Melling and his wife Carol have promoted and organized the Thundersprint Festival of Motorcycling, which they also own, for the last 15 years.
One of the many challenges we motorcycling journalists face in qualifying as fully paid up members of the human race is that we tend to be good at telling others what, and how, to do things – but are somewhat less competent at achieving anything ourselves.
Over the years, I have written a number of articles urging MCUSA readers to reach out to the wider community and promote motorcycling and I followed the same theme in the last Single Track Mind column.
The very reasonable response from readers is to say something along the lines of, “It’s okay for you to tell us to go out and spread the good word but what have you done, and how did you do it?”
Somewhat remarkably, in this case I have actually practiced what I preach because for the last 15 years my wife and I have promoted, organized – and actually own – the Thundersprint Festival of Motorcycling.
I have to be honest and admit that the original aim of the Thundersprint was not to act as a shop window for motorcycling. Sixteen years ago, I was disenchanted with being a Managing Director and very much enchanted with being a Dad. Since I wanted a job where I would be with my lovely little daughter, I resigned and decided to look for a job where I could work from an office at home. In the simplest possible terms this was the reason behind the Thundersprint.
There were some other minor bits and pieces before we could get the show on the road – such as persuading my wife to give up her job too so that we had no other income. Then we re-mortgaged our house to the point of oblivion to ensure that failure meant social housing and a pit bull, guarding a pile of interesting little foil packets, for a next door neighbor.
Faced with losing absolutely 100% of what we owned, and had worked all our adult lives for, making the Thundersprint a success had more than a passing interest.
The first thing which struck Carol and I was that, even 16 years ago, there was a shortage of motorcyclists. At the time if we had stood in a shopping mall and asked 100 adults how many owned a motorcycle even in bike-mad Britain, we would have been lucky to find 10 people out of 100 – and that’s being generous. Now the situation is much worse.
Part of the reason was that of the 100 sample, 50 potential customers – give or take – would be female and only a very small proportion of this group were interested in motorcycles.
So, we were faced with the problem of selling our event to a predominantly male audience, aged between 25 and 65, when the math indicated that the majority of the population was not in this demographic.
We would had to have been utterly and completely stupid – and then some – to ignore the majority of the population and instead pursue a single, small, exclusive sub-group. Since we were teetering on the edge of the financial abyss, every customer counted and so we went chasing a mass market – Mum, kids, the elderly and infirm, people who didn’t know the difference between a motorcycle and an armadillo wearing a bikini. Everyone was welcomed and as a byproduct we have done a lot to popularize motorcycling.
That our big idea was a good one has also proved to be correct. We are still in our house, there’s food in the fridge and we own a couple of nice race bikes, so life couldn’t get much better.
Our attendance figures have also been interesting. At a time when spectators have been staying away from bike events in droves we have consistently achieved attendances of 125,000 plus.
Part of the reason is that we have had a town center event, with free admission but, regardless, we have offered a product which 100,000 plus customers want to spend their Sunday enjoying. Maybe 60% of those customers are not motorcyclists but our exhibitors tell us that a significant minority become interested in bikes.
In short, there is an interest in motorcycles, and motorcycling, if only our sport is presented in a way which the general public finds enjoyable and acceptable.
Here is a Top 20 guide to putting on your own event aimed at bringing motorcycling to the general public in your town.
It may be that some of things I will list will not meet your approval. If so, then please accept that my comments are based on 16 years of running one of the biggest motorcycling events in the world and are not intended to be assertive or immodest.
If you want an event which is attractive to the general public then you cannot upset that customer base and accepting this is the key to success.
This means that you can’t have exactly the event you would have purely for motorcyclists. The evidence is black and white clear. Hardcore motorcycle events are unattractive to the general public. If they were attractive, attendances at bike events would not be plummeting. Critics can argue until they are blue in the face but anyone inside the motorcycle event organizing business will tell you that everything from bike exhibitions to MotoGP is suffering from a massive fall in attendance: this is simply fact.
Here’s how to spread the good word outside motorcycling.
First, do everything legally and by the book(s). Whatever event you intend organizing – from a bike show to an enduro – follow the regulations which apply to your state and nationally.
