Rental market increase bodes well for industry
Twenty minutes east of the Grand Tetons, high up in the mountains of the Teton National Forest of western Wyoming, snowmobile guides at Togwotee Mountain Lodge start their day at 5 a.m., preparing to take the day’s guests on full-day or overnight trips into nearby Yellowstone National Park, Granite Hot Springs, or the Gros Ventre Wilderness Area.
The sleds are topped off with fuel and given a thorough once-over as guests equip themselves with the proper riding gear, avalanche beacons and helmet cameras to capture the adventure that entices experienced riders and beginners either looking for their first-ever snowmobile experience or using the expertise of the guides to reach the most thrilling destinations within a gas tank’s reach.
Renting snowmobiles is a difficult business. Whether it’s insurance, fleet replacement, ongoing maintenance or fuel costs, the price of entry in this adventure-based business is high. For the snowmobile industry, which has weathered years of thinning sales, sled rental operations such as Togwotee Snowmobile Adventures offer beginners an entry point into the sport, give seasoned riders the opportunity to expand their skills, increase snowmobiling’s exposure to the public and add to sales numbers via manufacturer-direct fleet sales agreements.
Togwotee rentals increasing
With a maximum occupancy of 328 guests between 28 lodge rooms and 54 cabins, Togwotee is one of the West’s signature winter sports destinations, drawing 7,000-8,000 snowmobile rental customers in an average season. With excellent snow this season, especially in December, the resort rented 18 percent more snowmobiles during 2012-13 than it did the previous winter.
Derek Thompson, director of operations at Togwotee Snowmobile Adventures, attributes the increase to a solid winter, a shift in demand for more high-power mountain sleds, more interest from families and growing numbers of Midwestern riders looking to rent a mountain sled, rather than purchase their own mountain machine for the flatlands back home.
“For those once-a-year mountain riders, it is nice knowing that they can simply fly in, take our shuttle to the lodge, rent a new sled and find powder,” he said. “It’s made easy, so our guests can have more fun.”
Togwotee’s diverse surroundings include more than 600 miles of trails on the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail System, and approximately 2.5 million acres of terrain, approximately the same square mileage of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Its massive fleet of Arctic Cat, Polaris and Yamaha snowmobiles comprises 25 percent of the entire rental fleet in the state of Wyoming. Like most snowmobile rental outfits, Togwotee buys direct from the manufacturers and has in-house technicians to service the units.
Of its annual snowmobile renters, approximately 50 percent elect to guide service to their rides. As the resort’s rental business increases, Togwotee feels optimistic about the future of the western recreational riding market, expecting its business to grow in kind as the quality of machines and services in the region continue to improve.
Gateway to Yellowstone
Three-plus hours to the north, on the western border of Yellowstone National Park, the town of West Yellowstone is the premier gateway into America’s first national park, and one of the prime barometers of the snowmobile industry, for better or worse.
While it’s fallen far from its peaks in the late 1990s — due to declines in the snowmobile industry, occasionally warmer winters and, most significantly, more stringent barriers to entering the park by snowmobile — West Yellowstone is a sleepier version of its summer persona, yet still bustling with visiting cross-country skiers and snowmobile riders throughout the winter months.
Randy Roberson and his wife Jeanine started their Yellowstone Vacations business 36 years ago. Yellowstone Vacations offers lodging, snowmobile rentals and guided tours — by snowmobile or custom-built snow coach vans — into the park. As one of several rental operations in town, Yellowstone Vacations averages 4,500 rentals every winter with its fleet of six coaches and 75 snowmobiles.
“What has happened out here is that our snowmobile business dropped and plateaued 10 years ago with the implementation of the guided-only access in Yellowstone,” Roberson said. “It’s taken a while for people to remember and to recognize that we still have all these great trails outside the park.”
As restrictions in the park have increased, Roberson has seen the mix shift toward snow coaches, with experienced riders exploring the surrounding area’s 300 miles of trails, and spending their token one day in the park in a heated coach, rather than aboard a snowmobile. In the guided era, approximately 60 percent elect to visit the park by snow coach, while 40 percent take sleds — typically new riders getting their first taste of snowmobiling.
“To put it in simple terms, a lot of the folks that come here used to ride in the park on their own, they know the park and going in on a guided group they feel too restricted,” he said.
Roberson is optimistic, as the current Winter Use Plan for the park seems to appease both the motorized and non-motorized enthusiasts on both sides of the fence, a rarity for an ongoing debate that’s often rife with disagreements.
“Both sides of the table seem to be fairly happy with the plan,” Roberson said. “The new plan gives us flexibility so we can follow the market.”
Rental interest increases
Judging also by web traffic at the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA), interest in renting snowmobiles is increasing among the general public. In the last year, visitors to ISMA’s Go Snowmobiling website (www.GoSnowmobiling.org) increased to 20,077, up 14 percent from 17,349 in the previous year. The organization is also fielding increased requests to locate guided snowmobiling packages from residents of the U.S., Canada, South America, Europe, Russia and China.
Ed Klim, president of ISMA, said the organization expects interest in renting to continue into the next season, as all signs point to continued growth for the niche market.
With 360 active snowmobile rental outlets throughout the U.S. and Canada, additional popularity of rentals translates into massive numbers of first-timers getting their first seat time on a snowmobile, while also offering experienced snowmobilers further options to travel and enjoy the sport.