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For Harley dealers, school is cool

Students, dealers benefit from Harley-Davidson’s Riding Academy training program

During Harley-Davidson’s fourth quarter conference call in late January, CEO Matt Levatich announced that The Motor Company had trained more than 65,000 new riders through its Riding Academy in 2016. 

But during the Q&A at the end, analyst Craig Kennison of Robert W. Baird & Co. asked about conversion. He wondered what Harley-Davidson was doing to convert those students into buyers. 

As part of his response, Levatich said, “There’s a good half a dozen things that are going on that the teams are working on, on that very point. And it’s probably one of the higher leverage opportunities that we have to identify the right type of people coming in, make sure they’re nurtured through the process.”

The median age of a motorcycle owner was 47 in 2014, up from 32 in 1990, according to Motorcycle Industry Council data. In fact, 46 percent of motorcyclists were over age 50 in 2014, that study found. 

It’s well known those stats show that many riders are getting to the age where they feel they can no longer safely operate a motorcycle, or they’re passing away. 

Harley-Davidson has made it clear for years that it wants to increase motorcycle ridership. Of course, more motorcyclists on the road mean there’s more of an opportunity to sell Harleys, but also, more motorcyclists mean the sport lives on into the future. 

Riverside Harley-Davidson in Riverside, California, taught 1,226 students to ride in 2016.

To that end, Harley-Davidson has made several efforts to reach non-riders, one of the most important of which is its in-house Riding Academy. 

Riding Academy motorcycle training classes are hosted at 235 dealerships throughout the U.S., as well as at dealerships in Canada, Mexico, Brazil and China. The courses consist of classroom work, along with several hours aboard a motorcycle. And while the classes have been successful at turning non-riders into riders, Harley-Davidson’s new focus is expanding the Riding Academy program to include more long-term mentorship. 

As Levatich said during the call, “My 17-year-old son took Riding Academy, and the comment that instructor made to the entire class at the end when they had all passed, he said, ‘You know, you’re now qualified to ride around in a parking lot.’ So there’s a lot more learning that has to go on to be confident and enjoy riding on the road.”

However, Harley-Davidson is looking to change that by enhancing the program over the coming years. 

“When people graduate from Riding Academy, we still have a lot of great conversion, not only to new motorcycles, but into whether it’s a used motorcycle or a smaller cc motorcycle, a lot of them do enter the sport. But there’s certainly a good number of them that don’t,” Anoop Prakash, director of U.S. marketing and market development for Harley-Davidson, told Powersports Business. “So what we’re trying to do at Riding Academy as we go forward is really focus on helping that person beyond getting their license and now continue that journey to get that confidence level up, so that they can really adopt the sport.”


Developing lifetime riders

Converting Riding Academy students into motorcyclists has been a challenge dealers have been working to overcome as well. And they do so in a variety of ways. 

Many start the relationship building immediatley, offering a dealership tour before the classroom portion of the Riding Academy begins. 

“Our dealership is dedicated to the course. The entire dealership gets involved,” said Lisa Brogdon, Riding Academy manager at Myers-Duren Harley-Davidson in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Students are taken on a tour of the dealership, so they can feel like they are a part of the dealership before they even finish the class.”

Cole Harley-Davidson in Bluefield, West Virginia, offers a 45-minute dealership tour for each class. Tour highlights include a stop in the MotorClothes area, where students learn about riding gear and participate in an activity during which they get sized up for the appropriate gear, and a session in the service department, where the service manager answers any questions. 

“It would not work if I did not have the cooperation and the teamwork from other employees. They have really bought into it  and are very supportive of this class,” said Lisa Horne, Cole Harley-Davidson’s marketing director and Riding Academy program manager. 

When each Riding Academy course concludes, the staff at Cole Harley-Davidson is also helpful in reaching out to the students. “Each department will follow up with them, ask them how their experience was in class first and if they have any questions and if they can help them. And then I obviously follow up with them, especially those who may be interested in going forward with a bike purchase,” Horne reported. She also offers a refresher ride around the training course for students who took the class late in the season and didn’t have time to practice over the winter. 

With its family focus, Myers-Duren Harley-Davidson strays from the hard sell, but the dealership still follows up with students after their course. 

“Afterwards they’re of course contacted by the dealership and checked on to see if they got their M endorsement on their license, if they would like to come in for a bike fitting,” Brogdon said. 

Harley-Davidson’s Riding Academy requires classroom work, as well as time on a motorcycle.

As a safety incentive, Myers-Duren offers a gear discount to students before and after the course. The instructors check-in with the students after the class as well, and once a year, the dealership offers a Riding Academy reunion for everyone who has completed the course over the past 12 months. The reunion has become so popular, as have the Riding Academy courses, that the dealership is considering hosting two reunions per year. 

Riverside Harley-Davidson in California has to adhere to strict California Motorcyclist Safety Program standards when it comes to following up with students. However, once students opt in to dealership communication, staff assists with whatever the students need. 

“We focus on just being there for them no matter where they are in the journey. If they want to test ride different bikes, or ask a ton of questions about the different models or they just want to hang out with us, we encourage that. Each rider has a different experience in mind, and we strive to fulfill each custom experience the best we can,” said Kristen Kunzman, marketing director for The Motorcycle Company, the dealership group that owns Riverside Harley-Davidson.

Riverside Harley-Davidson is known for having more than 100 events per year at the dealership, so over the course of their Riding Academy time, most students are exposed to the hospitality offered at the store. 

