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Following the market

During the first 10 years of Sound RIDER! we pretty much experienced market growth year after year from 1999 all the way to 2008.

Until that thing happened…you know, that thing. The Great Recession.

After all the deregulations of the administration leading up to that point, the chickens all came home to roost - all at once it seemed. The domino effect was felt around the world and as one industry sage put it, "It's never going to be the way it's been the last 10 years - ever again."

And so far, he's been right. The days where everyone can get as much credit as they want have passed. And while that's a good thing, it's changed the economy in general, and certainly the motorcycle marketplace. Over the last ten years, we got to watch a major downsizing happen locally as the major trades reported on it nationally.

But there was more at play than the tightening of the belt by many consumers. The largest segment of the population, the baby boomers, was aging out. Events like The Governor's Run were starting to disappear.

The Governor's Run had been an annual event held at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds for 25 years. It was put on by the local Gold Wing Road Riders Association, Kitsap County chapter, and was heavily supported by GWRRA volunteers from across the state. But by 2008, the event had to be canceled for multiple reasons, one being the lack of volunteers. The Gold Wing crowd was aging out and this was a glaring example of that happening. Over the next few years, the number of chapters in the state reduced from 25 to just 16 today.

Membership in clubs like the GWRRA and beyond was declining as well. Other Pacific Northwest clubs struggling with aging-out over the last decade have also included the Vintage Motorcycle Enthusiasts, Washington State BMW Riders, and many of the local Harley Owners Group chapters.

And where are the replacements? They are few and far between.

At this point we turn our attention to psychographics. You'd think the X-Generation and Millennials would be hopping on bikes and taking up space on the road once occupied by their parents and grandparents. Only in minute numbers has this been the case.

In 2000 I would sit at Renton Motorcycles during the holiday selling season and watch the sales staff sell at least one 50cc bike a day, sometimes more. In 2010 I watched that number turn to just a few units in November and December. Something had changed.

As the parent of a millennial, it was pretty obvious. These kids had grown up on video games. You can crash a car or motorcycle over and over again in a video game and sustain no real injuries. Why would you go out and risk a crash on a motorcycle? Or a flat tire, or a rain storm, or the cold, or the heat.

The one segment of millennials that would buy a motorcycle were service men and women returning from duty. If you look at who the female instructors are today in motorcycle training, a fair number of them have been in the armed forces. Ditto for many of the men. But the sad story on the male side was that a number of these men returned from war, bought a bike and died the next day due to excessive speed and lack of training.

With the social media boom, community among younger riders has moved from the old school club, to meetup groups, forums enthusiasts pages. Gone were the days of getting a newsletter once a month in the mail, club officers, and a structured group of riders planning out the next year. The internet was the wild west and there were no rules, no dues, no clubhouses, and no structure in general to these digital outlets. But social media has not been causing the market to grow, it's just where you need to go to look for the next generation of riders.

The market has certainly been contracting. Regardless of your business size, small, medium or large, it's never easy getting through a squeeze. And all the time you know you need to be mining the next generation of riders.

Keith and Anne Thye did a great job of this with their Ride West BMW dealership, hosting a number of travel slideshows, book authors, and other presenters on a monthly basis. This created community within their store clientele and was certainly a factor in why they were routinely a top 5 performer for BMW Motorad during the 1990s and 2000s. When the shop was sold several years ago, that extra step pretty much went away. While the store might host have a guest presenter once or twice a year, the newsletters became primarily a selling tool for used bikes and new model announcements. Not much inspiration there for a rider to move from 3,000 miles a year on two wheels to 10,000.

And without that, what we bred up are a number of millennials and X-gens who buy bikes to ride around town going from coffee spot to moto night and staying within 100 miles of home.

While that's not optimal when it comes to dealers selling someone their second bike, or servicing their customers' bikes annually, it does tell us one thing. There is a generation of new riders, who with the right inspiration just may well become the next 10,000 milers. They just need the bridge that will get them from casual owner, to dedicated enthusiast.

I personally believe riding motorcycles is a very life enriching event. It's certainly more interesting than driving a car, and takes twice as many skills to do it well. And while it does come with a higher level of risks, I'm willing to accept that as long as I know I'm personally making every effort to minimize the risks so that every trip is a positive one.

Like everyone, I'm aging, but I haven't aged out yet. In going forward, I plan to keep sharing what makes a ride good for me so that others can have the best experiences themselves. And if there are a few Millennials and X-Gens that want to come along for that ride, all the better.

TM/April 2019


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