No easy ride: Motorcycle industry is in deep trouble and needs help fast, panel agrees

A group of two dozen concerned motorcycle veterans has published a comprehensive research document that addresses the question, “Can this industry be saved?”

Maybe, it concluded, but it’s not going to be easy.

Former Indian Motorcycle executive Robert Pandya formed the Give A Shift group this fall, hoping to find a consensus of opinion among his friends and colleagues.

He began with a written survey, which included 300 participants, and proceeded to a two-hour roundtable discussion in Long Beach, on Nov. 16, with 25 of the most ardent influencers.

Their comments, made anonymously for fear of offending employers and business associates, paint a dire picture.

  • Sales are flat or falling in almost every area.
  • Baby boomer buyers, the most consistent motorcycle consumers, are aging out of the industry fast.
  • The industry has failed to increase sales by making new riders out of women, minorities and millennials.
  • The old dealership model is broken and needs a makeover.
  • The arrival of autonomous vehicles may push motorcycles off the road entirely.

“The message is, ‘We are in trouble, and there is no silver bullet,’ ” Pandya said.

Among the key findings in the report, which can be read in its entirety here:

The motorcycle industry does not need better product, but its marketing and advertising methods are failing to attract new riders in part because they are too focused on selling bigger, faster, more expensive machines to veteran riders.

“There has never been a more compelling and interesting time in motorcycling,” the report said. “It’s clear … that the bigger issue is lack of general interest in riding.”

The industry also has failed to appreciate the importance of the female rider, losing sight of the concept that mothers who ride tend to produce children who ride. Instead, manufacturers focus too tightly on the more typical male consumer and, when it comes to women, rely on the careworn “shrink it and pink it” approach to apparel and gear manufacturing.

“There is clearly a path to attract female ridership that does not come from traditional motorcycle marketing and must be explored,” the report said. “The increase in female ridership will have a huge influence on young riders’ access to motorcycling.”

The panel faulted motorcycle dealerships for being outmoded and unimaginative, and for employing sales personnel primarily interested in selling top-of-the-line products to well-heeled buyers while ignoring the entry-level beginner.

“Dealers still often do not know how to sell to women, couples, families and non-traditional customers,” the report concluded. “Being enchanted by motorcycling can quickly be dulled by a poor, confusing or dismissive dealership experience.

Even more worrying, Pandya’s report said, is the approaching widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles, whose prevalence on public roads may leave no safe space for motorcycling.

“There is a very real risk of motorcycling being completely cut out of the conversation for future vehicle infrastructure systems,” the panel concluded. “The single biggest threat to motorcycling overall … will be the incompatibility between autonomous vehicles and existing motorcycles.”

Though the panel’s conclusions were bleak, its members did have ideas for slowing the erosion in sales and enthusiasm.

The paper called on the power sports industry collectively and riders individually to self-correct, self-police and work together to improve motorcycling’s image.

Manufacturers must “promote motorcycling as an activity for everyone,” “tell a compelling story about the benefits and joys of motorcycling” and “affect acceptance of the positive aspects of motorcycling.”

Riders, in turn, must be better ambassadors for the sport they love and better at sharing the message.

“If just 20% of existing riders were able to bring a new rider into the mix every year, the shift would be dramatic not only in sales but in camaraderie,” the report said. “Motorcycling can no longer be our secret.”

Blaine Schuttler, managing director of Husqvarna Motorcycles North America, said a major challenge is in simply identifying consumers and connecting with them.

“Our marketing activity plans are geared toward people who are currently in the sport, and toward trying to attract returners to the sport,” Schuttler said. “At the same time, everybody in the industry is trying to attract people who haven’t been exposed to motorcycles or have never ridden motorcycles before.”

Some companies, the report charged, have failed to produce enough motorcycles that are appropriately sized and priced for new riders, or have failed to make them sufficiently attractive.

But even those who have built splendid lineups of starter motorcycles, like Honda, are having trouble capturing the attention of potential riders whose free time and disposable income already are occupied by online gaming, streaming video content and other popular outdoor activities such as cycling, mountain biking, hiking or RV camping.

“There are so many options for that audience in terms of transportation and recreation,” said Lee Edmunds, national motorcycle advertising manager for American Honda. “I don’t see anything approaching what we need to do with that audience.”

The problem is made particularly acute, the report said, because many millennial consumers were “bubble-wrapped for safety in their youth” or raised by overprotective parents who discouraged risk-taking.

“Adventure is not at the top of the list,” said MotoQuest tour company founder Phil Freeman. “It’s more about comfort and security.”

Industry consultant and former Honda executive Chris Jonnum, who was not part of the panel but endorses many of its conclusions, observed that the thrill of motorcycling alone should make it an easy sell.

“What we have is cool and fun and genuine and appealing,” he said. “Everyone who does it knows how great it is, and how fun it is. What we’re trying to do here shouldn’t be impossible.”

charles.fleming@latimes.com

@misterfleming

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