PIERRE, S.D. – On Thursday, January 21, Governor Kristi Noem and the Department of Tourism presented awards to tourism industry members and businesses, honoring their ingenuity & diligence, extraordinary customer service practices, and lifetime commitment to tourism.

The prestigious Ben Black Elk Award honors an individual who makes outstanding contributions to the state’s visitor industry. This lifetime achievement award went to Susan Johnson of Deadwood. Johnson was the first Secretary of the Department of Tourism and paved the way for many initiatives and programs that are ongoing today.

“Susan began her career in tourism in 1981 and, for the past 40 years, she has tirelessly served the industry. Her list of accomplishments is long and distinguished, and she’s not done yet,” said Noem. The Governor mentioned Susan’s impact on making the Mickelson Trail possible and Susan’s involvement in establishing the state slogan: ‘Great Faces, Great Places.’

The surprise of the afternoon was the addition of a second Ben Black Elk Award recipient. Current Secretary of Tourism, Jim Hagen, was also awarded the Ben Black Elk for his continued dedication 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,” said Noem. Hagen was named National State Tourism Director of the year in 2014, has served on national boards and commissions, and has led the department’s work to be honored with dozens of national awards.

“I know a good thing when I see it,” humored the Governor as she noted she retained Hagen from the Daugaard administration. Hagen has led the department to 10 straight years of record growth prior to COVID-19 impacting the travel and tourism industry in 2020.

The George S. Mickelson Award was given to Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone. This award honors businesses, communities or organizations that have done an exemplary job of customer service and exceeding visitor expectations.

“Big Thunder Gold Mine’s motto is to always look at the positive and make every day something you will always remember,” said Noem. “Their hospitality and passion for the industry radiates throughout their surrounding communities and the people they serve.”

The Peter Norbeck Excellence in Tourism Innovation Award is given to an industry partner for their innovative thinking in making their destination, business or attraction even more appealing to visitors. This year’s award honored two recipients — Rush Mountain Adventure Park of Keystone and Prairie Berry Winery & Miner Brewing Company of Hill City and Sioux Falls.

“Both of these businesses have grown into incredible tourism attractions in South Dakota, all while providing top-notch customer service and new & varied experiences for visitors of all ages to enjoy,” said Noem.

The Ruth Ziolkowski* Outstanding Hospitality & Customer Service Award is given annually to four industry members, each representing a tourism region of South Dakota. This award recognizes tourism industry professionals who provide remarkable service to visitors and whose work demonstrates an outstanding spirt of hospitality. The awards were given to Ryan Friez* from Thunder Road of Sioux Falls, Debra Knodel* from the Governor’s Inn in Pierre, Lindsey Myers from Visit Rapid City, and Lora Schaunaman* at the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen.

“South Dakota is known for warm and welcoming hospitality, and it’s folks like these that have given our state that reputation,” said Noem. “Their heart, passion and commitment to service don’t go unnoticed, and I am thankful for their tireless work.”

The A. H. Pankow Award recognizes a representative of the media for showing superior interest in and coverage of South Dakota’s tourism industry. This year’s award went to Matt Meltzer*, a freelance journalist. Over the years, Meltzer’s coverage of South Dakota has garnered a collective 40.4 million impressions with an advertising value of $807.9 million.

“Matt exemplifies what this award is truly about. He first visited South Dakota in 2015 as a journalist attending the Buffalo Roundup. He has since returned and continued providing proactive coverage of South Dakota’s destinations, making him an ideal candidate for the A.H. Pankow Award,” said Noem.

Finally, Huron was recognized for rolling out the orange carpet of hospitality to hunters. Huron won the annual Rooster Rush Cacklin’ Community Award. The community of Huron excelled with a visual, tactile and digital promotion that welcomed hunters from near and far.

During the awards presentation, Noem reiterated the value of tourism to South Dakota’s economy and noted that the success of the industry is not possible without the extraordinary efforts of every person who works in the tourism industry.

The South Dakota Department of Tourism is comprised of Tourism and the South Dakota Arts Council. The Department is led by Secretary James D. Hagen.


Media Notes:

*Ziolkowski (JOOL-kuff-ski)
*Friez (FREEZE)
*Knodel (NO-dell)
*Schaunaman (SHAW-nah-man)
*Meltzer (MELT-zuhr)

For high resolution, downloadable images of the award winners, please use this Dropbox link:



Katlyn Richter, Global Media & Public Relations Director
South Dakota Department of Tourism
Phone: 605-773-3301
Email: [email protected]