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In addition to doing business, corporate travelers to western North Dakota should be sure to visit the area's natural wonders, such as the Badlands. Shown here is the Maah Daah Hey Trail, which, at 144 miles, is America's longest continuous single-track mountain biking trail. IMAGE: McKenzie County Tourism

Badlands = good destination: Corporate travelers find new hotels, event centers throughout western N.D.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

Half-full, came the answer on Feb. 8 at the airport in Williston, N.D.

Even though any actual liquid would have frozen, turning its container into a glass half-full of ice.

The temperature at Sloulin Field International Airport on that day set a record at minus 43 degrees, said Anthony Dudas, airport director. Nevertheless, passengers still boarded planes the Sloulin Field way: They walked out onto the tarmac, then loaded onto the aircraft via ramps and stairs.

“Do people still have to walk outside to get onto their aircraft when it’s 43 below? Yes they do,” Dudas said.

But here’s the thing: That frosty tradition is about to enter the history books. Because Williston is building a brand-new, $280 million airport, one that’s set to open in October.

And when that happens, passengers will board planes via passenger bridges at last, Dudas said. Not only that, but among many other improvements, “we’ll have actual baggage-claim devices.

“Right now, we have a baggage slide, similar to an Oversized Bag Area at a modern airport,” he said. “But at the new airport, we’ll have carousels for baggage claim that people will be able to use.”

For business travelers, the evolution underway at Williston’s airport mirrors the changes that have happened throughout western North Dakota. Throughout the region, a construction boom has put in place new hotels, conference spaces and other facilities, almost all of which now are open and are ready to host meetings, conventions and other corporate events.

Five- and four-star facilities

“People don’t really appreciate that throughout western North Dakota, we now have five-star and four-star facilities that have just been built, so they’re all very new,” said Doug Bolken, McKenzie County (N.D.) Tourism director.

“For example, within Watford City, we have 900 hotel rooms available. We have meeting space ranging from boardrooms all the way up to convention halls.”

At the top of Watford City’s corporate-travel pyramid sits the Rough Rider Center, a $100 million facility in that opened in 2016. It has conference space for up to 500 people, full kitchen services, an aquatic center, two hockey rinks and a sports arena.

All of which mean Watford City now is hosting state government meetings, oil industry conventions and other corporate events that never could have happened before the oil boom.

“Add to that the restaurants and other improvements in our downtown, and it has really been a tremendous change,” Bolken said.

The same is true in Dickinson, N.D., said Julie Obrigewitsch, sales coordinator for the Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Several years ago, there was the perception that Dickinson did not have the appropriate lodging accommodations,” Obrigewitsch said.

“Groups were hesitant to come here because they felt we didn’t have any rooms and that if we did, they wouldn’t be high quality.”

These days, “that is not the case,” she said.

“Since 2011, we have had 10 hotels that have opened in Dickinson, and we have added 878 rooms.

“So, our number is 1,732 lodging rooms that we have right now.”

Along with that increase, “we’ve added a new conference center,” she said.

“The Astoria Hotel and Event Center was totally new construction. It was originally built in 2011 with 97 rooms, then they added on 73 more rooms in 2013. And they have more than 15,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, and just last year, they opened a restaurant.”

The facility now routinely hosts meetings, oil-industry training sessions and other events, she said.  

Meanwhile, the existing conference center – the Ramada Grand Dakota Hotel – hasn’t rested on its laurels. “They added on 43 suites, so a whole new wing to the hotel,” Obrigewitsch said.

“Now they have 192 lodging rooms with more than 14,000 square feet of meeting space.”

New travel era dawns

That’s just the start of Dickinson’s strengthening appeal. The Dickinson Museum Center – home of the Badlands Dinosaur Museum and other attractions – now is open year-round. “That’s something that has recently changed, and it’s great,” Obrigewitsch said.

There’s a new rodeo stadium at the Stark County Fairgrounds outside of town. The Fluffy Fields Vineyard and Winery, which opened in 2016, offers wine tastings and guided tours. New restaurants and bars make downtown Dickinson a lot more inviting for visitors.

“We’ve worked really hard to change the old perceptions to be more positive, because it is a lot more positive now,” she said.

Minot, N.D., too, is a whole different city for travelers than it used to be. In 2010, the city had 17 hotels. “Now, there are 27, with a total of 2,600 rooms,” said Phyllis Burckhard, executive director of the Minot Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Partly as a result, “we’ll be hosting the state Democratic-NPL Party Convention here next year. We’ve hosted the North Dakota Firefighters Association each year for the past several years.”

There are many more, “and they’re happening all year round,” Burckhard said.

Long-time attractions such as the Scandinavian Heritage Park and Dakota Territory Air Museum remain popular with business travelers. But in Minot as elsewhere, new businesses add to the draw.

“We have a new speakeasy called Saul’s; you literally have to find it,” said Rianne Kuhn, the Minot CVB’s marketing and communications director.

“It’s down a staircase where there is nothing marked. You have to hit the buzzer and have the password to get in.”

But it’s worth the effort, because behind the bar is one of the two “Certified Cicerones” or beer-masters in the state.

4 Bears Casino and Lodge in New Town, N.D., is another corporate-meeting facility whose growth is worth noting. When it opened in 1993, 4 Bears consisted of a motor lodge, a gaming floor and a little cafe, said Dave Bren, marketing director.

Today, visitors will find 220 hotel rooms, a Vegas-style casino with more than 750 slot machines, an RV park, a marina on Lake Sakakawea and an event center completed in 2016.

“We’re currently hosting a North Dakota high school girls’ basketball regional tournament,” Bren said.

“We’ve done boxing, comedy, car shows, regional entertainment, national entertainment. We’ve built our own resort destination, and while it’s definitely off the regular path, we’re within an hour or two of Minot, Dickinson, Bismarck and Williston.”

4 Bears’ expansion is part and parcel of western North Dakota’s strengthened ability to cater to corporate travelers, among others, Bren said.

“Thanks to the oil boom, there are definitely modern facilities throughout this part of the state where there didn’t used to be many,” he said.

“It’s impressive, and it’s great to see that the facilities are getting a lot of use.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business