines and has a program that allows small communities to get grant funding to market themselves around hunting seasons with a “Rooster Rush” campaign.

Knutson said the city continues to work to separate itself from other locations in the state, but will always have what can be considered a trump card.

“The good thing is that we’re on the interstate and we’re known everywhere for the Corn Palace,” Knutson said.

Hagen said the Corn Palace remains among the state’s most recognizable attractions. A 2012 survey showed it was No. 2 when it came to online inquiries about places to visit in the state. Mount Rushmore was the top-searched item for South Dakota.

“We’ll always have work to do, but people across the nation know Mitchell,” she said.

Social connection

For all the work to get a visitor into the state, the interaction doesn’t stop there. Talk about South Dakota on social media, and you’ll likely get a response from Katlyn Richter, responsible for the state’s social media accounts.

“If someone mentions South Dakota on Twitter, for example, we’ll definitely try to reach out to them and let them know that we’re happy to have them here,” she said.

If a visitor who uses social media is going on a road trip through the state and mentions a landmark or attraction, Richter will often offer suggestions on where to go next, such as stopping at Wall Drug or the Corn Palace, working like a digital customer service representative.

“It creates that one-on-one connection that we really can’t get otherwise, and really allows us to build a personal connection there,” she said.

Working for the Department of Tourism, she’s watched social media for four years.

“It has certainly gotten much larger,” she said.

The state is encouraging visitors to use the hashtag “#HiFromSD” while on their trip to the state, whether that’s tagging photos on Instagram or tweeting. Photos tagged on social media with that phrase show up on the state’s website of the same name, hifromsd.com.

“It makes it feel more real,” Richter said. “It makes it feel more authentic and it doesn’t feel staged. They’re all having experiences and seeing them in one location is pretty cool.”

Hagen said there’s nothing like a third-party endorsement, especially one coming from the millennial generation, typically described as ages 25 to 34.

“When you have people that are posting ‘Look at me at the Badlands’ or ‘Look at me at the World’s Only Corn Palace,’ that’s a recommendation that goes a long ways,” he said.

The hashtag “#HiFromSD” has been shared 2,207 times in the last two months since the campaign started, and Richter said that’s translated to the potential of reaching 2 million users on Twitter and nearly 250,000 users on Instagram. Richter said the department will likely implement a social media campaign for the hunting season as well.

The state also has its popular Mount Rushmore mascots. The four mascots represent the four faces of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. During the spring, the mascots made a trip to Chicago and got on local television shows for some key exposure and managed national publicity on NBC’s “TODAY” show, hobnobbing with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford. Last year, the mascots visited 14 cities in eight Midwest states, most notably Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago and Milwaukee. The tourism department said it met more than 250,000 people in person with the mascots.

For all the time spent to draw visitors, Hagen said the role of selling the state is a constant process.

“We always hear two things from people when they visit South Dakota,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘We had no idea your state was so beautiful,’ and they’ll say, ‘We had no idea there was so much to see here.’ That’s a great thing for our state to be known for.”

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