Future Of 'Bike Week' Relies On New Marketing

Jun 15, 2012

Once upon a time, Laconia Bike Week was a rowdy affair with a lot of drinking and wild behavior.

As a Laconia Police Sergeant Mike Finogle explains, the police don’t worry as much as they used to:  these days the attendees are more likely to be laid back retirees than raucous rabble rousers.   That’s pretty much who you’ll find on the the street near Weirs beach. 

Folks like Ray Jackson from Rhode Island.  With his leather vest, cap, and graying beard, Jackson is a gospel-preaching member of the Christian Motorcyclist Association. He and his wife Donna travel to motorcycle events every summer-- on a mission to save some souls. Then there are guys like Jay Eline, also known as “Dragon.”

“I’ve been riding motorcycles for about 32 years now.”

Eline rode all the way out from Santa Rosa, California. He showed me a ribbon he got in the Blind Sidecar Race that day.

“The blind sidecar race is where the rider, sitting in the front of the bike, is blind-folded, you can’t see anything.”

They go around an obstacle course, while the backseat passenger gives directions. 

“I was a little shaky coming of it, it’s definitely an eye opener, they take the blindfold off you and you’re like Jeez!”

Baby boomers like Eline and Jackson are the bread and butter of the motorcycle industry.  They’re riding more than ever now, but in 10 or 20 years, who will be buying new bikes?   It’s something Ross Housten, the General Manager of Laconia Harley Davidson, thinks a lot about.

“Obviously that is a very big concern for us, and a very big drive for us is to bring new riders in, instead of it being our core demographic, how do we get the younger people in.”

On Thursday afternoon, the Harley dealership was just teeming with customers – mostly men in their 50s, 60s and 70s.  Housten says he’s strategizing to bring in not just younger riders, but more women, too.  Part of that strategy is understanding what women want – when it comes to a bike.  While men are most often interested in a vehicle’s specs – like the size of the engine – women are often more concerned with fit.  At hardly 5’2, I asked Housten which bike he’d show me if I just happened to mosey in looking for a ride.

“That’s an 883 super low, and it’s really geared to have a very low center of gravity, low seat height, so that somebody that is, you know, petite, is able to sit on it, stand it up, and be comfortable.”

Nationally, motorcycle sales took a 40% hit in 2008, and haven’t grown since then -- until this year.  In 2008, one million, one hundred and 4 thousand motorcycles were sold in this country.  By 2010, that number was down to 560,000. 

Both in response to the recession, and in anticipation of the aging of their core demographic, motorcycle manufacturers and dealers are getting creative about marketing to a younger generation.  Tim Buche, the president and CEO of the Motorcycle Industry Council,  says one thing millenials are attracted to is an activity that’s not in front of a TV or computer screen.

 “I think what appeals to that market are things that our industry can deliver. And part of that is just real experiences. We need to get back outside.

Data definitely shows that more young people are buying motorcycles every year.  In 2003 only 13 percent of riders were from generation Y. In 2009 that number was up to 29 percent.  This is good news for the motorcycle industry, and it could be good news for Laconia Bike Week, too.