My Shrinking Demographic: A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A message to the automobile manufacturers and motorcycle manufacturers of the world: I am not the man you are looking for. You know it—well, most of you do, anyway—and I know it. I came into this world toward the tail-end of a generation known as Baby Boomers. For decades, we were the only generation that mattered. We were huge! But like the Traditionalist generation before us, we’ve been dying off. Without going too deep into Generation X, the Millennials, or Generation Z—all of whom came after me—the thing of it is, my generation is no longer capable of sustaining, let alone expanding, the automobile and motorcycle industries. Mobility scooters are another story, but let’s not go there today.

I attended two consumer trade shows this month, the Chicago Auto Show and the Chicago Motorcycle Show, each considered major consumer shows in their own right. I have a longer, if less consistent, history with the auto show, but a much more recent history with the cycle show. Both have changed a great deal over the years. Let’s talk about the car show first.

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I began attending the auto show years before I obtained my first driver’s license. I was a bona fide car nut and an aunt of mine would humor my addiction by taking me to the auto show. This was way back when McCormick Place only had one building. Never mind that I was still in grade school at the time. I could identify nearly every automobile made at the time just by looking at its front grille or rear bumper. No exaggeration! I would go from manufacturer to manufacturer, sitting in cars, collecting literature, and dreaming my dreams. Sticker prices meant nothing because money was no object to me at the ripe old age of twelve. See, I already knew what I was going to be when I grew up—I was going to be rich—so in my young mind’s eye, I could eventually have any car I wanted. And believe me, I coveted some good ones.

Today the American car buyer/leaser is interested in big honkin’ trucks and SUV’s. Smaller segments are into sporty little cars, earth-friendly vehicles, and believe it or not, economical transportation choices. Me, I grew up to become a sedan man. Most of the cars I have owned in my adult life have been sedans. My current ride is large, exceptionally comfortable ’08 Chevrolet Impala with a nicely appointed interior, for its age, and a buttery-smooth ride. Nobody buys sedans anymore, so the genre doesn’t get a lot of attention from the manufacturers, neither in R&D nor marketing. At the auto show this year, the “bigger” sedans were not too plentiful. What is available was displayed, but not exactly showcased. Hey, I understood. And on the bright side, I never had to stand in a long line to sit inside one of them.

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So what did I look at? I glanced at the current iteration of my Chevy and walked past the Ford and Buick equivalents. Though I have never owned a foreign car—the closest thing being a 1985 Renault Alliance built in Kenosha, Wisconsin—most of my attention was captured by the Volkswagon Passat, the Subaru Legacy, and the Nissan Maxima, that last one being my current “if money were no object” choice. It just speaks to me.

So much has changed since the last time I attended the Chicago Auto Show a decade or two ago. There’s no denying it’s a smaller show. Numerous marques have gone out of existence since the last time I was there. When I was a kid, the aftermarket/accessory/travel/merchandise vendor booths took up nearly a floor of their own at what is now called the Lakeside Building at McCormick Place. That was a lot of square feet. This year they took up a small fraction of that. To be sure, the new show had some astounding features not found in 1974, such as in-show demo rides and outdoor test drives. But for me, the sheer grandeur of this show has shrunk back a bit.

Capture IMS 2019

To be sure, the Chicago stop of the International Motorcycle Shows (IMS) used to be physically larger, not because so many brands have gone out of existence since I began coming (a few have), but because fewer exhibitors are showing up.  More on that in a bit. But this has always been a very different show than it’s automobile counterpart. Motorcyclists are a smaller segment of the U.S. population at large and perhaps a bit more fragmented as well. I’ve been coming out every year since I became an active motorcyclist in 2003 (I was a late bloomer, but a fanatical one). I have seen a number of changes in the hobby, the industry behind it, and this show, which to a degree represents it.

