While a lack of snow this winter has put a damper on snowmachiners’ enthusiasm, local Kenai Peninsula sled dealers remain optimistic that business will return, no matter the weather conditions.
Three snowmachine dealers, all in Soldotna, carry three of the top four brands of sleds. Arctic Motorsports, on Frontage Road off of Kalifornsky Beach Road, sells Arctic Cat. Peninsula Powersports, on the Kenai Spur Highway, carries Polaris and River and Sea Marine on the Sterling Highway sells Ski-doo.
All three are a part of a $26 billion annual snowmobile industry in the United States. In Alaska, 52,400 snowmobiles were registered in 2013, the ninth highest ranking in the US, according to the International Snowmobiles Manufacturers Association.
Each business said they had confidence in their brand and customer base. Hailey Titus, office manager for Peninsula Powersports, said while business has slowed down after a successful 2013, their sales team has tried to switch customers’ mindsets to all-terrain vehicles to stay ahead of the game.
“I think competition is a good thing because we all have to keep our prices at a decent rate and strive to help the customer find what they need,” she said. “Polaris has been putting out incredible machines. It has gotten to the point in the cycle people know it’s a good machine and their friends are riding it.”
Titus said the best months of snowmachine sales are in the fall from September to November, which helped them finish second in their district for Polaris sales. By December they nearly sold out of their larger, top selling machines, the Polaris 600 Pro and 800 Pro mountain sleds, which sell for approximately $12,000, she said.
The cost of snowmachines has gone up in recent years because of modifications to make them faster, stronger and lighter, she said.
In 2006, her husband, Nate Titus, and Zack Johnston started Peninsula Powersports as a repair and modification shop for snowmachines. Two years ago the company moved into the former Hutchings Auto Group building, giving them much more floor space. Six months later, Peninsula Powersports acquired the Polaris dealership. Since then business has quadrupled to $4 million gross annually, she said.
The Tituses purchased the 20,000-square-foot building for $1.2 million. In addition to Polaris snow machines, ATVs and Ranger UTV, they also sell Suzuki motorbikes, marine outboards and Victory motorcycles. Along with service repairs, parts and accessories, Peninsula Powersports also sells Husqvarna chainsaws and generators.
Despite moving into a larger building and expanding their line of products, Titus said with only eight employees, they consider themselves a small family business.
“Business has grown tremendously because of our customer service,” she said. “We love our customers and have developed a lot of personal relationships. Service work is how we built our business and we make sure our customers are happy at the end of the day.”
Titus said with winter halfway over, they are already looking forward to next year’s new line of Polaris snowmachines. She said customers can put a $500 deposit down for next year’s sled.
Lane Giesler, owner of Arctic Motorsports since 1996, said without snow on the ground, the outlook for the rest of the winter season isn’t good.
“I have turned into a weatherman evangelist, look at the weather report and pray,” he said. “It is bad everywhere in the whole state.”
Giesler said he has talked to other Arctic Cat dealers in the state who have stocked up on inventory, parts and accessories. Without snow nobody is riding and if customers are not using their machines, they don’t need repairs or gear either, he said.
With an Arctic Cat dealer meeting scheduled later in the month to review next years’ models, he said prices will be reduced on his current supply to make room.
In addition to the weather, the $12,000 price tag of new models is another reason why his sales are down this year. The machines are better and last longer but the price is higher, he said. Financing is available with decent rates and customers can work with credit unions to come up with an affordable monthly payment, he said.
With the rising price of gas, food and natural gas to heat homes, a high-end luxury snowmachine, regardless of brand, is the last thing people are going to buy, he said.
The average annual income for a sled owner is $68,000, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturer Association.
Snowmobile industry standard reports Ski-doo and Polaris are the top two brands sold with Arctic Cat in third place nationwide. Giesler said each brand produces high performance machines.
There are several different types of machines, for various types of terrain. Mountain sleds have longer tracks and more power to drive through heavy snow, while trail sleds have shorter tracks for high speed and easy handling. A crossover has mid-size tracks making it versatile, he said.
Giesler, who has competed in snowmachine racing, said he enjoys traveling long distance, reaching speeds of 100 mph riding through gas fields and swamps. He has driven a snowmachine all over that state and competed in races in Valdez, Fairbanks and Nome.
“I have literally ridden from here to Homer, had pizza and came back,” he said. “I head down Centennial or Clam Gulch Trail and over Caribou Hills 80 miles each way.”
Giesler is a member of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers club, a group of avid snowmobilers who ride trails and traverse mountains. He said it has been a difficult winter to organize rides with the only decent places with enough snow eight hours away near Cantwell. Still, the diehard group will search for snow to ride. In the meantime, Giesler keeps checking the weather report looking for good news.
Located at the southern end of Soldotna across from Spenard Building Supply, River and Sea Marine has been selling Ski-doos for 22 years. While they specialize in boating supplies, during the winter a majority of their business revolves around snowmachines.
Mark Hordemann, parts manager for the past 11 years, said the stretch of warmer weather in January brought in customers who have already started thinking about their boats. Because the refuge is closed to snowmachines due to a lack of snow, he said people are holding off on anything because they don’t know what the weather will do.
“Winter is not over. It will come back with a vengeance,” he said. “I predict if we have a lot of snow toward the end of season, sled sales will go crazy. Cabin fever has a name for a reason.”
Hordemann said the Ski-doo MX-Z was so popular last year it turned everyone’s interest and became their top seller this year. While all brands make a decent product, he said Ski-doo sales are no. 1 in the state and that trend makes them competitive in the market.
With all the new development in the oil and gas industry hitting the Kenai Peninsula, Hordemann said he believes in the next five years the economy will boom with lots of activity. As far as the snowmachine end of it, new jobs bring new customers.
Peter Thompson, owner River and Sea Marine, said even if Nikiski gets the proposed gas line project it will take several years before it can be put into the ground. In the meantime the influx of tourists from Anchorage and the Lower 48 in the summer keeps him busy. His concern is new area jobs also mean more big-box stores like Cabela’s, Sportsman Warehouse and Bass Pro Shop, which could encroach on the longtime local sportsman shops.
“What Alaskans need to remember is try keep Alaska local,” he said. “People outside look at us as a national park and don’t give a damn about us.”
Giesler said tourists flock to Alaska for all the recreational opportunities from fishing the Kenai River in the summer, to exploring the hills on a snowmachine in the winter. He said he got into the snowmachine industry because he loves riding and helping customers who have become friends through their shared interest.
“There are only two ways to see Alaska — by airplane of snowmobile,” he said. “Being able to get out and do a lot of exploring it’s the best way to see Alaska.”