It was 1980 when Brian Nelson opened up a snowmobile dealership in Spicer, Minn., and he was missing one important thing: snow.
“We were sitting there with a showroom full of snowmobiles and accessories and no customers or cash flow,” Nelson recalls. “I thought, if the snow isn’t coming to us, we have to bring them to the snow.”
He chartered a bus, leased a semi-trailer and filled them with riders and snowmobiles. They drove out to West Yellowstone, Mont. It was the start of what has become Nelson Tours. He sold the dealership in 1997, and now does the tours full time.
Nelson learned, and others have discovered, that supporting tours increases sales and customer loyalty. He, and other tour operators, also are finding success by expanding outside the snow boundaries into ATV and motorcycle tours.
Pro Power Sports and Marine, Anoka, Minn., has worked with Nelson’s snowmobile tours for seven years, and salesman Graham Parsons has gone on each one of them. The company just started with Nelson’s ATV tours, as well.
Parsons’ reason for the tours is simple. “We sell product,” he said, and that goes across product lines, whether it’s a snowmobile, an ATV, a motorcycle or a boat.
“Brand loyalty is good, but dealer loyalty is very bad,” Parsons said, and the trips — always with a dealership representative — help to build it up.
When Nelson started doing the tours, he hoped to sell some product. It worked, but he got more in return: customer loyalty.
“To me, the more time I spend with customers, the more they’re going to want to buy it from me,” Nelson said. “If they’re out riding their snowmobile and thoroughly enjoying it and you’re there enjoying it with them, taking care of needs, then they’re going to feel obligated to buy from you. You can see how they use the product and you get to know them, you have lunch with them, and the relationship totally changes. You’re not at arms-length when you negotiate price for a new sled. It’s a much more amicable relationship.”
Nelson said he hasn’t studied the exact figures on what a tour promotion equated into actual bottom-line sales, but he and other dealers notice a definite correlation between tour participation and dealer purchases.
“The people who go on the trips are a more avid and more discriminating customer,”?he said. “They tend to buy a new product every year. Of the people on our snowmobile trips, two-thirds have a new machine.”
Parsons doesn’t have any hard sales figures either, but said a certain percentage of customers do buy machines based on the trip.
“There’s always a fair amount of service work generated,” Nelson said, whether its high-altitude set up, supplies or service when the trip is over.
“The dealers who ride with their customers, I’ve noticed, that they’re a lot more credible to a customer when they come in to buy a product,” he said.
With Nelson Tours, Nelson organizes the actual tour, and leaves the marketing to the dealership. The dealership does not pay to host a tour, and is given one free spot for a dealership employee.
Parsons said he markets the tours in a variety of ways: at various consumer shows, through a giveaway at the fall open house, through word-of-mouth and at snowmobile club meetings.
“Due to the lack of snow in the Midwest, a lot of dealers have lost enthusiasm to promote [snowmobiles],” Nelson said. “I think that if you’re going to be in it for the long run, you have to find ways to promote and sell product on the bad years, then have clientele built up so you can reap the rewards when the weather does cooperate.”
Both Arctic Cat and Polaris have a vested interest in tour operations.
Nelson Tours is an independent business, but supported by Arctic Cat. Arctic Cat supplies Nelson with a number of new, current-year snowmobiles for demo purposes, and often sends out mid-year releases for Nelson and his clients to test. Arctic Cat also markets the tours in its Cat’s Pride customer magazine.
Polaris has a similar tour arrangement through Polaris Adventure Tours, operated by Harlan and Bev Mannigal of Mosinee, Wis. The tours are advertised on Polaris’ Web site, and the Mannigals have a large e-mail name base. By the terms of their contract with Polaris, they cannot work through dealerships, Harlan Mannigal said.
Both parties are permitted to take all brands, however, and Nelson works through multi-line dealers as well as Warner Outdoor, a Bloomington, Minn.-based, Polaris-only dealer.
Nelson said this adds to the fun. “When you take competing brands, it makes the trip more fun because the competition factor comes into play,” he said. “I get to learn a lot about them and they learn a lot about our products. We’re there to promote snowmobiles” and help the consumer enjoy the product, adding that “there’s no high pressure to buy one or another.”
Warner will often ship out some extra Polaris sleds and Parsons said he likes to bring some Ski-Doo and Polaris, for test purposes.
Even with the historic success of snowmobile tours, both Nelson and the Mannigals have branched out into other powersports tours.
Nelson said 40 percent of his business comes from snowmobiles. Another 40 percent is Harley rides and the remainder is ATV. He predicts that in the next few years, the motorcycle trips will increase in overall importance to the company.
In fact, this year, he cut the snowmobile trips down from 12 to six — all will be to Togwotee, north of Jackson, Wyo. A couple of his regular snowmobile dealers are now trying the Harley trips exclusively.
Delano Sport Center, Delano, Minn., is a relative newcomer for Nelson’s motorcycle tours. They’ve used Nelson snowmobile tours for 10 years, and are on year two for motorcycles.
Butch Donahue, owner of Delano Sport Center, said he started with the snowmobile tours to offer customers guaranteed snow. He added the motorcycle tours, also during the winter months, for his bike clientele who wanted a motor-related vacation.
“It’s a business enhancer, and you don’t have to rely on the weather to do it,” he said.
While he’s been able to fill both motorcycle and snowmobile tours in the past, he said he’s had more interest in the motorcycle tours. “Maybe it’s because they’re relatively new,” he said.
The snowmobile tours are turn-key — Nelson Tours does all the planning, transporting and guiding. Donahue plays a bigger role with the motorcycle tours, using Nelson just for transportation and lodging arrangements. Otherwise, he does the rest himself.
For Polaris Adventure Tours, its most recent success has come with ATV tours.
“Snowmobile tours are getting impossible to fill,” Bev Mannigal said. “With the ATV tours, I already have money paid down for this summer. People are excited and have interest in ATVs.”
They say that poor snow conditions cancel at least half of their Midwest snowmobile tours each year. As of mid-November, none of their snowmobile tours were filled.
Parsons said his tour, scheduled from Feb. 3–9 isn’t fully booked, either, but he’s not worried. The final bookings usually come in after Christmas.
“This is a tool for a dealer to use to help sell product and it doesn’t cost him a dime,” Nelson said. “It’s a very direct way of promoting the product and a fun way to do it, because the dealer gets a trip out of it. To generate that much business with other forms of advertising they would have to spend thousands of dollars.” psb
Copyright 2006 Powersports Business