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To its credit, the IMS really does try to have something for everyone, but it’s really up to the exhibitors to deliver. Let me explain. I can recall a period of years during which there seemed to be a bit of one-upmanship going on between the motorcycle manufacturers on at least three different fronts. The heavyweight cruiser class was wide open and several players were vying for the largest displacement engine—separate and apart from Boss Hoss, a specialty manufacturer of motorcycles powered by Chevy V8 engines. Despite a gentlemen’s agreement among the major manufacturers to limit the top speed of their really fast bikes to 300 kilometers per hours (about 186 MPH because more than that would be unsafe), the players in the sportbike class were still vying for fastest production motorcycle, which I assume would be the one to reach 300 KPH the soonest. And on yet another front, several of the major manufacturers were trying to unseat the Honda Gold Wing as the premier touring motorcycle by which all others would be judged.

It was the best of times to attend the IMS. The accessory / aftermarket / merchandise aisles were packed, too. Then the Great Recession hit. Motorcycle dealerships were closing left and right, as were some less-than-major manufacturers and a number of aftermarket companies, too. The terrain of the motorcycle dealership and merchandising networks was forever changed, the IMS scaled back accordingly, and if you ask my opinion, the industry has never been the same since then.

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But the show has gone on and people still attend. If anything, the crowd seems more heterogeneous than before. It may be me, but I seem to recall the “black leather and gray hair” bunch being more dominant ten to fifteen years ago. They’re still present, to be sure—I’m sort of on the fringe of that demographic myself—but they no longer dominate. I’m not sure anybody does. Which brings me to an issue similar to, but not quite the same, as I described while describing the auto show.

I’m a touring rider. I ride big-displacement bikes configured for comfort and overnight travel. These are not entry level bikes, nor are they cheap by any definition. Many people can’t afford them. In point of fact, I can’t afford them—never mind that I have owned three so far. The touring bike class has never been the dominant segment of the motorcycle industry, but it has been significant. I commented earlier that I am sort of on the fringe of the black leather biker demographic. That’s only because I currently ride an American-made, big-inch V-twin and as the result, I tend to dress more like a pirate and less like a spaceman. But only six years ago, I was riding a much faster Japanese sport-touring rig and back then, I dressed more like a spaceman. So you see, it’s all relative.

But no matter how you slice it, my demographic is in decline, along with several others. The generations that follow are for the most part decidedly not marching in line with us older types. Big-inch V-twins don’t excite the later generations. Neither do the full dresser touring rigs or their sport touring subset. Or racer replicas. Surely there will always be technical riders, sport riders, and hooligans, but these will not dominate the hobby.

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What will? In all candor, I don’t know. But neither do most of the major manufacturers, from all outward appearances. Enter the newcomers! The ultra-affordable low displacement, high-mileage bikes. The unconventional three-wheelers. The electrics. And whatever comes next. But here is where it gets tricky. Despite the fact that motorcyclists in total are a minority of vehicle owners and operators in the US, the various segments (fragments?) of the hobby haven’t historically been too tolerant of one another. For the sake of our hobby and the industry that both supports and depends upon it, this must change. Now.

During my visit to the 2019 IMS, I had the pleasure of listening to and speaking with my friend Gina Woods of Open Roan Radio, and a newer acquaintance of mine, Robert Pandya who helped bring the Discover the Ride experience to life at IMS events across the country. I can’t say enough about either of these individuals and the contributions each has made to our hobby and to the motorcycle industry at large. And while each will eagerly acknowledge the heritage of our hobby, they are equally eager to acknowledge and welcome that which is new and exciting. We need more people like this influencing the industry.

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And so here I sit, figuratively speaking, upon Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour (did I mention that Robert Pandya worked for Polaris when they brought the Vision to market?), looking forward to the upcoming riding season. I may no longer be the primary demographic target for either the automobile or motorcycle industry, but I still have my eye on certain products of theirs and amusingly enough, they still have their eyes on my spending dollars. Maybe it’s a love/hate thing.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

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Of Love and Motorcycles

Every year around the second weekend in February, three things have been happening for some time now—Valentine’s Day, my wife’s birthday, and the International Motorcycle Show in Chicago. One of these things is not like the other, but sometimes it’s difficult for me to tell which one. This year’s trio of festivities was one of those times.

