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.
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.
There have been recent signs, however, that more people plan to start hitting the snowmobile trails this season and that word is finally spreading that many of Maine’s trails have plenty of snow.
People from other states have been calling the snowmobile association officials to make plans for February and March, Meyers said.
It all depends on the snow
Michael Labbe has owned a snowmobile business on Main Street in Jackman for 23 years. His success hinges on the winter tourism season in the remote town of about 700 residents in northern Somerset County near the Canada border.
A few weeks without snow during vital winter holidays, however, makes the difference between a good season and one where his business struggles to earn enough to keep going, he said.
Labbe, 63, said at least four of his competitors within 30 miles of town have closed over the years, falling victim to poor snowfalls that hurt tourism. And the season so far this winter has been another example of how his business is constantly at the mercy of fickle weather patterns.
He runs Dana’s Rentals and Storage with his wife, Virginia, and 40-year-old son, Dana. They rent out 25 snowmobiles, lease storage space for riders’ sleds and offer other snowmobile services.
The family business survives slow seasons by forgoing seasonal employees, typically two or three workers added to help them during the winter. So far this season, they’ve told their employees there is no work for them, Labbe said.
He had to cancel about $5,000 in snowmobile rental reservations in late December and early January, when nearby trails remained closed because of poor conditions.
Although the trails opened when enough snow started to fall in mid-January, few people have made reservations for dates before the Presidents’ Day holiday week, Labbe said.
“We’ve had two feet of snow on the ground for three weeks, and I just haven’t had a busy week yet,” he said.
Labbe is banking on a strong February and March to turn this season around. These are historically the biggest months for his business, and now he faces even more pressure to attract riders because he lost the Christmas and New Year’s holiday business.
His business is down about 25 percent compared to last year at this point. Despite good trail conditions thanks to late January snowstorms, Labbe fears that this season’s delayed start is scaring off customers from away.
About 75 percent of his customers live outside of Maine, with many others coming from southern parts of the state.
“We’ve got six-foot snow banks up here but down south it’s all gone, and that’s what makes it tough,” he said. “It all depends on the snow because you can advertise all you want, but if there is no snow it doesn’t make any difference.”
Screaming from the mountaintop
Snowmobile-related businesses are typically hit harder than the ski industry when there are poor snow conditions, because many ski resorts snowmaking operations offsets the dry conditions, according to Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association. It’s a private tourism advocacy group representing 1,600 businesses.
But whenever there is little early snow, all of the winter recreation businesses suffer until ample amounts of natural snow fall, Stinson said.
Sugarloaf ski resort this season had a December snowfall total of 10 inches, which is far below the Carrabassett Valley average, according to Ethan Austin, communications manager for the resort.
The resort had to extend its snowmaking two extra weeks past the second week in January when it typically scales back the operation, he said.
The snowmaking kept going to help catch up for the slow start but the resort really benefited from plenty of snowstorms that hit in January, when Sugarloaf had 41 inches of natural snow, Austin said. That monthly total beat out the 36 inches that fell the previous January.
Sugarloaf posts a lot of videos and photos of snow conditions on its website, hoping to reach the markets where people are looking out on muddy backyards, Austin said.
“We’re pretty much trying to scream from the mountaintop that we’ve had a good snowfall in January,” he said.
David Robinson — 861-9287