How Cadillac, a popular winter sports destination, pivoted during the lost season

In a typical winter, Cadillac welcomes an abundance of snow -- that fresh powder, along with consistently frigid temperatures, make the northern Michigan community a destination for snowmobile and ice fishing enthusiasts.

But not so much this past winter.

“Our ice fishing is typically really strong,” says Kathy Morin, executive director of the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau. “We’re one of the first areas to have frozen lakes north of U.S. 10. That gives us a jumpstart into the ice fishing season … but this year was unpredictable, and the weather was unstable.”

Ice fishing on lakes Cadillac and Mitchell became a dicey proposition this year. And the area’s network of 200 miles of snowmobile trails, most of them maintained and groomed by snowmobile clubs, lacked snow cover most of the season.

Like some other communities and seasonal event organizers in Michigan’s winter destinations, Cadillac tourism officials pivoted, redirecting winter marketing, relocating outdoor sports events, promoting other outdoor activities, and being upfront with travelers about weather conditions. 

“Winter happens on its own and comes and goes, but for the most part, we usually have fairly moderate and decent conditions to have a snowmobile season and for ice fishing,” Morin says. “I’ve never seen ice fishing conditions deteriorate as quickly as they did this year.”

In the Upper Peninsula, home to many well-known winter festivals and races, several communities adapted to cancellations because of poor conditions, shifting related activities indoors and creating new ones like bingo and cornhole tournaments. 

Cadillac tourism officials promoted river rafting as an alternative to other winter sports.Visit Keweenaw halted its winter marketing campaign a month early because the lack of snow prevented trail grooming for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, and limited downhill skiing opportunities. Those resources were redirected to early spring promotions that focused on astro tourism and other activities, says Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw. 

Barnett notes community volunteer organizers for big events like the CopperDog 150 Sled Dog Races and the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival pivoted to alternative activities and focused on non-snow experiences and indoor events to attract visitors. 

In Cadillac, ice fishing promotions turned to marketing efforts for river fishing, pushing interest in that spring sport earlier than usual. Winter river rafting, a growing outdoor pursuit, also was advertised. Other promotions shifted as well, with tourism officials supporting hospitality partners – especially those with a heavy reliance on winter business – as much as possible.

To ease the pinch at Pilgrim Village Resort and Fishing Shop, a popular bait-and-tackle shop and motel on the shores of Lake Mitchell, tourism officials promoted spring fishing gear and encouraged spring river fishing. 

“I’ve never seen a winter like this,” says Garrett Scarbrough, a Cadillac resident who works at Pilgrim Fishing Shop. “In a normal winter, they’re lined out the door on weekends. This winter was very spotty – there were not a lot of people coming up.”

To encourage business, Pilgrim Fishing Shop ran more advertising and sales. Even Scarbrough, an avid fisherman who typically goes out on the ice several times a week most winters, ventured out only twice this year, saying “it was not safe enough … you couldn’t get to really good spots.”

Lindsey Westdorp, marketing director for Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau, worked with sports groups to keep their long-planned events in the area, tapping hospitality partners to relocate them to other venues.

The Midwest Snow Kite Jam relocated its gathering to Caberfae Peaks, outside Cadillac. The Midwest Snow Kite Jam, for instance, planned an early February weekend in Cadillac to celebrate all things kite jamming and provide workshops for beginners on frozen lakes. With ice cover deemed unsafe at the Cadillac Pathway, the CAVB helped direct the kite jammers to another location, Caberfae Peaks, a ski resort west of the city. Caberfae hosted the group and offered discounts on lift tickets. 

“They couldn’t go kite jamming but they could still salvage their time as a group in Cadillac,” Morin says.

Later that same month, Cadillac was poised to host once the annual Fatty Caddy, a fat tire race on snowy trails. Because of the lack of ideal winter conditions at the planned location, the venue had to be changed -- to Lost Pines Lodge. The CAVB helped organizers with their efforts.

A participant in the 2024 Fatty Caddy on the trails at Lone Pines Lodge. “Lost Pines Lodge was a really great host and really saved the day for us,” says Joe
Cantwell, a personal trainer and avid biker from Ionia who helps organize the annual event. “The course was challenging and fun and included many Cadillac snowmobile trails that are a lot of fun to be on. This alternative let us keep Fatty Caddy going and we’re excited for the third annual year next year. We don't have a lot of details for next year’s race yet, but we will be back in Cadillac next winter.” 

The CAVB also provided detailed updates of winter conditions on its homepage and made weekly tweaks to digital ads to provide accurate information for travelers looking to book rooms in Cadillac for winter recreation. 

There was, however, a bright spot for this winter mecca. 

Caberfae Peaks, one of the oldest ski areas in the country, managed a decent season despite spotty weather conditions. Upgrades by Consumers Power helped the resort improve its snow making capabilities and Caberfae managed to stay open through mid-March.  The resort received 78 inches of natural snow, far below its norm during a typical winter.

While the winter was challenging for ski areas across Michigan, those resorts that continually invest in more and better snowmaking equipment and infrastructure fared better because they were able to make snow faster, more efficiently and at warmer temperatures, says Mickey MacWilliams, executive director of the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association.

With winter in the history books, Cadillac has its eyes on spring and another outdoor sport, one growing in popularity across the country. The Wexford County community is promoting itself as an off-road recreational vehicle (ORV) destination.

“It’s just a no-brainer for us to invest heavily into this recreation and audience right now,” Westdorp says. “We’re taking all of this into account as we build out our long-term strategies, planning for warmer winters.”

The CAVB has launched the Cadillac Area ORV Initiative, a push to let riders know the county is worth the trip for year-round ORV recreation and fun. The area boasts 120 miles of ORV trails, which connect to hundreds of miles of neighboring trail networks, including the 1,200-mile Michigan Cross-Country Cycle Trail. 

“I think we always have to be thinking strategically about what’s changing,” Morin says. “Things have changed so much the past few years. It’s kind of hard to predict what will happen. You have to roll with it.”
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