SD Spotlights Travel Ambassadors

May 9, 2017

South Dakota’s Secretary of Tourism says you should take Friday off. It’s National Travel and Tourism week, and state officials are seizing the opportunity to lure people away from their desks and into the wild. They also celebrate South Dakotans who promote tourism in their everyday work. 

Workers at the South Dakota Department of Tourism have a long week promoting their industry. Secretary Jim Hagen says an expectation remains: employees should use their paid time off.

"And when you take your vacation time, unplug. Get off your cell phone. Stop doing your work emails. Just totally get into a place where you don’t have to worry about any of that," Hagen says. "And for those employees of ours who are doing it, they are coming back refreshed, ready to go, excited to tackle their next project – so we’re seeing it firsthand in the Department of Tourism that it really does work and it is making us more productive."

Hagen is backlit by the gleaming sun bouncing off rushing water at Falls Park. Hagen admits travel contributes coins to state coffers. He says it also promotes family time and offers people space to experience their world.

The tourism leader says travelers rarely encounter travel officials. He says people always meet individual ambassadors for the Rushmore state.

"Whether you’re at the front desk, or you’re working here at the visitor’s center at Falls Park, or you’re someone who’s cleaning rooms in a hotel. It doesn’t matter what you do! You’re the ones who make this all happen," Hagen says.  

The tourism department recognizes eleven South Dakotans for promoting the state in their everyday work. They’re called South Dakota’s Faces of Travel.

The Big Sioux River at Falls Park
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Jeff VanMeeteren has one of those faces. He’s is a Regional Park Manager in southeastern South Dakota. VanMeeteren works in nature.

"Part of my job is to promote camping and outdoor recreation, and, yeah, we want to bring as many visitors as we can here," VanMeeteren says. "We try to do that in a respectful way where we don’t overcapacitate things, bring too many people in, but we’re constantly developing and expanding new areas. The beauty of that is the demand is almost unlimited at times. We just can’t build enough facilities for the folks that want to come here now and enjoy it."

VanMeeteren says that includes canoeing on rivers and camping in state parks. He says it expands to fishing and hunting.

"Bruce [Cull] actually got me into bow hunting many years ago, and I’ve enjoyed that as well throughout my life. What I like about our state is, I like to do things for a period of time and then I switch gears and do something else, and the cool thing is there’s all kinds of variety in our state to do that,"

"You know, from what I remember last, he’s not bad at bow hunting," Bruce Cull says. "Like I said, you gotta respect your elders, and actually I think I’m older…"

Jeff VanMeeteren (center) and Bruce Cull (right) are two of South Dakota's Faces of Travel.
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Cull runs the Field Archery Association in Yankton. It’s a national headquarters, and Cull brings big tournaments to the state.

"World championships all the way down to state championships," Cull says. "And it’s been recognized now and over the years I think it’s recognized by tourism as sports tourism, which it really has been. You know, the economic development impact is huge – the number of people, the cultural diversity communities see. It’s been awesome."

Cull is another face of travel, even though his job is not explicitly attracting people to state land and sights. He says he wants to bring visitors to the Great Plains, because he loves South Dakota.

"I deal with a lot more people internationally than domestically, and when they go, ‘Yankton, where?’ or they go, “South Dakota? That’s all the Dakota Territory, isn’t it?’ – once they get here, the job’s done. When they see what our state has to offer, it’s second-to-none in my opinion."

South Dakotans can encounter adventure in their own backyards, according to Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen. He says adventure awaits – and it just won’t be a week spotlighting travel if he can’t get in one more plug for leaving work behind.

HAGEN: I’m not saying you have to take a week to begin with. Just take a day or two and unplug and just explore South Dakota.
BULTENA: Take Friday off.
HAGEN: Take Friday off! Yeah, why not? 

South Dakota’s latest numbers show the state is on track to meet or exceed last year’s tourism growth in most areas. Below are a few key figures from the SD Department of Tourism.