In its 94th year, the Laconia Motorcycle Week prides itself on being the world’s oldest motorcycle rally. As the rally ages, however, so too has its main demographic. But health-related organizations are seeing a silver lining in this shift — and are seizing on this new chance to reach aging bikers in their element.
Seventy-year-old Bruce Hopey, of Newmarket, has five decades of motorcycling under his belt — including more than 40 years of attendance at the annual rally in Laconia. He said the rally has changed a lot since he first started coming: "Less violence, smarter people. I guess it comes with age."
Something else that’s new: As he made his way down the Weirs Beach boardwalk Saturday morning, through rows and rows of bikes and T-shirt booths, Hopey also stumbled upon a street team sent there by Gilead, a pharmaceutical company that sells drugs for Hepatitis C.
“We’re here doing some outreach and helping to educate people about getting tested for Hepatitis C. We have some information,” said the representative from Hep C Hope, an awareness campaign sponsored by the company. “Have you been tested?”
In fact, Hopey was already planning to ask his doctor about it — in part, he said, because of all of the commercials he’d been seeing on TV. But his interaction was just one example of the way in which organizations were trying to bring a medical message to motorcycle week.
Dee Daley, with the New Hampshire Physical Therapy Association, said her group’s also been trying to be more creative about meeting potential patients where they are.
“We said we’ve never done this before, and people think we’re a little nuts, but let’s give it a try,” Daley said of the decision to show up at the rally this year. "This seemed like a natural fit, since bikers often need help staying on their bikes. Bikers are aging, and we want to make sure they can stay riding as long as they want to."
The physical therapists’ group had a booth set up offering strength tests, and they also tried to give people information on how to find a physical therapist in case of injuries on a bike or otherwise.
"In treating bikers in the past I have found they are incredibly motivated to go back to doing things. That passion, it doesn’t matter if it’s returning to sewing or to motorcycles, it really is something that people care about,” Daley added. “If we can make their lives richer or contribute in any way to helping them get back to their goals, I don’t know how we ever don’t feel good about that."
Just across the street, a team from the VA New England Healthcare System also had its own booth with T-shirts, brochures and laptops ready to enroll veterans in a number of benefits, right on-site.
“We know from marketing research that a lot of owners of motorcycles are veterans,” said John Paradis, an outreach specialist for the VA and a veteran himself. “Plus, right now a big group of veterans that we’re really reaching out to are Vietnam veterans, and you see a lot of Vietnam veterans at bike runs [and] bike rallies.”
By the end of the week, Paradis said they signed up more than 50 people with VA healthcare, many of whom were unaware they were eligible or unsure of how to connect with the services the VA offered.
One of the veterans who stopped by the VA booth was Phil Rowell, who manages a facility for homeless veterans in central Vermont.
“Unfortunately some vets haven’t gotten the help they need. So they need this information,” Rowell said. “They don’t always go and seek it out — but if somebody’s there to hand it to them, I think it’s a good idea.”
Jennifer Anderson has been involved with the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association for almost two decades, but she said the growing presence of health organizations is a recent phenomenon – only in the last few years.
“Along with gradual age changes comes gradual health changes,” Anderson said. “And I think companies are realizing that there’s a lot of opportunity to spread awareness at different events, whether it’s a motorcycle rally or a car show, to reach that population where they are congregated.”
And as motorcycling sheds its image as a sport wrapped up in counterculture and continues to become more mainstream, Anderson said it only makes sense that rally vendors are starting to reflect wellness for the biker’s whole life – not just while he or she’s on the open road.