A wonderful night for awards

By Jeff Smith

Leslie Larsen, left, and Crystal Wiese, right, both received awards at the 2018 Hill City Area Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet.

The night of Saturday, April 21 was the largest event of the year for the Hill City Area Chamber of Commerce, its awards banquet. The event was held at Prairie Berry Winery’s Homestead.

In addition to a business meeting held after a dinner there were seven businesses honored for their hard work and dedication.

The businesses were chosen for their excellence in work, excellence in participation and service in the community.

Dairy Twist was awarded the 2017 Retail Business of the Year. Leslie Larsen accepted the award. She said it was nice to be recognized and they wouldn’t be open without everybody else.

“I’m very thankful and grateful to the community and all my customers,” Larsen said.

For 22 years the place has been the local mom-and-pop ice cream and burger joint.

Crystal Wiese, who spearheaded the efforts of the artificial turf project on the Hill City Elementary playground was given the Community Pride award.

Wiese said that it’s the amazing town that encouraged a crazy idea.

“Kids, businesses, my family all supported it,” Wiese said.

It was also mentioned that the Rustic Ridge Guest Cabins, that  Jim and Crystal Wiese own, is impeccable and always clean.

The 1880 Train Black Hills Central Railroad was given the Employer of the Year award. The 1880 train employs over 60 people during the season. Many people come back every year.

Holli Edwards, manager of the 1880 Train Black Hills Central Railroad, said they are appreciative to be acknowledged.

Hill City Dental took home the Service Business of the Year award.

Linda Flounders, of Newton Fork Ranch received the Victor Jepsen award. 

Like all of the recipients she was dumbfounded and surprised that she received an award.

“It’s really special because Vic Jepsen was a special friend,” Flounders said. “That especially made it great.”

Sue Anderson was given the Chamber Volunteer of the Year award. She works at the Visitor Information Center but also volunteers through Xi  Alpha Chi, Community Lutheran Church and at a lot of community events.

The last award of the night was the Lifetime Achievement award. This award is not given out each year, but rewards individuals for their long-term commitment to Hill City.

Pat Belczak, co-owner of Heart of the Hills Antiques, received this honor.

Before the awards there was a brief presentation from board president Jason Peters and chamber directo Janet Wetovick-Bily about the state of tourism in Hill City.

Wetovick-Bily said the reason the chamber is successful is because of the board.

“We are fiercely dedicated to promoting Hill City at every opportunity,” Wetovick-Bily said.

The theme for the night was partners in excellence.

“We are in partnership with you and our success rests on that partnership,” Wetovick-Bily said.

There are also many partnerships that happen with the chamber of commerce. They partner with tourism associations like the Black Hills and Badlands Tourism Assoc., South Dakota Department of Tourism and many civic partners and a lot of community organizations.

Wetovick-Wily said the chamber membership has held about the same as last year and they are continuing to grow every single day. Recently, five new members were welcomed into the chamber of commerce.

Last year the chamber served around 220 members from the Hill City area. The Hill City chamber is diverse in membership, meaning the businesses not only are around Hill City but they are also from Custer, Keystone and Hermosa.

The first InfoShare meeting, which was held on April 18, had great attendance. Wetovick-Bily said everyone came to hear what everyone was doing.

When everyone is able to cross-promote and cross-refer what the chamber does is greater augmented.

Peters said welcoming everyone to Hill City and outreach to get people here is an important part of what the chamber does.

“We’re competing with some really hot markets,” Peters said.

He said that there has been a great marketing job done with the budget that the chamber has.

Last February, Lawrence & Schiller was hired to spearhead the marketing efforts for Hill City.

“The company provides all the traditional things that an ad agency would do,” Wetovick-Bily said.

This includes design, copywriting and digital strategies. They also make the marketing buys for the chamber. Around $85,000 was dedicated to produce print, digital and social marketing last year.

The gross profit for the Hill City Area Chamber of Commerce was $220,840 and expenses were $232, 465. The ending amount was a minus $11,618.

Last year wasn’t a great year for Hill City but it wasn’t too bad, officials said. The sales tax revenue collected was down 3.5 percent from the previous year. Peters expects to see positive growth this year compared to last  summer. There are more rooms available and one restaurant that was closed last year will be back in service.

Peters said they are going to push chamber members and also the city.

Secondly, they are not going to push people out of town at the Visitor Information Center because the sales tax revenue is needed.

“Those ladies do an excellent job of keeping those folks around town,” Peters said.

People often go to the Visitor Information Center the first time they visit and Peters said the staff does a great job of welcoming them and directing them to chamber member businesses.

Phone calls have increased by 37 percent last year. The total information requests from both the chamber and visitor website was up 65 percent over 2016. There was 886 requests from the websites.

In addition, they received a lot more requests  and leads by advertising in the Yellowstone Journal. The ad promotes a special sweepstakes trip through Hill City. This is done through a partnership with other Hill City businesses. Over 14,500 leads were given through that ad.

The goal for this year is to increase visitation and event attendance as well as increase overnight stays in Hill City.

Last year they turned their attention on inspiring active couples, young families and bucket-listers in the primary markets of Omaha, Neb., Des Moines, Iowa, and the Quad Cities to visit Hill City. The secondary markets were Madison, Wis., Denver, Colo., and Minneapolis, Minn. The measure of the success of those markets include the amount of visitor guide requests sent, website traffic and inquiries from there, as well as digital and social performance. The result is an increase in visitor spending as well as Bed, Board and Booze (BBB) funds  and sales tax revenue.

Overall, the campaign generated more than 6.3 million impressions. The best performances and what people were interested in came from information on events, things to do and dining.

Familizaration studies are also huge in bringing visitors to the area. These are people like in travel media, tour operators and travel agents that come to the area to experience it first-hand.

Midwest Living magazine is going to come to the Hill City and the Black Hills in May. The editor of the magazine is going to be going to the 1880 Train, the Mickelson Trail and all around downtown. There will also be stops at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and the Prairie Berry Winery for lunch.

Four people have left the board of directors of the chamber of commerce from this year to last. Peters is staying on as the president and John Majchrzak will remain the vice president of the board. At the meeting Dawna Kruse became the secretary and Eric Lind became the treasurer.

Peters noted he is excited about Hill City and thinks everyone is heading in the right direction.