2021 tourism season rated a ‘10’

Ron Burtz

With Custer City sales tax figures rivaling banner year 2016, most travel and hospitality businesses are giving the 2021 tourism season a solid 10 out of 10 rating.
Custer City finance officer Laurie Woodward reported the city’s one-third-cent bed, board and booze (BBB) tax is up 79 percent though July over 2020 figures. Woodward said the massive increase is due in part to the fact that some of the city’s hotels were not open last year because of COVID-19. However, the 2021 figures still represent a 50 percent increase over 2019.
A similar increase is seen in overall city sales tax revenues. Woodward told the Custer City Council last week sales tax receipts are up 35 percent through July compared with 2020. The month of July alone saw a 65 percent rise over the same month last year.
She said this year’s sales tax figures are on par with 2016.
On hearing the figures, Janet Boyer, owner of Pounding Fathers Restaurant and Mt. Rushmore Brewing Co., exclaimed, “That year was huge! So, if that’s true, every one of us really did have a banner year.”
Boyer said her businesses saw an “absolutely huge” increase over 2020.
“In the beginning we were up 78 percent,” said Boyer, noting that as the season progressed her businesses maintained a 70 percent increase over last year, which was excellent for a  new business. (This year was the third season for Pounding Fathers and the fourth for the brewery and tasting room.)
Noting it typically takes between four and six years to build a restaurant, Boyer said, “We’re very happy with the numbers we’ve had.”
Meanwhile, a few blocks down Mt. Rushmore Road, Cherish Baker, owner of Baker’s Bakery, gives this year’s tourism season a solid 10.
“Unbelievable,” she said of this year’s traffic. “I’ve never seen anything like it in the 15 years I’ve run this place.”
She said receipts are up at least 30 percent over 2020, which was actually a better year than 2019, even though she lost an entire month because of COVID.  
“I had to pick up another supplier just to get food delivered on Mondays,” said Baker.
She said her mornings were so busy she sometimes had to cut off serving breakfast early (It usually goes to 11 a.m.) because the place would fill up at 10:30 a.m.
While restaurants and campgrounds appear to be the main benefactors of the travel surge, the motel industry is not far behind.
“We’d rate our season a nine,” said Leah Scott, COO of Custer Hospitality which operates five motels plus Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort in Custer.
Scott called 2021 “a great rebound season,” noting business started strong right out of the gate and held up through July.
“A random Wednesday was just as busy as any Saturday,” noted Scott.
Custer State Park visitor services program manager Kobee Stalder also gives the 2021 travel season high marks.
“It has been a great year so far,” said Stalder, “but the season isn’t over for us quite yet. We still have the annual Governor’s Buffalo Roundup and our shoulder season into the fall. If we were going to rate it, it would be a 10. We’re on pace to set another visitation record, so that is exciting, but it’s just not us. Everywhere in the Black Hills has done really well this season and it’s definitely a community-wide effort.”
Stalder said nearly 2.1 million people visited the park during the 2020 season.
“This year through August we’ve already seen 1.7 million visitors, which is up over 300,000 visitors from 2020’s August year-to-date numbers. If we continue to see the same visitation, we will see close to 2.3 million visitors.”
At Jewel Cave National Monument, new chief of interpretation Aimee Murillo said, while she doesn’t have a reference point to gauge how this season stacks up against previous years, activity at the park is strong even as the attraction has moved into its shoulder season.
She said, even though the cave’s elevators are still out of order, tours are typically selling out before 1 p.m. Murillo said nearby Wind Cave, where the elevators are working again after two seasons, is having an extremely busy year as well.
While the visitor numbers at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial are not as outstanding as other sites are reporting, acting chief of interpretation Blaine Kortemeyer said visitation is up 15-18 percent over 2020. He said the increase is to be expected since 2020 was a “full COVID and full construction” year at the memorial with the museum and other areas completely shut down. He said this year’s visitation numbers are in line with 2018 figures, but are down approximately 200,000 from 2016. He said more natural parks like Yellowstone are seeing huge increases in visitation, however.
Amanda Allcock, director of sales at Crazy Horse Memorial, who also gives this year a “10+,” said July appeared to be the busiest month, but September, “with the return of many tour buses and individuals, will be strong.”
