HOUGHTON - There's no business like snow business so far this winter in the Copper Country, and many in winter recreation and related businesses say things are just starting to build momentum.
"The rentals haven't been crazy yet because people don't expect the snow, but sales have been awesome," said Brad Barrette, rentals manager at snowmobile dealership Houghton Powersports.
This weekend, he said, rentals were booked solid, and reservations were strong into January. His first sleds went out a full month ahead of last year's.
Businesses that depend mostly or entirely on the snow, like snowmobile dealerships and ski hills, say it's night and day compared to last year, when there was no snow - and no business at all - in December.
In a seasonal business, that one-month swing makes a huge difference in the end-of-year bottom line, noted Chad McIntyre, manager of M&M Powersports in Hancock.
Related businesses like hotels, restaurants, and equipment and apparel retailers are also showing gains.
Diane Peterson, president of the Keweenaw Convention and Visitor's Bureau and manager of the AmericInn hotel, both in Calumet, said her December room occupancy rates at the hotel were up about 10 to 15 percent over last year's.
That's a significant jump, considering that Houghton and Keweenaw County hotels were on average only about one quarter full last winter, according to numbers compiled by the visitor's bureau. Summer is generally the busiest season, Peterson noted, with about 40 percent occupancy this year. Spring is the slowest season, with only about 10 percent occupancy.
She said there's always some lag time between snowfall and when potential tourists who hear about it can actually schedule their vacations, and the time she spends at the visitor's bureau has convinced her things should be getting even better for the AmericInn and other local tourism businesses in the next few months.
"When you're looking at the amount of phone calls, those have increased immensely," Peterson said.
At Mount Bohemia in Lac La Belle, company president Lonie Glieberman said season pass sales are already nearly double last year's total of about 2,200 passes. About 550 skiers and snowboarders were on the hill on opening day Dec. 14 -more than a month ahead of last year's opening day.
"We haven't really got into our busy days yet for daily ticket sales, but that opening in December was equal to one of the top five days for the year every other year," Glieberman said.
"We're having our best December ever," he added. "We expect it to be the best in our 14 years."
Glieberman estimated that about 80 percent of his clientele comes from out of town, and said on-site lodging was booked through the holidays, with reservation levels for later in the season about double last year's.
Not all parts of the Copper Country can match the 100-plus inches of snow already that Glieberman's seen in Keweenaw County, but snow-related businesses throughout the area are booming. Many others can relate to Glieberman's final thought.
"It really is all about the snow-we live and die with the snow."