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Pierre woman honored by Noem at tourism conference | Local News Stories

During Gov. Kristi Noem’s Thursday conference on tourism, Debra Knodel of Pierre wasn’t expecting to win an award.

But that’s exactly what happened: Knodel, who has worked the front desk at the Governor’s Inn for the last 20 years, received the Ruth Ziolkowski Outstanding Hospitality & Customer Service Award, which is given annually to four industry members from each tourism region in the state who provide remarkable service to visitors and whose work demonstrates an outstanding spirit of hospitality.

“She has been an outstanding team member; always has a smile for every single guest. She knows many of those guests by name and so many of their families, she always takes an interest in what’s happening in their lives,” Noem said of Knodel.

Noem said Knodel is very knowledgeable about the Pierre and Fort Pierre area, as well as the entire state, and can answer any question about South Dakota.

“Her enthusiasm and easygoing matter gives visitors the confidence in what she is telling them,” Noem said.

Knodel was tearful as she accepted the award and thanked everyone in attendance.

“This means the world to me and I never expected it whatsoever. I love my job very much so, [and] I love meeting the new customers and legislators,” Knodel said.

“Isn’t she wonderful?” Noem said as the audience applauded Knodel. “When I grow up, I want to be her now.”

Knodel has worked at the Governor’s Inn for 20 years, but has been in the tourism industry since she began working at a hotel in Philip as a teenager. She got her degree at The Right Turn clerical school in Pierre in the early 1990s while she worked at the Days Inn. After about a decade, she left Days Inn for the Governor’s Inn and has been there ever since.

Knodel said she enjoys getting to get to know her customers like they are a part of her family.

“I want to know who’s staying at the motel; I want to know what kind of person they are. I’m a quiet person by nature, but let me get to know you and I’ll talk your leg off, and if I don’t know you, I want to get to know you,” Knodel said. “I’m your friend for life once I get to know you and you get to know me.”

Knodel’s customers have responded well to this approach.

“When I worked at the Days Inn, of course, I got to know the regular customers that come once a week, once a month, but when I wasn’t there anymore, they got concerned about where I was and what I was doing, and they found me at the Governor’s Inn…they followed me and stayed at the Governors Inn, then,” Knodel said.

Sometime soon, though, Knodel (who lives in Onida) will be retiring. Her plans for retirement? “Just rest,” she said.

Knodel is just one person who has contributed to the strong tourism industry in South Dakota. During her address before giving out the awards, Noem commended the entire tourism industry, the No. 2 industry in the state after agriculture, for staying open and creating new business opportunities while the rest of the world shut down in the wake of the COVID pandemic.

“Our tourism industry has a strong present and an even brighter future. Every state’s tourism industry was negatively impacted this last year by the pandemic, but in South Dakota, we were able to weather the storm much better than our neighboring states,” Noem said. “We’re South Dakotans. We’re built tough. It’s in our DNA to fight, survive, and to thrive on our own. And that makes all the difference in these tough times.”

According to an annual study by Tourism Economics, South Dakota saw 12.6 million visitors in 2020, only a 13% decrease from 2019. Visitor spending contributed $2.6 billion in gross domestic product, which accounts for 4.7% of the state economy. Visitors spent $3.4 billion, an 18% decline from the previous year. On average, visitor spending was down 45% in the rest of the country in 2020. Through the summer months, South Dakota ranked third-best in the country in domestic bookings.

This success was due in part to the work of Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen, to whom Noem awarded the Ben Black Elk Award for outstanding contributions to the industry.

“Jim has greatly increased the profile of our state during his run as secretary of tourism. He’s elevated the department’s branding to make South Dakota one of the most sought after destinations in America through innovative tactics, cutting edge strategies, and continued use of data,” Noem said.

The award was a surprise to Hagen, who has worked for three different South Dakota governors. Hagen also expressed pleasant surprise that tourism in the state fared as well as it did in 2020.

“To still reach 12.6 million visitors is not something I expected [this year]. When you look across the country and see other cities and states are still struggling being able to attract visitors…it really makes me incredibly grateful that we had the summer that we did, that we encouraged the industry to put protocols in place to ensure visitors they would have a safe experience when they came to South Dakota and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Hagen told reporters after the award presentation. “We’re going to be careful with our messaging, and make sure we’re targeting the right audience…and ensuring them that when the time is right for them, we’ll be ready for them.”

Hagen had a surprise for Noem as well, and after she presented him with his award, he brought the Tourism Advisory Board onstage to present her with a framed photo of the Mount Rushmore fireworks display, another win for the state tourism industry in 2020, to thank her for her leadership and support.

The photo is Noem’s favorite picture — it’s her header photo on her Twitter page — and she said it represents “exactly what Mount Rushmore is about.”

Noem ended her address by commending the tourism industry for setting the standard to revitalize the state’s economy.

“All of you are so special, and you took an incredible year where most people just thought of all the things they couldn’t do, and every single person in this state dreamed of the things they could do in spite of the situation,” Noem said. “Everybody here is just normal. We all work together to get things done. That doesn’t happen in a lot of places in this crazy country.”

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