February 12, 2012

Snowmobile tourism hit hard by lack of early snow

BINGHAM -- Many resorts and businesses that rely on tourism dollars are hoping the Presidents' Day holiday week that begins next weekend can save a winter recreation season reeling from historically low amounts of snow.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Scott Newton, left, of North Country Rivers in Bingham, leads snowmobilers down Interconnected Trail System ITS 87 recently. Low snow amounts are beginning to pick up, and the company is counting on improving snow conditions for the rest of February and March snowmobile rental business.

Staff photo by David Leaming

But despite the fact conditions have improved recently across many northern communities, the businesses still worry about attracting visitors from south of the area, where unseasonably warm temperatures have people skittish of taking a winter vacation.

Jim Murton, who owns North Country Rivers resort in Bingham, had to put off some of his early season snowmobile reservations because of poor snow conditions that lasted into mid-January.

He transferred them to dates in February and March, including the upcoming school break week and is among his best chance to recoup the early season losses.

Snowmobile trails in Bingham opened up several weeks ago and business at the resort has been steadily improving, with an added emphasis on letting more people know about the daily weather conditions, Murton said,

His resort, which is about 20 miles north of Skowhegan in Somerset County, relies on its website, direct emails to customers and a variety of other marketing tools. Yet Murton, 57, is still worried about convincing people winter has finally arrived.

"If there's no snow in Boston people don't think there's snow in Maine, but our conditions are much better than people realize," he said.

Getting the word out

The most recent study of tourism's year-long impact showed that in 2009 it supported about 108,000 jobs, generated $7.7 billion in spending and $414 million in tax revenues, according to Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.

When there is a slow start to Maine's winter recreation season, the tourism agency keeps a close watch on snow reports, she said.

As soon as the conditions improve, the agency's marketing campaign kicks into high gear to spread the word. Everything from television, print and radio advertisements to online marketing tools keep people in the loop about the best places to find plenty of snow, she said.

The state agency spent about $300,000 on paid advertisements during the winter of 2010-11, with that budget jumping to about $400,000 for this season. The advertisements are paid for through the state government's tourism budget by 5 percent of revenue collected from the 7 percent meals and lodging tax, Ouellette said.

Marketing decisions are based on a number of factors and spending on paid advertisements fluctuates annually, she said. For example, about $320,000 was spent during the winter of 2006-07.

Businesses and private tourism membership groups also do plenty of marketing, and the entire private and public effort highlights how important a successful winter tourist season is to the state's economy, Ouellette said.

Waiting for a blockbuster storm

A great snowmobiling season typically starts around Christmas and runs through mid April, giving riders plenty of chances to hit the 14,500 miles of trails statewide, according to Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.

This season, however, that vital early start didn't happen.

Pockets of trails started opening throughout January as more snow started accumulating, and the season has been picking up momentum since, Meyers said.

Although riding conditions have been good recently in some places, he said chatter among the 28,000 members and 2,200 businesses represented by the association indicates many riders appear to be waiting for "one of those good old-fashioned blockbuster storms."

Meyers didn't have specific figures because snowmobile registration data is calculated at the end of the season, saying this season is definitely behind the pace set last winter, when 91,000 people registered. That was up about 5,000 from the previous season, he said.

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