I know that this sounds achingly boring but it is the only way forward. The truth is that there are no problems until something goes wrong, at which point everyone looks for someone to blame – and sue. The idea of a genuine accident, or an honest oversight, belongs to the era when I was a young man.
The best way to ensure that you have all the legal boxes ticked is to run the event under the auspices of the AMA http://www.americanmotorcyclist.com/ who really are a switched on organization.
Try to work with a local school/charity/hospital. Does your local High School need new uniforms for its basketball team? Maybe your motorcycle event could help raise the funds for them? Perhaps a nearby hospital needs some donations for kids’ toys for the children’s unit. Help them along the way.
Try to link your event to organizations which the public like and respect.
So here we go:
1. Probably the best way to reach a general audience is a bike show. The general public like looking at motorcycles and this is an excellent way to bring new riders into the motorcycle fold.
2. First, and most important, smile and enjoy yourself. Showing off motorcycling is just amazing fun.
Being kind, courteous and softly spoken puts your visitors in their comfort zone and makes your exhibitors want to work with you.
If you are having a good time, then so will your visitors.
3. Let the media know what you are doing and why. Your local media is always desperate for news and will not expect a sophisticated media campaign. Instead, send them an e-mail which answers these questions:
Who, why, when, where? These four elements are the bedrock of any press release and are the four questions which the media need answering.
Look at the coverage of President Obama’s inauguration and you will see that it followed the same four golden points – and his Press Officers are not too bad!
From media coverage comes attendance because everyone loves a free show.
4. Involve your local and state police from the outset. Explain what you are doing and why and invite them to bring down a police motorcycle or traffic patrol car to show everyone what a good job they do in keeping the highways safe.
Meet with your local and state police departments early on and explain that your event is supporting charity “x” and that you are properly insured and don’t intend running wheelie and burnout competitions down Main Street or hosting a bad-ass outlaw party.
Remember that, at all times, your show is a recruiting exercise for motorcycling and so you need to evangelize gently, quietly and without risking upsetting the natives – i.e. the mainstream population.
The presence of police officers chatting with the public, and licking ice-creams, sets a lovely tone for a pro-motorcycling event.
5. A good bike show should have a range of motorcycles on show. Invite your local bike dealer(s), regardless of the marque they sell, to exhibit motorcycles.
If you know any dirt bike riders, or classic fans, get them to show their bikes too.
Make sure that there is as wide a range of motorcycles on display as possible.
6. Give exhibitors a really nice souvenir. Not a computer generated certificate but something solid and unique. Do you have a local sawmill? How about getting them to donate some wooden plaques made from local trees?
My own preference is to avoid, like the plague, awards to individual riders for best bike, shiniest gas tank or whatever. All that these awards do is cause friction and dissent – often public arguments – when the idea is to make non-motorcyclists feel welcome.
7. Work out how everyone involved in your event is going to interact with your visitors and ask, not tell, them to follow the guidelines you set. These are called service protocols and if you have ever been Disneyworld you will see customer greeting at its very best.
Here’s an example: “Hi, I’m Jim and this here is my Harley Bagger which I ride every weekend in the summer. I can’t think of anything I would rather do…”
Note that there is a complete absence of technical information, speed, capacity, cost, crashing or anything else. Let the visitor ask the questions and then bring them gently and kindly into the wonderful world of motorcycling.
Make sure that you have as wide a range of bikes on show as possible even they’re not your personal favorites. Scooters appeal strongly to non-motorcyclists.
8. Have a standardized sign for every bike saying what it is and what it does. Have the sign contain key information plus any anecdotes. “Honda CT90 – 1972. I rode this bike from Oregon to New York last year and used only 30 gallons of gas.”
The bore and stroke of the bike do not matter. What does matter is sharing the pleasure of motorcycling – customs, classics, Superbikes or whatever – with non-motorcyclists.
9. Have both male and female staff at the entry to your show. Make sure that these key people are smiling, friendly and welcoming.
Ensure that they have all the key information about the show. What is interesting at the show? Where can I get training to learn how to ride? Where is the AMA stand to get into racing?
10. Also, they should have the equally key information which sometimes comes better from female staff. Where can I nurse my baby discreetly? Where are the baby-servicing facilities? Is there anything for the kids to do while Dad salivates over the bikes?
Make sure that you have all these facilities and also a chill out area where Mum can sit on the grass with the little ones and have a break.
