Mostly strong tourism season reported

Nathan Steele

Memorial Day, Independence Day, Gold Discovery Days, the Rally and Labor Day and almost  all of the other golden days of summer have all come and gone. Gone with them are many of the millions of annual tourists who come to visit the area, but not without leaving their mark on local businesses, parks and attractions.
This year seems to be a bit hit or miss. Some business report lessened visitation, while others are just as busy as ever—even on par with record years.
“Overall, year-to-date travel indicators show a healthy uptick in visitor spending with a dip in visitation,”  said Katlyn Svendsen, senior director, global public relations and content services at Travel South Dakota.
In some cases, that increased spending is making up for the lag in visitation.
Julien Starr, owner of Beaver Creek Campground west of Custer, says they’ve experienced more of a quiet year this year. He attributes the slow year to national trends of higher gas prices, higher inflation and higher costs of living in general.
“On the world front, higher prices affect business on a local level,” said Starr.
“Consumers are still highly sensitive to pricing, so it will be critical that we stay competitive as an affordable destination,” said Svendsen.
The campground saw a 12 percent drop in occupancy this year, but Starr said it still has a lot of regulars. Many of those people are second and third generation customers who come back to continue family traditions. These customers are important in the slower years.
He says the summer months of June, July and August were the busiest months, which tracks with previous years.
In his 30-plus years in the business, Starr has noticed cycles in the industry. He says that when visitation is down, it usually ticks back up in following years as people save their money for future vacations when costs are high and go when it becomes less expensive again.
While numbers may be trending down at some locations, “that doesn’t seem to be the case for us,” said Krystal Hegerfeld, owner of the A Walk in the Woods and the Custer Wolf, which she owns with her husband Tommy Hegerfeld.
Custer Area Chamber of Commerce director Dawn Murray had a similar assesment of the summer. Despite higher costs this year, visitors still came out and spent their money in Custer.
“A lot of the things we were worried about for this season really didn’t seem to have as much impact as we were all worried they would,” said Murray.
“As far as last year goes, 2022 was our best season on record for the Custer Wolf and A Walk in the Woods, and we’re on par this year for last year’s numbers,” said Hegerfeld.
“July is always just a crazy month, and I think there’s not a lot of room to grow Julys,” said Hegerfeld.
“Our busiest month is always July. This year, June was really giving it a run for its money. June was a fantastic month,” said Hegerfeld. June was also good for hotel demand, and  South Dakota had some of the best occupancy rates in the country that month.
“In terms of hotel demand, June was South Dakota’s strongest month, increasing year-over-year room demand by 2.4 percent. In fact, South Dakota came in as the fourth best performing state in the country in terms of average occupancy for that month,” said Svendson.
While June and July are about as busy as they can get, “our shoulder season is really where we can see some growth,” said Hegerfeld. “If we have good weather in the spring and good weather in the fall, it’s just going to continue to get stronger.”
September is a promising month. The fall season is deemed by some industry professionals as “newly weds and nearly deads” season as this time of year is more popular with older and retired visitors, as well as young couples, many of them enjoying honeymoons.
“September is always our second busiest as far as revenue. There’s fewer people, but they have more time to spend, more money to spend,” said Hegerfeld.
Another area for growth is during the Rally, said Hegerfeld.
“I hate to say it, but during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally we see a huge drop in visitorship [and] revenues compared to the every other time of the summer and even the shoulder season,” she said.
She said this has been the case “every year consistently.” This year, Murray also noticed that “in the middle of Rally it kind of died off.”
“It’s really just kind of a killer. I’m hoping that we as a community can figure out what to do to tap into that Sturgis revenue in a new way or look elsewhere during that time for other streams of visitorship,” said Hegerfeld.
Chief of interpretation at  Jewel Cave National Monument, Aimee Murillo said that overall this summer tracks pretty similarly to last summer, with just a few differences.
“This is only my second summer here, and it paralleled last summer visitation-wise in many ways,” said Murillo. “We had slightly less staffing than last year but managed to get as many people in the cave as we did last year in May, July and August for our Scenic and Discovery Tours.
In June we had less people in the cave than last year on those tours, and overall for the summer less people on our Historic Lantern Tours and Wild Caving Tours since we offered those less frequently per day or week.”
Like in other places, Murillo is looking for a strong shoulder season  that extends past the end of summer.
“[The] busiest times were June and July, though August and September have continued to be decently busy,” said Murillo. “It does seem like the summer season continues further into fall so interested to see how busy September and October are as well.”
“The department’s latest research is showing a positive outlook for shoulder season travel in South Dakota. The Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup continues to be a huge draw for visitors from around the county every fall along with our state and national parks,”
According to Murray, the strong shoulder season has already begun. “It’s cranking right now,” she said. “The group of people that like to travel when there’s no children is getting to be a larger group. Those are the people that have the discretionary funds to travel”.
The spring shoulder season was also strong, said Murray.
“March and April were pretty good in Custer. Restaurant Week was out of this world,” she said. Murray reported that even the February sales tax revenues were quite strong.
Murray also noticed foreign visitation come back up since the onset of Covid.
“Custer and the Black Hills specifically was a big draw to the foreign travel market. It seems to me that we’re finally getting those back,” said Murray.
Murray said this summer has seen many more pins added to the chamber map from around the world. Since the pandemic, those areas were “barren.”
As for next year, there are many factors that can impact the season, but there’s plenty of optimism in the air.
“It’s pretty optimistic for what next year will bring. We have quite a few new businesses in town. That only helps draw people to our community when we have more to offer,” said Murray.
In the national parks, Murillo also expects visitation to increase in coming years, although it comes in waves.
“Visitation to national park sites seems to be in waves based on what's going on elsewhere, and I think over the next few years we’ll see an uptick in visitation,” said Murillo.


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