South Dakota courts agents on the Net frontier

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outh Dakota's Black Hills region has turned to the Internet to help it attract travel agent business to the state, making information, training and commissionable packages available at a new, agent-only site.

Billed as an "online guide for travel agents," the site, at www.blackhillsagent.com, includes links to booking assistance at the Black Hills Central Reservations Service.

An interactive learning module and test can earn agents continuing education units from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA). The site explains how to gain accreditation as a Black Hills specialist.

The state also is relying on more conventional tools, including an agent reservations line for the Black Hills at (800) 344-7095, an agents-only guidebook and a quarterly travel-trade newsletter.

About 4.5 million visitors flock to this forested region of southwestern South Dakota each year. Long regarded as a classic motor vacation destination, the Black Hills hosts nearly 600 motorcoach tour companies.

Black Hills tourism officials began to rethink their marketing tools after becoming aware that the old reliable family vacation paradigm was being eroded by new market dynamics and trends, such as scarcity of time, multiple minivacations close to home, higher energy costs, single-parent households and fewer kids.

Two years ago, the Black Hills visitor industry began courting airlines and travel agencies as a way to attract affluent, long-haul tourists via fly-drive trips and packaged vacations.

Meanwhile, South Dakota promoters adjusted consumer travel show appearances and consumer magazine and newspaper ads to help create demand for both airline flights and travel agent reservations.

All publications and Web sites now offer details geared toward agents on airlines, vacation packages and central reservations -- all features unseen in Black Hills promotions two years ago.

In August, the Black Hills hired field sales reps to conduct agency calls and trade shows in the Chicago and Dallas markets. Both cities are important feeders into Northwest's and United's major hubs, which are also Black Hills gateways.

The Black Hills is home to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park and the Deadwood frontier gold camp.

Visitors come to enjoy mountain scenery, Old West history, Native American culture, state and national parks, family attractions and abundant outdoor recreation. The Black Hills' Online Guide for Travel Agents debuted July 16.

"Most destination Web sites that target agents are one-dimensional," said Bill Honerkamp, president of the Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Association in South Dakota.

"They mostly provide information about current commissionable packages and area attractions and events only," he said. "Our site goes beyond that by allowing them to also sign up and participate in online training for our destination-specialist program."

Agents navigating the site will learn about Black Hills package vacations, transportation, communities, events and national parks as well as activities billed as "family fun," "outdoor adventure" and "winter fun."

After exploring the site and its links, agents can then click on the Become a Black Hills Specialist icon that provides an opportunity to obtain ICTA continuing-education credits.

Agents are asked 25 questions about the area and become certified specialists by answering a minimum of 20 correctly. "We already have certified more than 200 Black Hills destination specialists in our program," said Honerkamp.

"After the launch of our travel agent Web site, we expect to double the number of agents in our program."

For details on the Black Hills Travel Agent Marketing Program, contact Honerkamp at (605) 355-3600; by fax, at (605) 355-3601, or visit the site.

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