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Five members of the My Place executive team smile and pose with South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard.

Great Faces and Great Places

Multi-day conferences can be exhausting, sometimes competitive, and yes, boring. I’ve been to plenty, from national real estate gatherings to news organization conferences.

But there was a different feel to the Jan. 21-23 South Dakota Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Pierre. It was more like a happy reunion with old friends. And as the days went on, some of us realized that besides our renewed friendships, we collectively are ambassadors for the state, the face-to-face contact point with lots of those tourists. We are the meeters and greeters, helping people who spend their time and money here see what we have to offer.

While I knew people at the conference, I also met many new contacts who will be a welcome addition to my work toolbox. Of the 526 attending the conference this year, there were 117 first-time attendees, double last year’s number.

Those weren’t the only record numbers. During talks by state officials we learned that South Dakota’s tourism industry has grown again for the 10th straight year, reaching a record level of tourists. Visitor spending is up, too, providing a positive impact on the state’s economy.

South Dakota welcomed 14.5 million visitors during 2019, an increase of 3.1 percent, according to an annual study done by Tourism Economics. That’s the highest growth percentage the state has experienced since 2014.

While it may look like all fun and lots of picture taking, tourists spend money, supporting the state and its businesses, last year spending $4.1 billion, an increase of 2.8 percent over the previous year. Their spending flowed through the economy and contributed $2.75 billion in gross domestic product – the GDP — accounting for 5.2 percent of the state’s economy, according to the state’s Department of Tourism.

That makes the governor happy.

“Tourism in South Dakota is a job-creating, revenue-generating industry that plays a vital role in supporting the state’s economy year after year,” said South Dakota’s Gov. Kristi Noem.

“It also has a much larger impact beyond visitor-spending dollars. These visitors fall in love with our state, and many of them decide to move here, start a business here, or retire in our great state.”

The numbers are great considering that 2019’s weather was not so great.

“Even with massive flooding and the adverse weather we faced in our state and the region, 2019 was a better year than we thought it was going to be,” said James Hagen, Secretary of the Department of Tourism. “The spring snowstorms, flooding, and a struggling ag economy did result in fewer visitors to our national and state parks, lower hotel occupancy in the Black Hills, and less revenue in certain communities.”

But Hagen said fewer visitors in some regions was balanced by the growth of visitors to other areas and businesses across the state, demonstrating the resiliency of South Dakota’s tourism industry. While residents may not know it, visitors help their bottom line, too, he said.

In 2019, tourism generated $308 million in state and local tax revenue. Without tourism in South Dakota, each household would pay an additional $890 more in taxes each year, Hagen said.

If you want to know more nuts and bolts numbers, the state has a detailed report online in its 2019 Economic Impact Figures.

A mix of My Place staff both from headquarters and properties had a front-row seat to hear those numbers, and conference speakers. We sponsored the opening session’s Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group, who mixed humor with a detailed knowledge of global, national and regional economic performance. The Baltimore speaker is known as the economist with a personality — he drew a warm reception.

There were lots of other speakers and break-out sessions on many subjects, and meals and snacks served between.

Between session people crowded around our booth, many asking about our beginnings, success, and growth. Ngoc Thach, Director of Public Relations for My Place, said it isn’t uncommon for the brand to receive franchising inquiries from previous guests, but this occurred repeatedly at the conference this year. It’s the “South Dakota” in us that can immediately recognize the unique value proposition, she said.

The conference ended with a flashy awards dinner with Gov. Noem as MC. And unlike those TV Hollywood awards shows, the recipients here were genuine, with heart-felt “thanks” and some with real tears for being selected and honored. There were five individuals, two businesses, and two South Dakota communities honored at the banquet.

After good-byes, the My Place Hotels of America team packed bags, stashed our lanyards with conference tags away to hang in our offices back in Aberdeen, and hit the road between Pierre and home. Aside from a trove of business cards, my computer bag holds a stash of new pens from the booths, another way to contact the people we met.

We worked to be sure they remember My Place, and know our roots. “While about 100 (hotel) brands have been launched since 2014, only one comes from South Dakota,” Thach said.

“The state is not only where we were founded and headquartered, it’s a part of our DNA,” she said. “So, it was incredible to hear how that story has connected with the people we share so much with. Whether they were guests, potential franchisees, or sometimes both, we had a blast discussing the ways My Place can be theirs too.”