When former South Dakota Secretary of Tourism Susan Johnson left Pierre to start Black Hills Central Reservations 21 years ago, she could not have known that two decades later, she’d have established a system with 250 partners serving as many as 10,000 would-be visitors annually.
“We started from scratch, so we had to learn how to run a central reservation company and teach people how to operate in that environment,” Johnson recalled. “We hired several people who had been laid off from the Homestake Gold Mine who had never touched a computer.”
Johnson got her start in Murdo, one of nine children born to Robert and Leatrice Edwards. Robert, who died in 2004, worked his entire career as a county extension agent for South Dakota State University. Leatrice, who turned 90 last fall and celebrated by buying herself a new car, taught school periodically when she wasn’t raising her brood. The family spent eight years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when Johnson was a child.
But Johnson always had an affinity for the Black Hills. Her mom’s side of the family homesteaded near Nemo, while her paternal grandparents had a place at Hermosa, where her grandmother operated the Hermosa Grocery and knew most of the baseball players Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum hired to work on his mountain carving.
After graduating from SDSU with a degree in mass communications, the woman then known as Susan Edwards worked several jobs before being named Secretary of Tourism in 1981, a post she held until 1994 under Governors William Janklow, George Mickelson and Walter Dale Miller. She later served three years as director of the South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation, helping establish the Mickelson Trail and the Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve near Elk Point, among other projects. She married Clay Johnson, a Black Hills Realtor, in 2004, and the couple lives on Nemo Road.
We sat down with Johnson to talk about her varied career, her life in the Black Hills, and what she has found most fulfilling with her position at Black Hills Cen Res over the past two decades.
Q: If you weren’t doing what you do today, what would you rather have done?
A: I started my career selling Ford trucks in Murdo, and I loved that. Today, I’d be a content manager, because I love writing blogs. To be able to tell stories is something I’ve always adored.
Q: Of what are you most proud in your tenure with Black Hills Central Reservations?
A: We really created a customer service organization to take care of people planning their vacation to our state. While others do the advertising to entice people to come here, our role in this journey is to close the sale. Visitors tell us all of the time how glad they are to have found us. I love what we do.
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Q: You obviously love the Black Hills. What is the allure that you sell every day?
A: The majority of the people we serve take the main travel roads. They see Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse memorials, of course, but I love working with that visitor who wants to do something off the beaten path. For example, this summer I planned a seven-day trip for a family from Chicago and their mode of transportation was bicycles along the Mickelson Trail. Planning their trip, their lodging, was one of the most fun things to do. This fall, I have a group of three people who have hiked all over the world and they picked the Black Hills for their next adventure. They’re here for a week, will do seven miles on foot per day, and I planned everything from shuttling to restaurants to their lodging.
Q: Your agency fields hundreds of calls a day from prospective visitors. What’s the strangest or most unusual request you’re ever had?
A: We don’t have quirky, we just don’t. Nobody calls us up to hire call girls. This is the all-American, apple pie vacation destination. We have unique things we offer. The 2017 total eclipse was one of the most unusual vacation requests with people timing their trips so they could take advantage of the total eclipse. The thing that keeps it interesting is our keen knowledge of what we offer. We can help people who want to stay in a teepee, in a tree house, on a ranch or in a bungalow above Deadwood’s historic Main Street. We can help people with their bucket list, take a volksmarch to top of Crazy Horse, because there will be a day when you can’t do that. We can arrange paleo-education programs at The Mammoth Site, history on horseback tours, cave crawling in three different caves in the Black Hills or, if you’re really lucky, a chance to ride a horse in the world’s only buffalo roundup in Custer State Park.
Q: You’ve had a remarkable career. As you look back, what stands out in terms of all you have accomplished?
A: Every year I keep my fingers crossed that “Great Faces. Great Places.” won’t come off our license plate, because that was born during my tenure as secretary of tourism, with our board and staff. I’m proud of that and some of the development projects I’ve been involved with, including the Mickelson Trail and the Adams Nature Preserve.
Q: You’ve had your finger on the pulse of the travel industry for nearly 40 years. Tell us about the most recent trends you’ve noticed?
A: Unplugged family vacations are changing an industry that re-shaped South Dakota, and we’ve got it covered. Devices keep people connected, but when families are together, they need to re-connect. Another trend is 'gramping,' or multi-generational travel, with up to three generations taking outdoor adventures together and it’s transforming the lodging industry. They want to stay in places with separate bathrooms and multiple bedrooms, and it’s bolstering the home vacation rental industry. Short-term home rentals are the fastest growing segment of the lodging industry, thanks to Airbnb, and it’s forcing changes in the way the lodging industry is doing business with new amenities, new room types and new opportunities.
Q: You’ve developed relationships with hundreds of partners over the years. But what are your most cherished friendships you’ve acquired?
A: Truly, to say you got to know Ruth Ziolkowski at Crazy Horse, or that I was personal friends with some of the people who truly started the Black Hills tourism industry such as Earl Brocklesby at Reptile Gardens, Josef Meier at the Black Hills Passion Play, Ted Hustead at Wall Drug, Doc Casey at Bear Country and Dave Geisler at the Pioneer Auto Museum. They were the real pioneers of an industry that re-shaped our state. I feel blessed that I have had the honor of working with many of the people who started the Black Hills tourism industry and the attractions that are still going strong today.