Motorcycle Tourism

Motorcycle touring in the Charlevoix region of Quebec.
Motorcycle touring in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. | Source

Motorcycle Tourism

A hairy hoard descends upon the hapless town.  Rampage follows with motorcycles careening through businesses and fights ensue by rival gangs or the local hero.  That image was created by Hollywood in their “B” movies of the 1970’s.  It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.  The historical facts of the what happened in Hollister, California and the “riot” in Laconia were just too boring to make the national new without a bit of creative license.  In fact, the former didn’t make the national news, but the crafted and staged photo in Life magazine burned the image of the outlaw biker into the minds of America.  By the time police intervened to stop the fires lit in two oil-drum trash containers at the Laconia rally, the media had learned from Hollywood’s success. 

Motorcycle tourism is one of the fastest growing segments in North America’s number-two industry.  The town of Laconia and the state of New Hampshire learned a hard lesson regarding the economic impact of motorcycle tourism.  After a few years of trying to ban or restrict Bike Week, the state now spends millions of dollars each year to promote it.  That single weeklong event fills all the hotels in the state and pumps over a 100-million dollars into the economy.  It has become the leading economic public event in the state.  The same is true for other major rallies.  The Americade rally, while much smaller than Laconia, Daytona, or Sturgis, is of such economic importance that the Adirondack resort town has been revitalized and now “the season” begins two weeks earlier than it did prior to this event.  The very survival of many “mom-and-pop” businesses actually depends upon this one week of biker customers.

The major rallies draw tens of thousands of riders to specific destinations, but tourism organizations hundreds of miles away are gearing up to take advantage of the travelers en route.  Take the Chamber of Commerce in Billings, Montana for an example.

“Every year, especially in July and August, motorcycles roar through Billings on their way to and from the massive rally in Sturgis. That rally attracts nearly half a million people, and [Micheal J.] Marsh believes that Billings could do more to lure some of them off the road for a day or two in Billings.”

“Increasing numbers of motorcycles on the highways and interstates have the attention of the chamber, too. It came into focus last year when a study by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research estimated that 10 percent of the 10 million people who visit the state each year now arrive on motorcycles.

‘That was kind of our light-bulb moment,’ said Joan Kronebusch, the chamber’s director of marketing. ‘It’s a market we will actively pursue.” –Oct. 17, 2010 Billings Gazette

It’s not just rallies that attract traveling motorcyclists.  Regions known for their scenic roads draw two-wheeled visitors during the riding season.  Places like Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and the Gaspè in Quebec have attracted large number of riders for years.  The Smokey Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the eastern United States are two more examples.  However, these are not the only motorcycle-tourism destinations on the map.

Think for a minute.  A touring motorcycle generally costs between $15,000 and $25,000 dollars.  Add another $3,000 for riding gear and thousands more for accessories that may or may not be visible to the eye of the uninitiated.  Tack on a few thousand more for custom paint. Time is money and if a rider or couple has time to ride they probably fit into a fairly high income bracket.  About 5% of motorcyclists camp, which leaves 95% seeking lodging.  Of course they have to eat, purchase fuel, and pay entry fees to sites of interest.  Most of these riders are 40+ years of age and over a third of them travel as couples –riding two-up or on two bikes—or in small groups of less than six.  Not exactly rampaging outlaws, they are more apt to be lawyers, accountants, business owners, or professionals.  They are one of the most desirable demographic groups you’ll ever target.

There is a catch: they, like every other niche market, have their special needs.  If you want to attract these customers you must know what their needs and expectations are.  You can’t dress up old promotions by adding the photo of a motorcycle.  Who are you fooling?  Such an approach is actual detrimental since it proves you don’t understand who they are and what they want.  This applies to individual, private-owner properties as well as regional tourist organizations, and corporate chains. 

When I was a teenager my family owned and operated Breezy Hill Tourist Cabins in Vermont.  One week every summer our yard was filled with big Harley-Davidson motorcycles, clients who came to watch the Grafton Scrambles.  In the late 1960s we had no concept of “niche” markets and we lucked out because of our location.  However, we must have been doing something right because these clients made reservations for the following summer and returned year after year.  One hundred percent occupancy guaranteed in advance.  I learned that motorcyclists are extremely loyal clients if you are only willing to meet their needs and make them feel wanted.

That was over 40 years ago and tourism has changed a bit since then.  In fact, everything in this industry changed since the economic crash in 2008.  Statistics compiled and trends plotted prior to the downturn have no relevance now.  They just don’t apply.  Statistics, as you well know, are numbers that can be factor almost anyway you choose.  They’re important guides, but all are after-the-fact.  Tourism is a product that requires development and constant improvement.  A property –whether it’s a hotel, a town, or a region—has to be “packaged” in a manner that appeals to the consumer.  It’s like a jar of spaghetti sauce: the basic ingredient is the same, but different special additions –Swedish meatballs, wild mushrooms, or spices—increases the sales of the product by meeting the special “taste” of the consumer.  This is niche marketing, but you can’t just add stuff, you need to get the “recipe” right.

Can you afford to be passive and just hope that motorcyclists find you or are you prepared to do a bit of product development and actively promote yourself to this market?  If you are prepared to go after this particular 10% of the tourism market –or any other niche market--there are things you should do:

1)    Drop any preconceived ideas about motorcyclists;

2)    Have your property or region audited by a professional in this niche market;

3)    Seek the media channels that most cost effectively reach that audience;

4)    Smile, make your clients feel welcome and;

5)    Do the little things that will encourage these clients to return and tell their friends about the positive experience you provided.

As Joan Kronebush, director of marketing for the Chamber of Commerce in Billings, Montana recently stated, “We’re being proactive. We’re going after that [motorcycle] market. For years we’ve let the market come to us.”  I think she has a good idea.

Ken Aiken is a motorcycle tourism consultant and product developer.  An author of guidebooks and a well-known moto-journalist, he developed U.S. regional and rally touring maps for MAD (Motor Adventure Destinations) Maps of San Francisco and most of Harley-Davidson’s Great Road map series.  He is a regular seminar speaker at Americade, North America’s largest motorcycle-touring rally and is the U.S. motorcycle touring representative for the Charlevoix region of Quebec.

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