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Harley takes new approach to jump-start flagging sales

Benedict Campbell

The motorcycle industry is in a slump. Between the Great Recession and right now bike sales have fallen by half. 

But the industry's biggest, and longest-lasting player --Harley-Davidson -- has an ambitious plan to turn things around by partnering with So Cal's EagleRider.

Duncan Wilkinson loves motorcycles.

"I love the engine," says the 54-year-old Brit, who was in Marina del Rey picking up a bike he recently bought at Bartels' Harley-Davidson. "Jumping on a Harley, I love the torque. 

The problem is there aren't as many people like Wilkinson as there used to be. You know, guys -- and gals -- who like to kick it in gear and twist the grip. Sales of new motorcycles today have stalled at half of their 2006 peak.

That's a problem for companies like Harley-Davidson, which makes about half of all motorcycles sold in the US.

"Our strategic objective is to grow 2 million new Harley-Davidson riders in the US over the next ten years," says Steve St. Thomas, Harley-Davidson's manager of U.S. market development.

Harley has a road map for getting those new riders. This year, it won't be just about selling motorcycles but renting them and offering tours through a new partnership with EagleRider, based in Hawthorne. 

"A well-run and nationwide rental program can create a bridge to ownership," St. Thomas says.

 And there's just one way to do that. 

"Get butts on bikes," says EagleRider co-founder and CEO, Chris McIntyre.

EagleRider hopes to get a lot more backsides into the saddle this year by planting rental locations inside Harley-Davidson dealerships. The company is already well established. It opened its doors in 1994 and now operates 55 independent locations throughout the country.

It rents bikes from more than 20 different motorcycle makers - from BMW to Honda to Triumph, but, he says, "Still to this day, I would say 80-plus percent of the demand is Harley-Davidson.

So the two outfits are joining forces.

This year, EagleRider locations will triple with a presence in 100 Harley shops

"we integrate our stores into Harley-Davidson dealerships, very similar to you walk into a Chevy dealership and see an Enterprise location," McIntyre says. "The beauty for us is it's more dots on a map."

Five of those dots will be in SoCal. So you can rent Harleys from their dealerships in Lancaster and Santa Clarita just north of L.A., south of the city in San Marcos and San Diego, and at Bartels' Harley-Davidson in Marina del Rey.

You can check that one out now by walking up to the second floor.

"We're not quite finished with the full decoration," Glenn Bartels says, as he walks through a space filled with helmets and jackets but little in the way of decor. "We have to do the wall back here still."

Since January, when his family's dealership first started renting bikes through EagleRider, business has at least doubled or tripled, Bartels says.

Being able to rent brand-new, high-interest bikes is one of the big advantages of the new partnership, Bartels says.

At Noon on a Tuesday, he had already rented four that day. All of them were the new 2018 Fat Boy with its oversize wheels and throbbing 107 cubic inch engine. 

This business model is actually a re-do for Harley-Davidson. A recent attempt didn't really take off. One drawback is that it wasn't possible to rent a bike at one dealership and return it to another.

But with dozens of Harley dealers criss-crossing the country renting bikes through EagleRider, now you can.

"Take a boomer," says Harley's St. Thomas. "If they wanted to go on a touring rally, they had to have a lot of free time.

Meaning, they needed to either ride or ship their bike to wherever the rally was happening, then ride or ship the bike back.

"Now through our partnership with EagleRider, you can fly out, rent a bike, do the touring rally and fly home."

That scenario is one way Harley hopes to keep baby boomers in the sport longer, because boomers have long been the bread and butter of motorcycling, but they're beginning to age out. And millennials aren't replacing them.

"The typical assessment of the millenials is that they don't want to own something," St. Thomas says. "They want the experience."

Thus renting, which Harley hopes will lead to the rebirth of a flagging industry and be a gateway to motorcycle ownership. 

just like it was for customer Duncan Wilkinson, who was picking up his bike at the Bartels' dealership earlier.

"When I used to live here years ago, I rented on a regular basis actually," Wilkinson says. "Just rent a Road King and go up to Ojai, but this time round I thought it's almost as cheap to buy so I bought."

Whether two million or more people will join him, that's the kind of revolution that Harley wants to hear.