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  • Bob LoCicero

Why Vermont Should Care About Motorcycle Tourism

Motorcyclists are an overlooked resource for the State of Vermont

Riders pass the Pico ski area while riding in the Killington Classic parade
Riders pass the Pico ski area while riding in the Killington Classic parade

Standing in the parking lot at the top of Appalachian Gap on a warm Sunday afternoon, it isn’t hard to conclude that there are a lot of motorcycles riding around Vermont. A casual, “look-around-survey”, will likely show license plates from New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts and Quebec. No one keeps statistics on how many motorcycles pass through the Gap each summer – or ride through Vermont for that matter -- but my intuition and experience tells me quite a few. Who are these people and why should Vermont care?

Tourism is big business in Vermont. The most recent Travel and Tourism Industry survey estimates that tourism accounts for $1.4 billion in direct spending and contributes nearly $200 million in taxes and fees to the state.

Vermont’s active, outdoors-oriented lifestyle is a prime reason why so many visit the state. Research on the Vermont tourism brand found our reputation as “independent, responsible and adventurous” was among the top reasons people visit. Independent, responsible and adventurous describes most motorcyclists I know.

There are just over one million motorcyclists in New England. Just over the border, the province of Quebec has an estimated 151,000 riders. Allowing for passengers, this means there are between 1.2 million and 1.4 million motorcyclists are within a single day’s ride of Vermont.

There were 4.9 million motorcycles registered in United States in 2001 and the average miles per motorcycle were 1,943. The Vermont motorcycle season begins in April and runs through the middle of November. The prime tourism months are May through October, giving Vermont a solid six-month season.

In comparison, there 1.4 million snowmobiles registered in the entire United States. There are approximately 250,000 snow machines in New England and Quebec has 172,000 registered. The average snowmobiler rides 920 miles per year, during a season that runs from late December until March during the best years.

Vermont is popular with motorcyclists. National groups, such as Women on Wheels, the Kawasaki Concourse Owner’s Group, the United Sidecar Association and the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America have all had their national rallies in Vermont. BMW MOA holds rallies in locations throughout the country and the 2006 BMW MOA rally in Essex Junction had the largest attendance the group has seen at any rally, drawing 9,230 attendees.

So there are a lot of motorcyclists and they come from all over: aren’t they just loud, methamphetamine-crazed criminals, who deal in drugs and sell guns? Why would Vermont want motorcyclists as tourists?

While the self-proclaimed “1-percenters” – outlaw bikers -- ride motorcycles, most motorcyclists are middle-aged, married, middle-class working people, with money to burn. You’re more likely to meet a “biker” who is a pharmacist than a drug dealer.

In fact, motorcyclists are better off and better educated than the general population. According to 2009 Motorcycle Industry Council statistics, the national average annual household income for motorcyclists is $74,430. A survey of Americade rally goers reports average income as $81,950. Most are married and have been to college or technical school. Eighteen percent have post-graduate work completed. The typical “biker” is a working married person, with sufficient disposable income to spend $4,000 - $20,000 on a recreational vehicle and all of the goods and services required to have fun with it.

In addition to the bike itself, motorcyclists spend money on gear, motorcycle registration, insurance, maintenance, magazines, movies, books, tours and trade shows. Every time they ride, they spend money on gas. Like tourists in cars, motorcyclists purchase food, visit attractions, buy souvenirs and rent lodging.

The survey of Americade-goers found the average spend per person, per day during the rally was $114 – excluding motorcycle related accessories. My personal experience from motorcycle travel around the region supports this estimate as conservative.

Motorcyclist are good guests. They arrive late, leave early and are happy during their stay. Many states and Canadian provinces are beginning to notice.

The province of Ontario is actively marketing to motorcyclists with their GoRide web site. The province has identified attracting motorcycle tourists as one of seven key projects for the Southwest Regional Tourism Organization. The Regional Tourism Organization is working with local tourism organizations to develop motorcycle-specific packages.

Quebec – and the Charlevoix region in particular -- has a strong presence in the market, renting space at Americade each year to lure more riders to their area. Charlevoix restaurants, hotels and attractions hang a motorcycle logo sign on the business to indicate they are “motorcycle-friendly”.

Arkansas has their “Let’s Ride” campaign and Nova Scotia promotes the Cabot trail and riding the Fundy Shore and Annapolis Valley. Arizona, West Virginia, the Adirondacks in New York, and New Hampshire are some of the regions that recognize motorcycles as a source of revenue.

New Hampshire, host of Laconia Motorcycle Week – one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the country -- took a turn from trying to get rid of the rally in the 1980’s to pursuing the rally as a source of revenue in the 1990’s. The rally attracts 250,000 visitors each June and contributes $200 million annually to the economy.

Lake George NY came to the same conclusion about Americade and supports the rally.

“Americade is a tremendous economic driver attracting tens of thousands of participants who spend millions of dollars in a very short amount of time,” said New York State Senator Betty Little in a Lake George Mirror article on Americade’s lease of state land for the Million Dollar Beach trade show.

Americade draws 50,000 visitors each year and regularly sells-out area hotels. The event is so important to local businesses that Salim Amersi, owner of Surfside On The Lake in Lake George, offered to privately raise $15,000 in 2010 when the State of NY raised the fee charged to the rally for using the Million Dollar Beach. Inn owners had good reason to stick up for the rally: lodging revenues during the rally are two to three times higher than the two weeks prior and the two weeks after the rally.

Vermont has made some attempts to attract motorcyclists.

The Town of Killington has been hosting the Killington Classic for ten years. The rally started as a joint effort between a private company and the town. The rally has had limited success during its early years and hit a low point four years ago, when it looked like the rally might die completely. The town stuck with it, however, improving the rally to a point that in 2010 things looked decidedly better.

In 2011, Killington hired Tour Expo – the company the runs Americade – to manage the rally and things began to look truly positive for the rally. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Irene forced the organizers to cancel the rally in 2011. In 2012, the first year Tour Expo ran the Classic, it drew 2,000 visitors and set a record for the event.

Bikes outside of the Grey Ghost Inn during Mothers for Daughters
Bikes outside of the Grey Ghost Inn during Mothers for Daughters

The Town of Dover Vermont has had success hosting the annual Mother’s for Daughters Breast Cancer research fund raising event. The weekend-long event brings 400 motorcyclists to the town and sells out area inns for two nights during mid-May – a time when other tourists are scarce. The inn owners are so supportive of the event they volunteer to serve the Saturday night awards dinner. The event raised $30,000 last year for breast and ovarian cancer research and the direct economic benefit to business in the area is over $100,000.

With 8,000 miles of gravel roads, Vermont is positioned to take advantage of the growing adventure touring market. Adventure riders tend to be young, urban, upscale and looking for adventure. Their profile is a lot like skiers – a group that Vermont knows well. Proper branding and packaging, coupled with marketing incentives targeted towards this market can bring riders to the state and show them what we have to offer.

Adventure touring is just one segment of motorcycling well matched to Vermont’s strengths. Our uncrowded roads, comfortable riding temperatures, and abundance of natural beauty make Vermont attractive all motorcyclists.

Successes like the turnaround of the Killington Classic and the Mother for Daughters weekend show that motorcycling can contribute to the Vermont economy. Motorcycling will never be as important to the Vermont economy as skiing, but has the potential to be as important as other niche pursuits like snowmobiling.

If we can get ½ -of one percent of the 1.4 million riders who live within a one day ride of Vermont to spend a long weekend here, we could realize $1.6 million in direct tourism spending. The full economic impact for the Vermont economy would be considerably higher and that seems like reason enough for Vermont to care about motorcyclists.

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