Sled Mania!

By Mike Terrell

Snowmobilers from all around the Great Lakes come to ride thousands of miles of groomed trails crisscrossing the Wolverine State, and in turn support many small businesses that depend on that infusion of cash during the slower winter months to survive.

It’s a win-win situation, according to Ed Manson, executive director for the Michigan Snowmobile Association.

“There are around 6,500 miles of groomed trails in Michigan (out of more than 225,000 miles in North America), most of them off road and in the woods,” said Manson. “Major snowmobile magazines constantly point out our trail systems being some of the best around the Great Lakes. We say that snowmobiling brings a billion dollars into the state during a normal winter, and the vast majority of that is spent in the northern part of the state.”

That’s a big impact for this region of the state. A check of area Visitors Bureaus confirms it’s a business they cater to.

Cold Weather Cash Cow

“We estimate that snowmobiling brings $200,000 per weekend into our market area over a 10-week winter period,” said Joy VanDrie, executive director of the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau. “Sled rentals were up last winter, and those in the rental business are increasing the number of snowmobiles available for this coming winter. Visitors can ride right from area motels to the trail, which is a big plus for attracting groups of riders. Many motels are right along the trail.”

There are over 200 miles of groomed trails around Cadillac that link to the rest of northern Michigan, according to Bill Lucas, who is part of Cadillac Winter Promotions, a group of volunteers that promotes winter tourism in the area.

“We say that snowmobiling brings well over a million dollars into Wexford County during a normal winter. That supports a lot of small businesses scattered around the county,” he said. “It’s totally dependent on the weather. The last two winters have been good to us, but the winter of 2011/12 was a disaster for us. We lost some businesses that winter.”

Snowmobilers can ride from Cadillac north to Manton and Fife Lake crossing the Manistee River on a specifically designed arched bridge just for snowmobiles. From there they connect with trails that head to Kalkaska, Grayling, Gaylord, Mackinaw City and points east. There’s more than 1,500 miles of linked snowmobile trails in northern Michigan, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

“I don’t have specific numbers, but there’s no doubt that snowmobiling is the number one business in Grayling during winter,” said Ilene Wilson, with the Grayling Visitors Bureau. “They provide close to 80 percent of the motel business and keep area restaurants busy. They can ride right from most motels to Lovells, Lewiston, Frederic and Gaylord, or south to Roscommon and Houghton Lake.

“We like to think of Grayling as the hub of the wheel with snowmobile trails as spokes leading off in all directions,” she said.

In Gaylord, snowmobiling is the second largest recreation market in the area, just behind golf, according to the Gaylord Area Conventions and Visitors Bureau.

“It generates around $2 million revenue just in motel room sales during winter,” said Paul Beachnau, executive director. “Add in what’s spent on gas, food and maintenance and parts for the machines, and you are looking at five to seven million dollars coming into our winter market. It’s a huge boost to our winter survival.”

Michigan is one of only three states that offer a large system of interconnected snowmobile trails, groomed by clubs and volunteer help. Approximately 50 percent of the snowmobile trail system is located on private lands, with the remaining on state lands (25%), federal (20%), and other public lands (5%).

The Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn’t track snowmobile statistics for the area it covers, according to spokesperson Mike Norton.

“Most of our motels and hotels aren’t along the trail systems,” Norton said. “They have to trailer to a staging area and ride from there. But, it is a great family destination offering lots of lodging choices and entertainment for the whole family. I don’t have any numbers but sense that market may be growing.”

Michigan Snowmobile Association’s Manson, who has a vacation home at Schuss Mountain, echoed the family theme.

“The Boardman Valley Trail system is great for families, and you see a lot of them on the trails,” he said. “You’re never more than about 20 or 25 miles from a place to stop for some food or hot chocolate and get in out of the cold. On other trail systems in the Lower Peninsula and especially the U.P., you can travel 80 to 100 miles or more in between places to stop and warm up.”

Families That Snowmobile Together …

George VanKersen, owner of Peegeo’s Restaurant, a popular restaurant destination and staging area for snowmobilers, said his business is a good barometer for activity on trails around Traverse City.

“I’ve seen the family snowmobile market really take off in recent years,” said VanKersen, who’s been helping to groom the Boardman Valley Trail for over 30 years. “I see them when I’m out grooming the trail system. It used to be groups of guys mostly, but that has changed. It’s good for business and good for the sport. I serve more pop than beer now during the winter at the restaurant.”

Snowmobiler Paul Anderson, who took his first ride on a sled when he was just six years old and describes his own three children as “addicted” to it as he is, owns Sled Solutions, an online part and accessories company based in Acme. Growth has been steady, up 20 percent year over year, for the last several years, he said.

“Even through the economic downturn we saw growth,” Anderson said. Though he sells both nationwide and around the world, “last winter we saw a dramatic increase in purchases from Michigan residents” – thanks to a winter season of prime sledding conditions.

According to the International Snowmobilers Association, there were 205,351 snowmobile registrations in Michigan for the 2013-2014 season, the third highest total after Minnesota (258,000) and Wisconsin (237,803). Those fees and trail permits pay for the equipment, gas and maintenance to keep the trails in tip-top shape.

Anderson said today’s buyers “are spending $12,000 on a snowmobile and another $3,000 on accessories before they even ride it.”

He just returned from the Snowmobile USA Show & Sale in Novi, Mich., – this show, and one in Milwaukee, are the biggest snowmobiling shows in the United States.

“We had the best show ever,” added Anderson. Attendance numbers were up 26 percent across the board over three days – a total of 18,506 attendees through the door.

“Snowmobiling in Michigan is definitely still very, very popular and growing,” Anderson said.


Snowmobiling: By the Numbers

– In 2014, there were 157,106 snowmobiles sold worldwide; 54,028 were sold in the U.S. and 48,758 were sold in Canada

– Snowmobiling contributes $26 billion annually to the U.S. economy

– 1.4 million registered snowmobiles in the U.S. and 594,276 registered in Canada

– More than 100,000 full-time jobs are generated by the snowmobile industry in North America, including manufacturing, dealerships and tourism-related businesses

– Average snowmobiler rides 1,620 miles per year in North America

Source: International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, an organization that represents the four snowmobile manufacturers.