11. Another key female factor is the bathrooms. If they are immaculate then ladies will stay at the show – and so will their male partners. By contrast, direct girls to the hole in the ground behind the trees and they, with their men, will be off in short order.
Keep the women happy and then everyone will stay on site. Treat them like second-class citizens and the visit will be a short one.
12. Mum will be happy if the kids are smiling too. As soon as Junior starts screaming then the trip to the bike show is over. Have lots of kid friendly activities for little ones of all ages to do.
Give them pictures of bikes to color in and let everyone “win” a prize.
Don’t forget that 50% of kids are female and make sure that they are catered for whether the activity is gender neutral – like riding a mini-bike – or something which might well have a male child bias.
Girls like bikes as much as boys but capturing their interest needs to be done in a slightly different way.
13. Sadly, have a lost child provision. This is another reason for working with your local police department. Ask them what they feel would be an appropriate method of addressing this issue because it is 101% certain you will have a lost kid at your show and you do need a method of dealing with the wayward child.
Once more, the last thing on God’s earth that you want is a distressed mother going out of her mind to find young Jimmy who has gone AWOL again.
All these factors are aimed at providing a service to the general public at the same level they would experience at any other mass appeal event. Motorcyclists tend to be more durable and easy going but this show is not for the converted but rather those who have yet to sign the pledge.
14. Do not have scary staff as the meeters and greeters. A heavily tattooed gentleman, with a Bowie knife under his left-arm, is not the answer – nor is a young lady, no matter how attractive, wearing a micro bikini, a Screamin’ Eagle necklace – and little else.
You have to make non-motorcyclists feel welcome and comfortable: Sturgis will come the following year!
15. Keep the music gentle and welcoming. A really nice Bluegrass band is fine – a heavy metal, 140 dB hardcore rock band isn’t!
Remember, everyone – Mum, Dad, Grandparents and the kids – have got to feel welcomed and relaxed.
16. Have a raffle at the show with all the profits going to your charity partner. It is also a lot easier to get prizes for a raffle if the companies donating them approve of the end result.
17. Sell the food concession to cover your cost but stipulate service protocols. There is big money in food sales, even at a small show.
Food traders typically work on a 400% mark up and it is only right and proper that they share the profit to help with the running costs of the show.
Here are a couple of tips when it comes to appointing a food concessionaire. First, don’t put the contract out to tender. You will get more money short term by having food vendors bid against each other but it will be bad in the long haul for your show.
Make sure that your chosen food vendor has all the appropriate insurance and that his/her food stand looks like something from which you would buy food for your family. The situation is really no more complex than this.
Having someone phone your local radio station complaining that they had food poisoning at your show is not good for motorcycling!
Next, make sure that the food vendor is comfortable with the price he/she is paying to you. If you take too much money the price and quality of the food on sale will suffer.
Your show needs to be remembered for having good value food served with a smile.
Charming though the ladies are, keep things mainstream if you want to attract the widest possible customer base.
18. Remember we talked about the media? Make sure that you produce a follow up press release post event and get a nice video clip posted on YouTube.
19. When you make the presentation to the good cause, arrive on your silenced bikes. Note the caveat silenced. Fifty cruisers on straight through pipes rocking up to the local hospital will undo all the good feelings which the show has engendered.
Try to think not like a motorcyclist but as a non-motorcyclist and work out what their reaction will be to you arriving at the school or hospital gate.
20. Finally, offer but do not press, to keep your visitors informed of other motorcycling activities. Do not, under any circumstances sell or pass on contact details to anyone selling anything but rather send information which directly and explicitly matches their request. For example, is there a motocross race on within 50 miles of your town? If the show visitor has expressed an interest in motocross then let them know.
Better still, tie in their visit with a rider who is participating. Now, the offer is really attractive. The first-time motocross visitor has a rider’s van where he, and his girlfriend, can leave their jackets or have a coffee and someone they can cheer in the races. Now, how near are both of them to becoming competitors?
The same strategy would apply to any form of motorcycling from a group of friends having a ride on their cruisers to an AHRMA classic road race. Bring the people into the fold.
This has been a very brief introduction to evangelizing but I hope that it gets you thinking about how we can keep the motorcycling flame alive. Have fun and recruit!