When the AD Boivin Design Inc. introduced its Snow Hawk skinny-track, mono-ski snow bike concept in 2000, it was a head-scratcher as to its marketability.
Now five years and several models later, the Snow Hawk has developed a degree of credibility as a race machine and as a recreational vehicle. Perhaps the best form of flattery for the Levis, Quebec-based company are the conceptually similar copycats.
In the past year, both Nampa, Idaho-based 2Moto Inc. and a California company called XtremeSno have introduced skinny-track, mono-ski, over-snow concept vehicles - each with its own twist. The 2Moto Switchblade is a conversion kit to make a motocross-style motorcycle into a over-snow machine; XtremeSno's products are small, stand-up or sit down lightweight machines.
While these products all share similar features, AD Boivin doesn't consider them competition. “It's not the same product,” said Nicole Arsenault, customer service coordinator at AD Boivin. A direct competitor, she said, would be more of a Snow Hawk clone with a similar rear suspension.
“The day a competitor comes out that looks like a Snow Hawk, we'll be very pleased,” she said. “It will give us more credibility.”
DETERMINING A NICHE
It seems Jim Wade doesn't mind that his XtremeSno machines aren't on AD Boivin's competition radar. He didn't list the Snow Hawk as a competitor for his XtremeSno vehicles, either.
Wade, the CEO and vice president of engineering for Granite Bay, Calif.-based XtremeSno, has his eye clearly pinned on the Gen X and Gen Y market, a niche he feels isn't served by the mainstream snowmobile market.
The snowmobile manufacturers, he said, it trying to cater to the younger markets using equipment and concepts it already has. Wade thinks these customers are looking for something different.
“In reality, a little of our target is the regular snowmobile industry, but we're trying to create a new market,” he said. He compares it to what the personal watercraft did to the boating industry - and uses that comparison in his business model. He's even coined a new term to describe his creation: a personal snow vehicle.
In some informal market research, Ward may have discovered an unintended customer: the industrial user. While showing his prototypes at the West Yellowstone Snowmobile Expo in March, he had interest from Yellowstone National Park rangers, who thought the smaller, agile machine could get them places a traditional snowmobile could not. “They're interested in a four-stroke version, so that's in the works,” Ward said.
“The search and rescue market may be a place to look, too,” he said, noting the sled would need the right engine, track and a capacity to carry things.
The Snow Hawk has its target market, as well, but it's evolved since the first production machine, Arsenault said.
“At first when we came out, (the target was) mostly the dirt bike riders, the younger guys, and mostly male,” she said. “Five years later, we've completely revised our market. The Outlaw model is still aimed at more aggressive riders and powder rider. For the Sport Trail, we found that it's more middle-aged men, a bit older demographic, who want to trail ride. It's more tame and user-friendly.
The buyer is not necessarily a motorcycle rider, either, she said. “More than 50 percent of new Snow Hawk owners are avid snowmobilers, the others are motorcycle riders and racers,” she said.
The Switchblade user is a motorcycle owner, or at least someone with a certain brand of motocross or enduro bike. The kits are made for bikes with more than 40 hp, and for the Honda, Yamaha, KTM, Suzuki and Kawasaki brands.
FINDING A CUSTOMER
AD Boivin made a big move in marketing its 2006 lineup, beyond its typical advertising schedule.
In March, it participated in an industry-wide new-model-year test session for the media. It joined Arctic Cat, Ski-Doo, Yamaha and Polaris at the same location and on an equal playing field for two weeks. It was a large expense to the company, but one it feels will pay off.
“We're always planning on being there from now on. We can reach all the major magazine and be in their buyers' guides,” Arsenault said.
Its marketing will also include print advertising, catalogue distribution, some show attendance and production of a corporate DVD. It will no longer have a race class in the the World Snowmobile Association snocross series, but will have presence in the Canadian Snowcross Racing Association events.
Price point, versatility and power-to-weight ratio will be selling points that Wade will use. He plans a retail price of $4,500 to $4,700 for the base model.
As for the power-to-weight ratio, Ward claims that due to the machine's light weight - about 100 pounds - it's comparable to a full-sized snowmobile.
AD Boivin uses primarily existing dealerships to sell its machines, and Wade's plan is set up on a similar model.
There are currently 40 Snow Hawk dealers, and the company is actively seeking more dealers, especially in U.S. markets. They're specifically looking for large snowmobiler dealers in states where they have no representation.
2Moto is also in active search for a dealer network for its Switchblade conversion system. It's one-page color handout from the Indianapolis Dealers Show in February, 2005, lists both the consumer and dealer benefits to the kits. It seems directed to motocross motorcycle dealers, and lists advantages as through-the-winter customer traffic, sales and shop load.
The winter sale season has encouraged motorcycle dealers to sell Snow Hawks, Arsenault said, and Wade plans to use this approach when setting up his dealer network.
With all the planning, venture capital and dreams that go into a product, there's never a guarantee that it will reach the consumer or meet market acceptance.
Arsenault said it's taken several years for the Snow Hawk to turn the corner from hopeful to established - something they're feeling this year for the first time.
“Up until now, it hasn't been a demand item, we were trying to create the demand,” she said. “Last year, our clients came demanding new products.” For 2006, it has three offerings, including a new junior model.
Wade is still in the early stages of his company. He's meeting with venture capitalists now, and hopes to move from prototype stage this winter to actual production in 2006.
He's cautiously optimistic about his company's potential. “I could easily project all kinds of things, but I try to project along the lines of personal watercraft growth,” he said. “This could be a $75 million company in five years, if you look at the data in the past and what is possible.”
- Lynn Keillor