Amid sales drop, Harley-Davidson wants to teach more to ride

Amid sales drop, Harley-Davidson wants to teach more to ride

  • Dec. 27, 2017 6:40 a.m.

MILWAUKEE — Harley-Davidson is placing a renewed emphasis on teaching people to ride as part of its efforts to attract more customers.

The Milwaukee-based company’s decision to expand the number of dealerships with a Harley “Riding Academy” comes as the industry grapples with years of declining sales and an aging customer base.

The program launched in 2000 with about 50 locations and now 245 dealerships in the U.S. offer the three- or four-day course. The company says about a quarter of those launched since 2014.

Harley sold 124,777 new motorcycles through nine months in 2017, down from 135,581 during the same period the previous year, according to the company’s most recent earnings report.

The Motorcycle Industry Council says the median age of motorcycle owners increased from 32 to 47 since 1990. About 46 per cent of riders are over 50; only about 10 per cent are 30-34.

Samantha Kay rode on the back of her father’s motorcycle growing up, but when the 25-year-old took a class to ride for the first time she couldn’t help being anxious.

“I think motorcycles inherently do scare a lot of people,” said Kay, a Milwaukee woman who is one of 50,000 people nationwide who took a riding course at a Harley-Davidson dealership this year.

The training is one of the ways Harley is trying to attract a new generation of riders like Kay amid big demographic shifts.

“Some of the aging Baby Boomers, which have been the guts of Harley-Davidson’s purchasers, they’re getting older and some of them are just getting out of the sport because they can’t handle the motorcycle anymore,” said Clyde Fessler, who retired from Harley-Davidson in 2002 after holding several executive positions over 25 years. He created what became the “Riding Academy.”

He said the idea “is getting people comfortable on a motorcycle and getting them to feel safe and confident.”

In addition to riders getting older, a slow economic recovery has made it harder for millennials to buy new motorcycles, said Jim Williams, vice-president of the American Motorcyclist Association.

Among the newest models, a 2018 Softail Slim starts at $15,899 and a 2018 Sportster Forty-Eight at $11,299.

“The younger generations are buying plenty of motorcycles, they’re just not new,” Williams said.

But it’s not all the millennials’ fault, said Robert Pandya, who managed public relations for Indian Motorcycles and Victory Motorcycles. Pandya recently launched “Give A Shift,” a volunteer group discussing ideas to promote motorcycling. One of their conclusions, he said, is the idea that “if mom rides, the kids will ride.”

Currently, women are about 14 per cent of the riding population, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

“The biggest possible opportunity in motorcycling is to invite more women to ride,” he said.

That’s not lost on Harley-Davidson. Among the ways Harley-Davidson is trying to reach younger riders is by having motorcycle role-models like Jessica Haggett, the founder of the “The Litas” all-women motorcycle club, be a voice for the company on social media. And the company is also focusing advertising efforts in male-dominated sports like the X Games and UFC events popular with younger viewers.

“I think we have to work harder to gain share of mind with young adults, for example, in that they have other activities in their lives. They’re on screens, they’re connecting socially, they’re involved in gaming, they’re involved in other things,” said Heather Malenshek, Harley-Davidson’s vice-president of marketing.

She said the easily customizable Sports Glide model that launched in November and the aggressive, performance-driven Fat Bob also have younger riders in mind. In all, the company plans to release 100 new motorcycles over the next 10 years. During that time, the company also wants to gain 2 million new riders.

Terri Meehan took plenty of motorcycle rides with friends as a passenger but has wanted to be in the driver’s seat for a while. The 42-year-old took the Harley-Davidson riding course in October because she wanted to learn from “an expert who could teach right way versus someone who had learned bad habits.”

The price of the class varies by dealership but it’s generally about $300. Students spend time in class learning about motorcycle safety and on ranges learning to ride. Meehan plans to buy a motorcycle soon.

“My son’s a psychology major so he asked me if I was going through a mid-life crisis, which is actually quite hilarious,” said Meehan.

Kay’s experience notwithstanding, another challenge for Harley-Davidson is motorcycling simply isn’t a major part of people’s upbringing like it was once, Malenshek said.

“If you think about Baby Boomers, they probably were brought up on a dirt bike or had an uncle or a neighbour or something who was riding around in a Harley-Davidson. That may not be the case today,” she said.

She said the company’s CEO, Matthew Levatich, is encouraging employees to engage people in conversations about motorcycling if someone happens to say, “Nice bike.” Melanshek took that to heart during an interaction with someone at a gas station who complimented her on her motorcycle and told her he’d never thought about riding.

“And I said, ‘I can get you hooked up with the riding academy!’”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference at Rideau cottage in Ottawa, on Friday, March 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Liberals to release federal budget with eye on managing crisis, post-pandemic growth

OTTAWA — The federal government will this afternoon unveil its spending plans… Continue reading

In this image from NASA, NASA's experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin… Continue reading

In this March 19, 2021, file photo, residents wearing masks ride pass government propaganda with slogans some of which read "Forever follow the Party" and "China's Ethnicities One Family" in the city of Aksu in western China's Xinjiang region. A human rights group appealed to the United Nations on Monday, April 19, 2021 to investigate allegations China's government is committing crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
Group urges UN to probe China for crimes against humanity

KASHGAR, China — A human rights group appealed to the United Nations… Continue reading

People eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations can call the Kent Senior Center for appointments at the city facility. COURTESY PHOTO, City of Kent
Alberta joins Ontario in lowering minimum age for AstraZeneca vaccine

Two provinces will offer the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to those aged 40 and… Continue reading

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Investigators from the Vancouver Police Department were in Chilliwack Saturday, collecting evidence connected to a double homicide. (file photo)
Police investigate shooting death of man outside downtown Vancouver restaurant

Vancouver police say one man was killed in what they believe was… Continue reading

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start registering people 18 years and older for COVID-19 vaccines

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government says it’s inviting people 18 years… Continue reading

San Jose's Tomas Hertl, center, celebrates with teammates Patrick Marleau, left, and Rudolfs Blacers, right, after Hertl scored a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Friday, April 16, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Patrick Marleau set to break Gordie Howe’s games record

For Patrick Marleau, the best part about Monday night when he is… Continue reading

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Half of U.S. adults have received at least one COVID-19 shot

WASHINGTON — Half of all adults in the U.S. have received at… Continue reading

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Federal government to send health-care workers to Ontario, Trudeau says

MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says federal departments and some Canadian… Continue reading

People cross a busy street in the shopping district of Flushing on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. Access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States is growing by the day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kathy Willens
Despite COVID-19 vaccines, Americans in D.C. not feeling celebratory — or charitable

WASHINGTON — This might make Canadians jealous of their American cousins for… Continue reading

A man pays his respects at a roadside memorial in Portapique, N.S. on Thursday, April 23, 2021. RCMP say at least 22 people are dead after a man who at one point wore a police uniform and drove a mock-up cruiser, went on a murder rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Memorial service in Nova Scotia marks one year since mass shooting started

TRURO, N.S. — A memorial service is planned for today in central… Continue reading

In this April 23, 2016, photo, David Goethel sorts cod and haddock while fishing off the coast of New Hampshire. To Goethel, cod represents his identity, his ticket to middle class life, and his link to one the country's most historic industries, a fisherman who has caught New England's most recognized fish for more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in N.L.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose… Continue reading

Most Read