Once upon a time, VIP treatment at the Sturgis motorcycle rally might have meant your buddies slept on the motel room floor and let you have the bed.
Not anymore. These days, if you're willing to pay the price and you know where to look, you can arrive in the Black Hills by private jet, arrange a helicopter transfer to Sturgis, pick up the keys to a luxury motorhome, have your motorcycle delivered to your doorstep, go for a ride with celebrity bikers and end the day by rubbing elbows with rock stars.
The Buffalo Chip Campground is a prime example of the rally's evolution. When the Chip debuted in 1982, it was "a pasture with three strands of barbed wire around it, no water, no power," said owner Rod Woodruff. The business has grown, and so has the list of amenities it offers: a helipad, RV rentals and more, plus camping options to accommodate various tiers of VIPs.
"We have a secret little camping area for stars that like to come and not have the general public know they're here," Woodruff said. "That's probably the highest of VIP treatments (that we offer)."
Some are Chip performers from past years who return as "part of the party." Professional athletes and Las Vegas casino owners have also stayed in the Chip's most exclusive neighborhoods.
For more regular folks, there's Fenske Park, a "very nice area behind the stage," where for a price — which isn't clear from the campground's website — you can pitch your tent in a secured, exclusive enclave where you'll enjoy free beer, free meals and the chance to mingle with celebrities.
Woodruff speculates that having access to celebrities is what prompts most people to choose Fenske Park. "It's a needed service, and it's appreciated," he said.
Fenske Park also provides a host or hostess to attend to campers' needs. If, for example, a diabetic camper needs insulin, the host or hostess can help him find it.
"We're in the hospitality business, and so if somebody needs something and they're here as our guest, then we try to accommodate whatever needs they have," Woodruff said. That includes arranging transportation and having motorcycles and RVs ready (plugged in, music on) when bikers arrive. "A lot of those guys fly in. We're kind of a full-service hospitality operation. At least we try to be."
The Chip's hospitality staff actually includes a retired corporate president with experience hosting royalty and the "Lear jet guys," Woodruff said. "He knows how to treat all these people."
The Buffalo Chip isn't the only campground providing more than basics. Glencoe CampResort advertises "VIP packages" and private parties. Rush-No-More Campground offers "luxury spa sites," which include an RV site with private patio, hot tub and gas grill.
Concert venues, including the Broken Spoke Campground and the Chip, also offer VIP upgrades. For anywhere from $10 to $250 plus the price of a concert ticket, you can get closer to the stage, have access to a private (i.e., less crowded) bar, or have a chance to meet the artists.
Guided motorcycle tours such as the Mayor's Ride and the Legends Ride are another way to get special treatment. Rally Director Brenda Vasknetz said the Mayor's Ride includes about 250 government officials, dignitaries and regular riders who enjoy an escorted tour through the Black Hills. Traffic stops for the ride, and there's even a parking level reserved for the tour at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
"People feel like they're pretty important," Vasknetz said, likening the event to a parade through the Hills. "They recognize you as very important people."
The Legends Ride bills itself as "your chance to hang out with celebrities, world-class bike builders, cigar aficionados and hundreds of fellow riders" on a trip from Deadwood to the Buffalo Chip. Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, comedian Pee-Wee Herman and custom bike builder Arlen Ness have joined the ride in past years.
Each ride costs $150 plus tax, with proceeds going to charitable groups.
For getting attention, though, nothing beats a limousine.
"It's fun to be one of maybe eight or 10 limos rather than one of 300,000 bikes," said Victor Nelson, manager of Diamond Limousine. "We stick out like sore thumbs, and it's fun."
He's had plenty of rock stars in his limos and unmarked vans over the years, and it's not uncommon for Diamond Limo to pick up bikers who fly in on private jets. But Nelson also gets lots of "semi-regular" folks, such as the Canadian business owners who each year reserve a limo to take them to a concert or two.
Having a designated driver isn't the only benefit. "With VIP treatment, they also get quicker transport," Nelson said, adding that his drivers keep constant tabs on area traffic. "We know about six different ways to get them into Sturgis."
Nelson told of pulling up to the Full Throttle Saloon in a limo and being asked whether his group was with Jack Daniels. He said yes.
Actually, "I had a group of girls from Rapid City, but I'm not going to tell them no if they pull me into the VIP area," he admitted. "I was about 16 feet from a bar with the limo. … Those girls from Rapid City were just tickled."
This is the busiest time of year for WestJet, which provides everything from airplane service to catering for private aircraft.
"A lot of the business that we see (is) people coming in on their planes, and sometimes staying for a few days … (or) for the entire week," said longtime owner Don Rydstrom. "They run off to the rally and have a great time, then return to their planes very tired, and climb on and go away."
For the days in between, WestJet can arrange rental cars and motel rooms — sometimes with little advance notice.
"We go all over the place to try to find them a room," Rydstrom said. "And very, very rarely do we not find them a room… (although) they may end up in Wall."
Not long ago, WestJet might have hosted one rally-related plane each year. Now there could be 10 or more, mainly used by business executives.
"The airplanes we see are some of the bigger jets that you'd ever see. Anywhere from three to eight people will get off, depending on the size of the jet, and do their thing," Rydstrom said. "And usually their thing is to have as much fun as they possibly can."
And with enough cash and the right connections, the possibilities are endless.