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WisBusiness: Snowmobiling Business Rivals Summer Tourism for Northern Wisconsin

By Brian E. Clark

EAGLE RIVER – In recent years, the summer vacation season for many families has shrunk from a dozen weeks down to between eight and 10.

“What with school getting out later and so many kids involved in summer activities, our busy period is now June 20-Aug. 15,” said Holly Tomlanovich, who runs the Bayside Motor Lodge here.

If it weren’t for snowmobiling, which pumps thousands of riders into Vilas and other northern Wisconsin counties every weekend, Tomlanovich isn’t sure if she could make it.

“Snowmobilers mean $30 to $35 million to our county’s economy over the winter,” said Tomlanovich. “That’s huge.

“We’ve been full on weekends since the beginning of January,” she said in late February. “And we are half to two-thirds full during the week.

“For my lodge, that’s the difference between making it and not paying the bills,” said Tomlanovich, whose motel has 23 units. “I couldn’t survive on just the summer season alone. And when we lose a weekend, that costs me $3,000 right there.”

According to a Wisconsin Tourism Department economic impact study from 2001, snowmobilers spend more than $250 million a year in the Badger State on food, lodging and other expenses.

“If you factor in snowmobile sales, repairs and other things, that number rises to $1.2 billion,” said Morris Nelson, legislative chairman for the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs.

An avid snowmobiler himself, Morris – who lives near Edgerton - heads north often so he can ride. But in February, he was zooming around Rock County trails because of storms that dumped more than 10 inches of snow in southern Wisconsin.

He said the snowmobile association consists of 620 clubs and nearly 24,000 members. There are more than 220,000 snowmobiles registered in the state and they ride on 28,000 miles of trail in the state.

Diane Misina, whose family runs the Black Bear and Rustic Manor lodges in St. Germain, as well as the Wild Eagle Lodge in Eagle River, said her resorts pull in many snowmobilers from southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

She said Internet advances have helped business because cameras feeding real-time images to the Web allow riders to check out snow conditions.

“If people are playing golf down south, they want to see it with their own eyes that we really have snow up here,” she said.

“On the other hand, if there is good snow in southern Wisconsin or Illinois, people don’t have as great a need to come north,” she said.

Misina said poor snow years in 2000 and 2001 hurt snowmobile-related tourism and changed the way she many lodge operators do business.

“Those two bad years made many people not want to book or pay deposits in advance,” she said. “So now they don’t have to make a deposit.”

Misina said summer is still the biggest money-maker for her resorts, though winter is also important to her bottom line.

“We have several couples who are up here for two and three months in the winter,” said Misina. “But a typical visit is a long weekend of three-to-four days.”

In the summer, she said visitors come regardless of the weather. They also book much further in advance and show up rain or shine. Summer rates are also higher than winter, but she said snowmobilers typically spend $50 to $70 a night per person to stay at her lodges.

Because snowmobilers are up and out on the trails, they spend less money where they are staying, said Misina, whose great uncle, Carl Eliason invented snowsleds in 1924 and patented his design for the machines in 1927.

Because he was handicapped, Eliason used his early snowmobilers to work, hunt and trap in the woods.

“I’m sure he never dreamed of the impact his invention would have on winter recreation up here,” she said. “But it’s certainly significant. This area is the snowmobile capital of the world.”

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