The 2016 Sturgis motorcycle rally may be much smaller and quieter and maybe far less expensive than the milestone 75th rally that attracted record crowds to the Black Hills in 2015.
With the unofficial start of the rally coming in less than a week, there are strong indicators of a big drop in attendance for the 76th Sturgis motorcycle rally, with the biggest indicator being the smaller numbers of pre-rally reservations for motel rooms, campground spaces and private homes.
Bookings for last year’s record-setting 75th rally — when 739,000 visitors swarmed western South Dakota — actually started coming in thick and fast as the 2014 event was winding down, said Susan Johnson of Black Hills Central Reservations of Deadwood.
“Cen Res,” as her organization is called, serves as a one-stop shop for lodging, tour and event bookings for the state and Black Hills region.
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This year, with the official Aug. 8 start of the rally just eight days away, there’s an abundance of room choices and locations still available.
“There’s room in the inn,” Johnson said. “Even during the 2015 rally, we could always find a room. But the difference this year is we’ve got rooms all over the Black Hills, campgrounds all over the Black Hills. We’ve got more private homes than we have ever had."
This year’s rally is expected to reflect a “hangover” effect, with crowd attendance slumping to the size of gatherings leading up to the 75th, if not lower. In other words, this year could see a more “normal” rally.
“From all indications that I can see and am hearing from other people, it’s going to be an average rally,” said Sturgis rally director Jerry Cole. He is overseeing his first event, succeeding Brenda Vasknetz, who resigned after 27 years with the city after last year’s rally.
And yet, what is considered normal for a Sturgis rally is still a major attraction by any other standard, and the usual traffic tie-ups, large organized rides, and parties across the land will still bring hundreds of thousands of people and millions of dollars in revenue to the region.
Rally regulars and officials say that rally anniversary years that end in 5 or 0, such as the 50th, 60th and 75th rallies, tend to see a boost in attendance. But even so, in non-anniversary years, the rally still draws a big crowd, such as the estimated 442,000 people who visited in 2014, the 74th year of the rally.
Julie Schmitz Jensen, president of the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said local hoteliers remain optimistic this will be another strong rally because of low gasoline prices, a healthy economy and low unemployment. But she also agreed there are rooms still up for grabs.
“Reservations are decent, but we definitely have availability left,” she said.
Johnson sees this year as a return of the veteran rally-goers, some who perhaps avoided coming last year because of the anticipated crowds and potential for riding gridlock or a rookie rider effect.
This year, she said, is the time to rally because of relatively low gas prices. Lessened demand for hotel rooms and campground spaces also will make this year more affordable.
“There are lodging partners that didn’t even change their prices,” she said, referring to the large bump in rates that typically arrive with the rally. “It’s a buyer’s market this year.”
“Anybody that calls to stay, we can find them a place and negotiate the price,” she added.
From a law enforcement standpoint, South Dakota Highway Patrol division commander Capt. Jason Ketterling doesn’t crunch numbers and is not taking his foot off the gas when it comes to preparation.
After all, any Sturgis rally is a big cycle rally in his view.
“We always have to plan for a big rally regardless. If we over-plan, so be it. I’d rather be prepared than not,” Ketterling said.
Working with federal, county and city authorities, Ketterling said troopers will be paying particular attention to highway construction zones as possible traffic pinch points during the rally. Areas of concern include Interstate 90 at Exit 14 near Spearfish; the I-190 and Mount Rushmore Road reconstruction in Rapid City; and at other I-90 projects east of Rapid City.
Nine temporary traffic signals to aid traffic flow at several points around Sturgis and in the Black Hills should be operating by Monday, according to Rapid City area engineer Mike Carlson of the South Dakota Department of Transportation.
The DOT has added an additional temporary signal at the intersection of U.S. highways 85 and 385 near Pluma, between Lead and Deadwood. All signals will be operating until Aug. 15.
“At some point, we might see if we really need them all, which ones can we take out of service, because it is a huge expense to rent those for the two-week period. It’s also a lot of time to set them all up and make sure they are operating,” Carlson said.
Jason Bauder, deputy director of the South Dakota Department of Emergency Management in Pierre, said the state’s rally operations center in Sturgis will have fewer staffers than last year and will be open for one week instead of two.
Bauder said emergency management officials are watching the heightened risk of wildfires because of drought conditions in western South Dakota and the ever–present chance of severe thunderstorms during rally week.
“We will have less staff, but that doesn’t mean we’ll have less capabilities,” he said.
Activity has been picking up in Sturgis for more than a week. Cole said vendor tents were going up all week, and from levels of pre-rally traffic, the typical pre-rally rally is already under way. Cole said bikers and other visitors are arriving now to experience Sturgis and the Black Hills before the official run of the rally on Aug. 8-14.
“My phones are ringing off the hook as far as vending goes. There’s still a lot of interest out there,” Cole said.
Cole knows he’s in for a hectic two weeks, regardless of how many bikers show up for the 76th rally.
“I know I won’t get a whole lot of sleep,” he said. “I’m not getting a lot of sleep now.”