Hearty parties: The future of the mega bike rally

“Sunday marked the end of the 95th Laconia Motorcycle Rally, and there is a lot of talk about the upcoming 100th. I wonder if the rally will make it that far … In the mid 2000s, attendance was estimated as high as 400,000, this year the estimate was 250,000 … Motorcyclists are “aging out,” we all notice this. Younger folk have not taken to our sport or lifestyle, for reasons of their own. We are a gray haired, limping shadow of the group we once were. The rally no longer speaks to us, we have all drank that one too many beers, had that “nearly fatal” sunburn and bought the T-shirt. The promoters don’t seem to see this, resulting in fewer vendors, fewer events and poor organization. Or maybe the sponsors and promoters do see this and are quietly “pulling the plug.”

–Don Kilgour, letter to the editor, Laconia Daily Sun, June 18, 2018

The times, they are a’changin’. All those baby boomer motorcyclists are getting toward the tail end of middle age now, and that means they’re less likely to be interested in such traditional biker activity as wheelies, sticking it to The Man … and rallies.

Considering the importance of events like Laconia, Americade, Sturgis, Daytona and Port Dover’s Friday the 13th rally (which runs this Friday!) in North American motorcycle culture, it’s almost unthinkable to consider a future where these biker parties see decline.

Daytona Bike Week rally organizers are reportedly considering drastic changes to the rally, but don’t expect the return of proper beach racing.

But Daytona Bike Week organizers are said to be thinking of moving that event off Daytona’s Main Street, where it’s traditionally packed with thousands of bikes, handlebar to handlebar. It doesn’t take much Google-Fu to see it’s the same story with Laconia (as seen above) and Americade. Fewer and fewer riders show up at these events each year.

At Sturgis, the past few years have seen the rally’s highest attendance (2015, the 75th anniversary) and second-highest attendance (in 2017) but even there, a tourism insider (who asked to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons) told me that, “In the ‘90s you couldn’t find a room within a hundred miles of Sturgis at any point during the rally, but over the years that’s become less frequent and finally stopped. Even on the 75th, there were empty rooms all over the area.

“The Sturgis Chamber has been holding planning sessions and open forums to gather input the last two years on how to keep the rally alive. That would have been unthinkable 10-20 years ago. I believe that the aging population of Harley riders and changing tastes of riders and people in general is definitely shrinking the pool of people interested in coming to the event … Sturgis holding open forums tells me they are worried.”

The stereotypical Sturgis rally scene.

How worried are they? I talked to Jerry Cole, rally manager, and he didn’t sound too concerned. Cole is realistic about the rally’s core audience: he says the biggest age bracket at Sturgis is the 54-65 age group (that baby boomer demographic), followed by the 45-53 age group; the coveted 25-44 age bracket only makes up 20 per cent of attendees.

That sounds bad, because as boomers age, they’ll stop riding. But Cole says the rally will still be going strong, for a few reasons.

Everyone thinks your older riders are going to die off, but your younger riders will get older and keep going,” he says. His reasoning is that Sturgis is not just an event for baby boomers, but for motorcyclists, and he figures that the coveted millennial/Generation X market will show up once they’re less tied down by family, financial restrictions, or work.

Cruiser culture has dominated at Daytona and similar events for years, but the aging demographic is obvious to all. Check out the sponsors on that tent on the left-hand side of the photo. At least there’s no Geritol (yet).

Of course, when they show up, the rally is probably going to look different from what it does today.

“I think that we’re going to be changing with that demographic as well,” Cole says. Already, he says Sturgis has less planning going into the rally than it did before, letting things happen more organically. Some of the racing go-fast scene is back, with the rise in hooligan racing. And it’s diversifying from just the stereotypical party for wild bikers. Cole says Sturgis is attracting more people who don’t even ride motorcycles, but want to come for the food, or for the music. “In 10 days, we have over 100 different bands playing around Sturgis,” he says.

(We’re seeing the start of a similar trend in Canada. This year’s Atlanticade rally in Moncton ran in the same week as RibFest).

But still, despite the new focus on concerts and eats (see here for an example), Sturgis has a reputation for being a cruiser-centred event. Cole says that’s changing, with more adventure bikes and sportbikes showing up, but will that be the difference-maker? Our tourism insider says no: “Although I’ve noticed more adventure bikes and bikes of other brands in recent years during the rally, I don’t think they make up in any way for the Harley falloff. Part of that has to do with the differences in those target markets. I’m not sure the people who ride other brands or styles of bikes are interested in the big “Harley” party that most people think Sturgis is.”

Even when those other riders do show up, it can decentralize the event.  Motorcyclists sort themselves into sub-groups at the bigger rallies, says Dr. D. Mark Austin of the University of Louisville’s Dept. of Sociology (a keen motorcyclist himself, he’s studied motorcycle culture and published sociology papers on the subject after attending many rallies). The cruisers are the majority of the attendees, even if every kind of bike shows up, and everyone tends to sort themselves out with their own set of like-minded riders.