“We have tons of events going on that we really try to bring them into and involve them in as much as we can,” Kunzman said. “We try to promote our women’s Garage Parties and or our H-D 101s with them because those are perfect events for them, but we always have so many events going on that usually at some point when they’re in their class, they experience something because there’s always something happening. A lot of times it sparks that interest, and they hang out later after class is over or after they graduate.” 

Outreach on the part of the dealerships is key to growing ridership, Prakash said. “During the course, what’s really important is introducing them to the dealership, the dealership staff. I think for anyone who’s entering any new sport, coming into a dealership that’s full of experts can be intimidating, so I think part of the early part of the experience should be to have those relationships built with people who can help demystify their concerns of the sport, and also be introduced as experts,” he explained. 

Selling bikes

Though creating new riders is the most important aspect to Harley-Davidson and its dealers, both groups appreciate sales as well. 

“That’s the goal, of course, is get these younger riders or less experienced riders in and convert them to being a Harley rider,” Horne said. 

The Street 500 has helped dealers sell bikes following Riding Academy. Shortly after it was introduced in the fall of 2013, the Street 500 became the official training bike for the Riding Academy. 

Compared to the previously used Buell Blasts, the Street 500 is larger and more practical for a variety of riders, Kunzman said. 

“I definitely think the introduction of the Street took the Riding Academy to the next level, and the next level of cool factor as well. And we’re able to make that transition a little easier from classroom riding to being on the open road and being on a Harley,” she explained. 

Students learn to ride on the Street 500 and can immediately walk into the dealership and purchase that same bike, or upgrade to a Street 750, or now, a Street Rod. Bikes in the Street lineup start at $6,849. 

“It definitely leads to conversion when they have the opportunity to buy the very same bike that they were trained on,” Horne said. 

Increasing attendance

Harley-Davidson has made considerable efforts over the past few years to market to both “outreach” customers — those not in its typical white male demographic — and those who have never ridden or even considered riding. Dealers say the efforts have paid off, as they’ve seen interest increase in their Riding Academy programs. 

Two campaigns that have especially increased the number of students in class are the Jumpstart simulator and the American Heroes Riding Academy program. 

The Jumpstart is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on a specially designed, stationary support stand. Non-riders can hop aboard the Jumpstart, start the bike, twist the throttle and shift through the gears with no concern about the bike moving or tipping over. 

Myers-Duren Harley-Davidson uses the Jumpstart to introduce non-riders to motorcycling, explain safety features and teach people about riding.

“We do take that Jumpstart to baseball games, company picnics, things like that,” Brogdon said. “We do go out to the community and present that quite a bit.”

The American Heroes Riding Academy program, now in its third year, offers the course at a reduced rate of $99 to first responders and members of the military. And new for 2017, Harley-Davidson is extending the same offer to the spouses of first responders and military members. The 2017 program runs through Nov. 30. 

“The reason behind [adding spouses to the program] is we’ve come to realize one of the barriers, or maybe objections, to getting really invested into the sport is if it’s not something you can do with your family or your loved one, it becomes almost something that’s taking away from your family or your loved one, and we want to make sure that spouses can learn together and maybe they can do it for their lifetime together,” Prakash said. “It’s an opportunity to expand the offering to those who serve. And of course, military and first responder families sacrifice quite a bit themselves, so to be able to reward them is also important for us.”

Cole Harley-Davidson in Bluefield, West Virginia, follows up with students after they finish Riding Academy. The dealership also offers group rides to graduates, so new riders can become comfortable on the street.

To accommodate growing interest, Myers-Duren Harley-Davidson added mid-week Riding Academy courses a few years ago. In 2016, the dealership trained 774 students, offering two classes per week from February through November. Cole Harley-Davidson has doubled the number of students going through its program from about 50 to 101 last year, with classes running from April through October. 

And Riverside Harley-Davidson, which offers one class per week year-round, had 1,226 Riding Academy students last year. 

With more students coming through the door, the dealerships are making changes or considering additions for 2017 and beyond. All three were named Power 50 dealers by Powersports Business in 2016.

“We’re fully booked every week, and we’re actually working right now to add to our range size, so we can do simultaneous two classes at once,” Kunzman said “The demand is just so huge that we have to turn people away and push them down weeks and weeks to get them in class, so we are looking to expand it.”

In addition to looking at a second Riding Academy reunion each year, Myers-Duren is considering adding an on-road demo led by a riding coach, for those who have graduated from the class. That type of post-Riding Academy effort is what Harley-Davidson is encouraging. 

“After graduation, it really is about that mentorship and about offering opportunities to practice their riding skills, and to offer opportunities to meet with other beginner riders who are riding for the first time. It’s about bringing a community together that needs to know that they’re not the only ones starting new, and the they’re not the only ones who might be intimidated by the first ride,” Prakash said. 

Cole Harley-Davidson already offers short group rides for Riding Academy alumni, and though the dealership’s followup has been solid, Horne is increasing those efforts this season. 

“We used to average 40-50 students a year only a couple years ago, but then this last year we doubled that, so it was a really busy year for Riding Academy, and we don’t want to let one of those students fall through the cracks,” she said. “We’re really focused as a dealership, all the departments, on keeping in touch, following up with those students, so that’s one goal for this year is more intense follow up with them, more dedication to it.”

Harley-Davidson’s plans for the year include increasing the number of dealerships that offer Riding Academy, growing after-graduation mentorship programs and training another 65,000-plus new riders. 

“We’re not really looking at numbers of trained as really the best metric, but really the best metric is the number that move into the sport,” Prakash said. “We want them to not only graduate, but then also move into the sport in some manner and continue on their journey with motorcycling in general, and hopefully with us.” 


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