By Scot Harden
This month’s assignment from our fearless leader, Robin Hartfiel seemed simple enough, at least at first. What does success look like in the motorcycle industry? That should be easy: Let’s start by getting back to 2007 retail sales volumes for starters. Things would be a lot better? Right? Well, yes that would be nice, but that would be like a junkie chasing a quick fix, rather than pursuing a long-term solution to his problem. There is no question that many of the purchases between 2000 and 2008 were impulse buys when people were using their home equity like ATMs. My point is even though we were selling over a million units a year in 2007, we didn’t have the foresight or programs in place to actively convert many of those first time and impulse buyers into long term enthusiasts. So what happened? Where did we go wrong?
Let’s face it if even a small fraction of the first time owners that came into motorcycling between 2000 and 2008 remained active enthusiasts today we would not be in the position we are today. Its fair to say that many of those buyers back then also had a future millennial or two living under the same roof and not only did we miss an opportunity to convert the original buyer into a committed, long-term enthusiast we didn’t do enough to market to other family members to incite a passion in them to come along for the ride as well. In my April Dealernews article “Time to GoMotorcycling," I used the RV industry as an example of an industry with vision and a long-term plan to promote itself through good times and bad. All too often industries tend to focus on growth strategies when things aren’t going well when the best opportunity to develop a strong foundation for the future is during the good times.
For me, “success” for the motorcycle/Powersports industry isn’t just about numbers; it’s about shaping perception, laying the groundwork for a better riding experience, lowering barriers to entry, shifting social and cultural viewpoints towards motorcycling, its as simple as watching a father and son sharing a ride together or better yet, a mother and daughter. If we achieve, these objectives sales will follow. I recently reached out to a few of my colleagues asking them to define what success in the motorcycle industry might look like without numbers attached to it and what stands in our way and here is some of what I got back:
1.) Riders-Share founder Guillermo Cornejo shared a thought that was expressed by many others, " I would hope that in the future as self-driving tech comes online that it "sees motorcycles" and is mandated to do so making riding safer for all. Also, I would hope more people see motorcycles as a solution to traffic congestion, especially in major cities, and more states pass lane-splitting laws". Indeed, as autonomous vehicles come online, we have a tremendous opportunity to use the technology to influence the sport, making it safer for all positively, but only if we actively speak up on the matter. Another colleague Brandon Glanville, shared, “I for one would like to see the United States in particular start looking at motorcycles more as transportation rather than just toys for daredevils. Part of my thought on this is the desire that motorists at large also become a lot more aware of motorcyclists”.
2.) Several colleagues mentioned that the adoption of new technologies such as electric should help broaden the appeal, especially to a younger, more urban demographic. Moreover, I have no doubt this will be the case, but we still need to inspire the next generation of riders to give motorcycling a try. Personal experience has taught me the distance between switching from a traditional internal combustion motorcycle rider to an electric motorcycle rider is a nano-step compared to making the crossover over from non-motorcyclist to a motorcyclist.
3.) On the subject of technology, I often hear that our love affair with technology is a double-edged sword. No question that modern four-stroke technology applied to off-road and motocross competition has significantly changed the landscape of racing and off-road recreation. Listen to what track owner Steve Johnson has to say about this, “Being a track owner, rider, racer, industry guy for 30+ years my thoughts on the off-road MX market all come down to the same conclusion: price. As we converted our riders from two strokes to four strokes, I saw my rider count get cut in half in less than three years. The sixteen to twenty-year-old kid with a 125cc bike in the back of his pick-up does not exist anymore. We saw rider counts of 100+ in the 125C class drop to maybe 25-30 with the 250cc four-strokes. Price of a new bike and maintenance has put riding out of reach for most young riders funding their way. The largest classes at a local level are all your vet classes as they have the income to support the sport. We could write a book on how we got here, but all the long-time industry folks have already read it and live it". Steve's point is valid; there should be a balance somewhere between the pursuit of technology and cost.
4.) Another common theme is the connection between motorcycling and fathers and sons, and in many cases mothers and sons, or daughters for that matter. Lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and close friend Ben Janin summed it up by stating, “I am having the time of my life raising my two boys. It all started with a Strider, next an Oset, and then a 50cc, and finally pit bikes for all of us. I have been riding side by side with my boys for at least three years. And with each year it just gets better. We just wrapped up our 11th weekend of riding and camping. Fathers and sons riding on small bikes; that's what success looks like to me. The STACYC bikes look like they will be an awesome addition as well. Emphasizing these intro bikes and dads (and moms) riding alongside may prove to be awesome. Nothing is more intimate or rewarding. We need to get this message across".
5.) Another area that means success in my book is keeping off-road riding areas open. Let’s face it the easiest way to get your first taste of two-wheeled freedom and adventure is on a dirt bike. No license required, just an area big enough and close enough to home to make it an option, and a good neighbor or friend willing to show you the ropes. Saving off-road riding areas is key to our future success. And despite all the bad news we frequently hear regarding land closure, there is also good news. For example, work is underway to find a suitable location for an OHV park in Riverside County, California. Hard to believe that an area like Riverside County that is home to so many off-road racers and stars doesn’t have an OHV park, but I can tell you first hand that a group of dedicated off-road enthusiasts, businessmen and women, and local government agencies are working right now to make that a reality. Success for me looks like a new riding area located nearby to a major population center.
6.) No question but that motorcycling needs to be presented in a more powerful and authentic light in mainstream media and Hollywood. It’s hard to believe that almost 70 years down the road from Brando’s “The Wild One” that the image of the outlaw biker and biker gang prevails in movies and on TV. The only exception is when they are depicted in outlandish or extreme situations flying wildly through the air, or in some dangerous stunt or situation. Success for me will be the day when motorcycles are presented as they truly are; freedom machines, transportation for the soul, exercise equipment with an unlimited supply of fresh air, vehicles to explore uncharted land, expand horizons, teach personal responsibility, foster life-affirming experience, friendship and sense of community on a deeply personal level.