Tourism officials, journalists explore Vermillion area Event will help promote eastern S.D. across the nation By David Lias
Plain Talk Some special visitors made a whirlwind tour of Vermillion on Thursday, June 4, starting with breakfast at Valiant Vineyards and ending with an afternoon hike up Spirit Mound. In between those two stops, this contingent of South Dakota Office of Tourism officials and freelance journalists visited and toured the National Music Museum in Vermillion and ate a picnic lunch in view of the Missouri River at Clay County Park. The purpose of the trip was to give out-of-state writers and photographers a glimpse of tourist attractions that southeast South Dakota has to offer. The writers, in turn, will spread the word to their readers all across the country by writing stories about the unique experiences they had while in Vermillion and other South Dakota communities. "We're hosting journalists on this trip, so in addition to us seeing everything that there is to offer in the southeast corner of the state, the journalists are also seeing it," said Buddy Seiner, outdoor representative of the South Dakota Office of Tourism in Pierre. "They'll will be writing stories about things that apply to their different publications." Hosting "third party" events similar to what was scheduled last Thursday in the Vermillion area helps the state tourism department stretch its promotional budget. "We don't have a lot of money in our tourism office to promote everything there is in South Dakota. Having the ability to host journalists and have them write about their experiences really helps us promote what's in our back yard in South Dakota," Seiner said. The focus of last week's journey through the corner of the state was outdoor adventure and culture. It's a topic of strong interest to the freelance writers and photographers who accompanied the state tourism staff. "We focused our research on writers who are interested in outdoor adventure and the history and culture of the area," Seiner said. "Because they (the writers) are from Kansas City, for example, doesn't mean that they are writing specifically for that region. They could contribute to a publication in California, for example, so we don't know where the publicity is going to be at any given time. "But's it all good, regardless if it's in Minnesota or California. Any publicity is really good publicity from these guys," he said. While in Vermillion, Emily Currey, film representative from the South Dakota Office of Tourism in Pierre, Seiner, and state Office of Tourism photographer Chad Coppes were accompanied by Rona Distenfeld of R.D. Creative Direct, Inc., Austin, TX, Diana Lambdin Meyer, a writer/photographer for Midwest Living of Parkville, MO, and Mike Whye, a freelance writer/photographer from Council Bluffs, IA. Staff of the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce and Development Company lent assistance to the troupe of journalists and tourism officials by making sure lunch was waiting for them Thursday at the picnic shelter near the river at Clay County Park. The writers' stories will allow people from throughout the nation to learn about regions across South Dakota that are off the beaten path. Currey said the public is demonstrating a desire to explore all of the state instead of driving on Interstate 90 straight to the Black Hills. "More and more people want to see what's off the beaten path," she said. "In South Dakota, we have a lot to offer from the culture and the history and the attractions, and we do our best to promote that in our (tourism) office." Besides Vermillion, the group of journalists and tourism staff spent time last week in Brandon, Garretson, Sioux Falls and Yankton. "We've been all over the southeast region of the state," Currey said. Distenfeld has experienced western South Dakota, having visited the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on her Harley-Davidson. "I was completely taken by the western part of the state; I had no pre-conceived notions about what South Dakota was going to look like. I stayed in Rapid City, and would ride through the Black Hills to Sturgis, and it was simply beautiful," she said. Distenfeld didn't know what to expect when preparing for her visit to eastern South Dakota. She admitted that she never expected to find an attraction like the National Music Museum in Vermillion. "I am so enamored of that place," she said. "I could spend like 14 days in there without leaving. I want to play all of those instruments in there. It is the coolest place, with millions of dollars worth of the coolest, most rare, unusual and interesting instruments that most people have never heard of. "And all of this is in Vermillion," Distenfeld said. "It's not in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. It's here. That place is just amazing." She finds eastern South Dakota attractive for a variety of reasons, from its unique topography and its lakes, rivers and creeks, to its rich heritage. "There is a fun, interesting history about this place that's colorful and you can really get a feel for it because the land is so unspoiled," Distenfeld said. "You can say this is what the state looked like when Lewis and Clark was here. It really hasn't changed that much. A bonus, she said, is South Dakota's beautiful public parks, with camping and other amenities that are either free or at very low cost. "The parks are incredibly inexpensive to get into, and you can rent these cool little cabins for $25," Distenfeld said. "This state is a great place to get introduced to being in the outdoors and having fun." "We try really hard to feature these different areas for the journalists," Seiner said. "We've only been on the interstate once this entire trip, and that was when we were coming down to Vermillion. Featuring things that are in your own backyard is kind of the way that journalism is going, because people are interested in seeing that now. "It's not only important to promote that fact, it's also important for us to know what's available," he said, "so this trip is really good for us in that respect, and it's really good for the journalists because they get a lot of story ideas. Anything unique – anything that hasn't been written about – is fair game to them," he added. "It's something that editors will want to buy for their publications, so we're hoping to leave this journalists with a list of story ideas that they can use throughout the year and years to come, and continue promoting South Dakota just from this one trip." Seiner and Currey grew up in western and northeastern South Dakota, respectively. Naturally, they are familiar with their home state, but have learned from recent experiences that it's easy to find hidden gems when exploring the land of infinite variety. "We've both traveled in all different parts of South Dakota, but it's safe to say there is stuff down here that we've experienced in the last week that I've never experienced before, and I've lived here all of my life," Currey said. "So not only do we want to promote South Dakota to people from out of state, we also want other South Dakotans to get out and explore their own backyards. "There are also new families that have moved to South Dakota," she said, "and we're encouraging them to get out and explore, too. They may not know what's out there, and they can definitely spend a weekend and do all of their family-type things here." Both in-state and out-of-state travelers in the mood for exploring South Dakota have a big advantage, Seiner said. "It's important for us to feature activities that anyone can take part in," he said. "We went out on a tour on the National Missouri Recreational River yesterday, and we learned that there are different programs that allows people to learn what the Missouri River is all about. "The National Music Museum has self-guided tours, and I'm sure if you asked for a tour, the museum staff would give you one," Seiner said. "So having attractions that are accessible for anyone is very important." "And for the most part, almost everything we've visited is free," Currey said. "Meals are always something to budget for, but families can certainly bring their own sack lunches and have a picnic and do their own thing. But, for example, if you're into hiking, our state parks are top notch, with virtually little or no cost involved." A new word has entered the vocabulary of the state Office of Tourism: Staycation. This newly-coined word describes a period of time in which individuals and families take day trips from their home to area attractions. Staycations have achieved high popularity in current hard economic times in which unemployment levels and gas prices are high. "People are staying closer to home," Seiner said, "so South Dakota residents from out west may travel to the eastern part of the state to explore Vermillion or Yankton. People from this part of the state may go out west to explore the Black Hills. And for out-of-state residents, it's probably a little cheaper to drive instead of flying to destination and renting a car." Tourists also want to stretch their dollars, he said, by camping and taking part in free activities that are available across the state. "They aren't eating out as much," Seiner said. "They are bringing sack lunches and a cooler full of food from the grocery store. That saves you tons of money on a trip. They still value their vacation, but they're going to cut back on knick-knacks and food and focus more on having fun and focusing on the attractions that are available."