With peak tourist season on the horizon, the South Dakota Department of Tourism is ramping up for another big year, hoping to use new marketing strategies to help attract more visitors to the state and the city of Mitchell.

South Dakota Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen kicked off the event at the Corn Palace and unveiled several new programs his department will be offering this year to help communities boost tourism, which includes cooperative marketing and a la carte programs.

"These programs are designed to attract more visitors from across the country and around the world to experience the many beautiful attractions in South Dakota," Hagen said. "We are trying to work with communities across the state to take a hands-on approach to boosting tourism through utilizing our many attributes in the Department of Tourism."

According to Hagen, the essential goal for the cooperative marketing program is to increase the awareness of South Dakota's communities to reach tourists. In the program, communities can partner with South Dakota Tourism's advertising efforts and get assistance in advertising buys, technology and marketing methods with six-month ad campaigns that can range from $40,000 to $185,000. The a la carte options include partnering with South Dakota Tourism on an individual basis for direct mail, magazine, online and email marketing to potential consumers.

The tourism department's Mike Gussiaas, who is director of global marketing and brand strategy, detailed the unique promotional videos and commercials the Department of Tourism is unveiling this year, which heavily emphasized the Black Hills and West River.

Toward the end of the two-hour session, state tourism representatives opened up the floor for questions from attendees. Mitchell City Council member Susan Tjarks raised a question to Gussiaas, asking why there was a lack of marketing and promotional campaigns for tourist attractions and destinations on the eastern side of the state.

"I feel like there is a lot of attention solely geared toward advertising the Black Hills and western South Dakota, rather than some of the beautiful places and attractions on the eastern side of the state," Tjarks said. "How come there isn't anything about the Corn Palace Festival? And we have some of the best biking trails in the entire state, and I don't see them listed anywhere with you guys."

Gussiaas suggested the city of Mitchell and community members should communicate with the Department of Tourism and provide information regarding leisure activities and attractions in the city.

"Be in touch with us, and let us know that you have the best bike trails, because we then can look for ways to promote them and Mitchell," Gussiaas said to Tjarks. "For us to inspire travel to South Dakota on a big scale, we have to start with our biggest attractions in the state, and that's why you see more marketing on the Black Hills and Badlands."

Hagen then joined the discussion and stressed to Tjarks the importance of the city getting involved in the department's programs, such as the co-op program, which he said the city of Mitchell is not a member of at the moment.

"I think there is a challenge here in Mitchell, because I've heard a lot of mixed emotions from community members about being invested with us," Hagen said. "But Mitchell has a lot to offer for tourism and travel, but we all have to partner at different levels to help your city's tourism."

Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau Tourism and Marketing Director Jen Johnston said there's been a disconnect previously between the city of Mitchell and the state Department of Tourism.

"We need to start developing a working relationship, and we will be a partner next year, and we've already earmarked some dollars for the commitment," Johnston said to Hagen.

More broadly, Hagen provided a forecast for the state's upcoming tourist season this summer, which he said is projected to see a 2 percent travel and leisure growth.

"Our website visits have been reaching record levels, and we continue to see a lot of tourism growth, which is extremely vital to the state's economy," Hagen said, noting tourism generated an estimated $298 million in state and local taxes last year and supported nearly 55,000 jobs.

Hagen emphasized the importance of tourism in the state's economy, as he said visitor spending reached $3.98 billion in 2018, a 2.5 percent increase compared to 2017.

South Dakota Tourism's Kirk Hulstein, who is the industry outreach and development director, provided details of a consumer survey that he said has proved effective for the state. Through online surveys, Hulstein said he's collected a fair amount of valuable data to help identify some of the state's strengths in attracting visitors.

According to Hulstein, agritourism, sports tourism, outdoor recreation and tribal tourism, have been identified as the four key areas of development, which he feels will greatly increase visitors.

"We have an opportunity to increase our visitors in those four areas, and they're unique compared to many other states," Hulstein said.