“My experience with Daytona Bike Week is that a wide array of types of riders and bikes are attracted to the events during Bike Week,” he says. “However, we segregate ourselves through self-selection as we attend various events in the area. For example, sportbike riders and sport-touring riders may spend more time at the track attending races while H-D riders may spend their time at ‘biker’ types of events near the beach, such as wet T-shirt contests, burnout competitions, etc.”

In line with what Sturgis’s rally manager says, Austin thinks this could be a strategy that could possibly boost the larger rallies down the road: bringing in events that are interesting to a wider variety of riders.

It’s easy to find a rally that caters to exactly what you want now; just fire up Facebook or Google, and you can find event for anything, even for weirdos who want to ride a scooter in full costume like here at the Mad Bastard …

The splintering of motorcycling into distinct segments creates a challenge of its own for rallies, but that challenge is amplified by the dynamics of social media. This 1-2 punch has worked to create a new breed of smaller rally, focused more on a specific motorcycling niche. Here in Canada, we’re seeing this already, with events like the Freedom Machine custom bike show, the female-only Backroad Ball, the Overland Adventure Rally or CMG’s former subsidiaries, the Mad Bastard Scooter Rally and the Fundy Adventure Rally.

While these events are attracting a fraction of the riders that show up at the mega-rallies, there are hundreds of these smaller bike gatherings around the continent, and those small events are gathering more and more buzz every year, partly due to social media. They’re growing while the bigger rallies shrink.

Eric Russell, mastermind behind Canada Moto Rallies (formerly a CMG subsidiary, but now independently owned), says there’s “no question” that part of the growth of his company’s events is the ability to spread the word through new social media platforms.

Although small genre-focused events like the Fundy Adventure Rally make it easier for riders to hang out with others interested in their corner of the moto-world, Dr. D. Mark Austin says that was already happening at larger rallies, with non-cruiser riders tending to split off into their own sub-groups.

It allows riders from all over to connect easier than ever,” says Russell. “When I start scouting for the rally and posting about it, I see a bump in ticket sales.”

The reason is simple: “A rider wants to hang with other like-minded riders who enjoy similar riding.” And while the biggest rallies attracted crowds in the past because of their word-of-mouth reach, the smaller events are now able to bring in more riders because they can take advantage of targeted online advertising.

Kristin Munro, co-founder of the female-only Backroad Ball rally, says one advantage held by smaller events like hers is that when you show up, you’re with familiar friends instead of a crowd of thousands of strangers.

“Personally, going to a larger event is something I can handle for maybe a day just to see the sights — but not a whole weekend, let alone an entire week” Munro says. “In my opinion, the reason why smaller, carefully curated events are becoming more and more popular is because much of the newer generation of motorcyclists crave more intimate connections and less commercialization.

Backroad Ball co-founder Kristin Munro says events like hers attract riders who want the camaraderie of a smaller rally where they can have fun with friends instead of strangers.

“I really feel like these smaller scale events make you feel like you’re a part of something versus being an observer and it’s also a lot less intimidating for new riders or people interested in riding to check out smaller events first.”

And while social media marketing is a big part of her rally’s success as well, that doesn’t mean it’s only younger riders attending — attendees range from their 20s to their 70s.

One other reason these smaller events seem to be doing well is that they often attract a different sort of rider. Although Dr. Austin says he doesn’t have numbers to back it up, he thinks the smaller, niche-oriented events are attracting the most enthusiastic motorcyclists, riders who are dedicated enough to set aside their vacation time for these rallies. The larger events have a tougher battle, he figures, because many of the attendees aren’t as committed, and are easily swayed to other events or pastimes.

Even if age demographics make for a decline in attendees at events like Sturgis or Daytona, the features that made the areas go-tos for so many riders in the first place are still there. Daytona Beach is still warm in the winter, and Sturgis still has great riding.

But maybe this is all over-thinking and over-worrying. These mega-rallies were all started for good reason; Daytona Beach had motorcycle racing and warm weather mid-winter, and the Sturgis area has fantastic riding in the Black Hills. No matter how much the cruiser scene declines and whether or not the younger generation shows the same appreciation for these classic bucket-list events, people will still go.

Cole says that,  “There are definitely going to be a quarter of a million people here whether you cancel the rally or not, because it’s Sturgis.” And he’s probably right. The rallies down the road might look a little different, and be smaller, but the hardcore fans will probably continue to make the pilgrimage, even if there are fewer of them.

2 thoughts on “Hearty parties: The future of the mega bike rally”

  1. Has anyone considered the fact that the hotels are pricing the rallies out of the market with their outrageous charges and minimum stay requirements?

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