Winter events crucial to Hill City

Gray Hughes

In Hill City, there’s almost always something going on.

That’s no different in the winter, as the city will play host to several events this season.

“In partnership with our member businesses, Main Street merchants and various organizations, we always love the first quarter events that are unique to Hill City each year,” said Janet Wetovick-Bily, executive director of the Hill City Area Chamber of Commerce. “And we also love hearing and seeing those visitors from our neighboring communities who come to participate with the Hill City Community as they stroll Hill City’s sidewalks.”

According to Wetovick-Bily, first quarter (composed of the months of January through March) events typically are: Open Stage (typically held January through March), Breakin’ the Winter Blues Chili Cook-off (held in January), Tour de Chocolate and Polar Bear Chili Cook-off (typically held the same weekend in February) and the Hill City Antiques Railroad Show and Sale along with Run for the Rangers (both in March) and the Hill City Children’s Community Easter Egg Hunt (held in March this year).

Another great reason to get out in the first three months of the year is the Senior Center’s monthly Sunday Breakfasts, too, Wetovick-Bily said.

Finally, a key event that has shifted to an earlier month is the Black Hills Film Festival — held in February — in a virtual format.

“This year however, as we move through what we hope is the downturn in the pandemic, events may have a different look or structure to them, like the Black Hills Film Festival mentioned previously,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do know that out of an abundance of concern for their members, vendors, and the general public, The South Dakota State Railroad Museum has canceled the Annual Hill City Antique/Railroad Sale and Evaluation Days in March.”

The good news, Wetovick-Bily said, is the museum plans to schedule a showing of “Snow Train,” the two-part episode of the classic “Gunsmoke” TV series, in September.

Although in February, the Polar Bear Chili Cookoff,  put on by the Tin City Masonic Lodge #112, is already seeking entrants. The chili cookoff will officially be held on Feb. 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Prizes will be given for best red chili, best white chili, best booth decorations and people’s choice.

First entry is $25 and second entry is $15. Tasting fee is $5 per person or $20 per family. For more information call John Knapp at 605-209-0686 or Jack Welker at 605-381-1293.

The chamber’s mission, first and foremost, is to promote Hill City, she said, and to create market awareness, to inspire, to drive visitors to Hill City for an amazing experience and to stay-shop-dine. The transitional time between Christmas and New Year’s and the first signs of springtime weather are important for many reasons.

This time, she said, give people the opportunity to get out, socialize, break those winter blues, beat the doldrums, participate in various Hill City events, experience something new and most importantly, help boost the local economy. 

“During the shoulder season, we encourage our merchants and businesses to be open and reap those benefits of customer good will, customer interaction, and an injection into their bottom line,” Wetovick-Bily said. “Plus, these events offer a great way for our member businesses and community to participate, and in the case of the Breakin’ the Winter Blues Chili Cook-off, to engage in some friendly competition for bragging rights, and of course, always to showcase their businesses in a unique way through specials and merchandising.”

From Wetovick-Bily’s perspective, something else that’s fantastic from a marketing perspective is that shoulder-season events afford an opportunity for our businesses to get creative with their offerings with innovative Valentine Specials or a Weekend Winter Getaway or assisting customers with shopping experiences for anniversaries, birthdays or special occasions.

Savvy marketing opportunities are out there, and the chamber loves to see those unique pairings by our businesses as we saw at the holidays, she added.

“Plus, these shoulder season months afford an opportunity for visitors, whether near or far, to explore the great outdoors, to enjoy a Black Hills winter on the trails by hiking, off-roading, snowmobiling; by skiing; or by playing outdoor ice hockey, cutting figure eights while ice skating or hooking ‘the one that didn’t get away’ through ice-fishing, too,” Wetovick-Bily said. :The Black Hills are absolutely gorgeous  and wonderful to experience during the winter months. Through our marketing messaging, we want to encourage as many people as possible to come our way, to give them a reason to come, to make Hill City their destination and their central location for that amazing winter experience.”

The events held in Hill City always draw loyal fans and followers, including community residents.

What’s especially exciting is to see and hear comments from is visitors from Custer, Rapid City, Keystone, Chadron, Sturgis  and Spearfish, Newcastle and other neighboring communities who come to and participate in the tastings, voting, shopping and engagement with our businesses, she said. And, with the chamber’s planned advertising in fourth quarter, first quarter and from the additional marketing assistance funding secured by the chamber from the CARES Act, the chamber anticipates this year’s awareness and exposure are greatly increased, although the chamber won’t know until it analyzes the results, until the events start rolling and until people feel safe and actually begin to travel again.

“For our local community, our events are just one more way to stay connected through the winter months,” Wetovick-Bily said.

Hill City’s dedicated Main Street Merchants spearheaded the shoulder-season events to augment the larger signature events that occur through the year by giving visitors something fun to do and a reason to seek Hill City as a destination. That, Wetovick-Bily said, has fostered the perception that there is always something going on in Hill City.  “With the growth and development occurring in Hill City and the renewed interest in South Dakota for visiting and relocation, it will be more important than ever to meet visitor expectations and perception of Hill City as a year-round destination,” she added. “In collaboration with our businesses and partners and augmented with our marketing messaging, one way we can continue to do that is through continual evaluation of our events, making them bigger, better, refreshing them with new elements, or by creating new ones.”

Because of 2020’s unique challenges and the success from the chamber’s CARES Act marketing funded efforts, Wetovick-Bily said the chamber is “more excited than ever” to continue working with their marketing partners in promoting Hill City for the coming year.

Along with the messaging being done through South Dakota Tourism, Black Hills and Badlands and the chamber’s own local efforts with Evergreen Media, Brian Rupert, the chamber’s local print and broadcast partners, plus South Dakota Magazine, at this time, Wetovick-Bily said she knows the chamber’s marketing strategies have made a significant impact in reach and inspiration.

As of Monday, the chamber’s social media following and website traffic had risen dramatically this past holiday week, she added.

Now is the time the chamber’s requests for information and vacation guides will start rolling in by phone, web and social media messaging, Wetovick-Bily said.

And with good weather, the chamber anticipates increased in-person foot traffic at the visitor information center.

Another factor from the 2020 pandemic impacting inquiries and visitation is the incredible interest in outdoor all terrain vehicles (ATV) and off highway vehicle (OHV) permits and exploration, which, Wetovick-Bily said, will likely continue.

“Taken altogether with our events and with everything that Hill City and the Black Hills offer, we’re optimistic that 2021 visitation will be strong,” Wetovick-Bily said. “As we head into January, the building upon our targeted marketing strategies for a great and busy year ahead continues. Welcome 2021.”

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