Ironically, Stalder, Custer Area Chamber of Commerce director Dolsee Davenport and others credit the COVID pandemic with being a big part of the reason for the higher numbers of people traveling to the Black Hills.
“Last year during COVID, the outdoors were just about the only place you could visit,” said Stalder, “so families had that reconnection with outdoor recreation. They remembered how enjoyable it is to go fishing, camping, hiking, to sit down and have a picnic, so this year they wanted to do more of that and get back outside again.”
Davenport, who also said this year’s travel season is “definitely a 10,” agrees.
“The phrase we heard a lot this winter was, ‘pent up demand for travel,’” she said. “After not traveling last year, many people had a pent-up demand for travel this summer. Also, the Black Hills are a great location for a road trip, so it was a good option for people who still didn’t want to fly. And of course, our wide-open spaces make it a desirable location for people who want to get away from crowds and out into nature.”
Scott also believes the lockdowns of 2020 made an impact on this year’s travel season.
“We felt travelers were ready to resume travel after having been pent up the previous season,” said Scott. “South Dakota continued to allow freedoms not all areas were able to take advantage of.”
Davenport stated the season seemed to start early.
“This year, I think we saw higher numbers earlier than ever before,” she said. “Before Memorial Day, downtown looked like the middle of July. Of course, July 4th and Gold Discovery Days weekends were super busy, even busier than we’ve seen in the last several years.”
“July is always our busiest month of the year,” said Stalder, “and normally July 4th is our busiest week/weekend of the season. This year we saw approximately 450,000 visitors that month.”
Boyer said hospitality businesses are in agreement that last year’s open travel season in South Dakota played a major role in this year’s gains.
“As we visit throughout the summer,” said Boyer, “the fact that we were open last summer...that had a very friendly and positive impact. People felt like they were allowed to make their own decisions.”
She  said the fact that more people have moved to the area over the past year has contributed to the growth as well because now their friends and relatives from other states are coming to visit also.
“The word has gotten out that we are open again,” said Boyer. “What we take for granted every day is something highly desirable, especially to certain visitors from across the country.”
Many businesses saw a drop-off of activity and spending during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August.
“We were inordinately busy up until the rally and then it all fell off,” said Boyer. “Just boom.”
She said food and liquor suppliers also noticed the drop in sales, making for “a really slow rally.” Boyer believes the drop occurred because rally-goers stayed in vacation rental homes and didn’t go out to eat as often.
Scott and Baker both noted the unusual rally downturn as well. Boyer said her business has rebounded some since the rally ended, however.
As for developing trends in the travel industry that benefit Black Hills tourism, most cited a move toward driving on vacation rather than flying and a desire to be in the wide open spaces.
“It seems families are getting back to that ‘Great American Road Trip’ again,” noted Stalder, “as we saw visitors from all over the country this year: Maine, New Jersey, New York, the Carolinas, California, and what is incredible is they mostly all drove here with their camper in tow. Americans getting back out and seeing the country from the road, instead of flying is definitely what we have seen over the last two years and I believe that can be backed up by the number of camper and RV sales as well.”
“Camping continues to trend upwards with a certain amount of security that comes with wide open spaces,” agreed Scott.
“Outdoor recreation activities have continued to increase in popularity the last couple of years,” said Davenport. “I think COVID/2020 definitely accelerated that trend because those seemed to be the safest options for people.”
Allcock said she has observed the same trends.
“Americans are still passionate about traveling,” she said. “Many travelers were from over 1,000 miles away and drove to South Dakota. Long distance vacations, not flying, and taking the time to ‘see America’ seems to be the trend.”
If current visitor trends continue, most attractions and businesses are looking forward to greater increases next year.
“It’s exciting and we’re intrigued to see where 2022 will take us,” said Stalder.
“As we look in the rearview mirror to this summer, we’re all going to have a big smile on our faces,” said Boyer. “We really are. We met amazing people. We look forward to next year.”


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