Of these three traditions, Valentine’s Day would be the oldest. Some people call it a corporate holiday, but that’s not at all accurate. The earliest known written Valentine dates back to the year 1415, and the origins of this holiday concern a Christian martyr who lived, and consequently died, in the third century. We don’t know that Saint Valentine was born or killed in February. The placement of his feast day may have more to do with the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, which fell on February 15. All of this is the stuff of mystery and legend, so who knows, really, but Google it if you want to learn more.

Beer KarenNext in the chronological order of things would be the birth of my wife. I can’t get into those particulars without getting into trouble. To put things into perspective, let me just say that we were married over 30 years ago and leave it at that. I do need to tell you some things about Karen, though, things that are highly relevant to this story.

For openers, Karen is not a motorcycle fanatic. Due at least in part to certain physical ailments and constraints, her total saddle time with me over the years amounts to less than four hours. If not for my own obsession with the hobby, I’m reasonably certain Karen wouldn’t have any interest in it at all. Yet nobody has ever been more supportive and encouraging of my own participation than she. On those rare occasions where pleasant weather and my free time converge, Karen is usually the first one to suggest that I go for a ride. Shortly after I had my first and, so far, only motorcycle accident, I briefly entertained the idea of taking the insurance money for my totalled bike and not buying another one. Karen let that idea take voice for all of 20 seconds before choking the life out of it with the words, “I guess you could, but you’d be doing it for all the wrong reasons.” This is the woman who more than once now, when it would have made more financial sense to keep the money, advised me to buy the bike. This is also the woman who, knowing that she would not enjoy riding pillion with me for very long, actually encourages me to let other beautiful women go riding with me. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the other Saint Karen.

DucatiRelatively young in the grand scheme of things, the origins of the International Motorcycle Shows only go back as far as the 1982 model year. I began going in 2003, the winter before I got my first bike. I was a late bloomer, learned to ride and got my license when I was in my early 40’s. At that point, I just wanted to get the “M” added to my license classification and never intended to actually get a bike. Or so I thought. But once bitten, once I had that M, well you know. So even though motorcycle ownership seemed to be out of the question financially, I wanted to go see bikes. So I dragged my wife and then-young kids to the big cycle show. A few months later, I had a bike of my own, a story unto itself, which we will get to. And I haven’t missed the IMS once since having gone that first time.

This year was destined to be different from the get-go. Both of my kids, now adults, have M’s on their drivers licenses and both have enjoyed going to the IMS with Karen and me over the years. But while my daughter has a healthy appreciation for motorcycles, my son was always more of a fanatic, like me. The two of us would spend more time looking at the bikes, sitting on bikes, engaging vendor representatives in conversation, etc., and then talking about the whole affair for weeks afterward. But this year, for the first time since 2003, my son wasn’t here to go with us. He’s attending an actors conservatory in Oregon for two years, so it’s understandable, but that didn’t make it any easier on me.
Perhaps that’s why Karen requested that we make a special weekend of it, as part of her birthday/Valentine’s Day celebration. She had never done so over the course of the previous twelve years, but in hindsight, it seems to make sense. Sure, it was still bittersweet, but to a much lesser extent because my wife, having had the foresight to know how I would likely fixate on my son’s absence, chose to displace all that with a night and day filled with love and motorcycles.

We arrived at our hotel in separate cars, after work on Friday. Like all the hotels surrounding the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, the Hilton Rosemont is quite nice, if a bit pricey. Parking in the hotel parking lot was $25 per car. The breakfast buffet was nice, but was almost as expensive as parking the cars. They have a small sundry shop, where everything costs about triple what you would pay for the same thing at a gas station convenience store. Fortunately, I always carry my own wine and nibblies for occasions like this. To be honest, I’m amazed there wasn’t a meter of some sort on the toilet’s flush handle. But it was nice. Our room was spacious and clean, the king bed quite comfortable. As romantic getaways go, you could do worse.

OompahFor her birthday supper, Karen had requested the Hofbräuhaus Chicago, which is very close to the hotel. Had it not been the coldest night of this winter season, we might have tried walking there. But it was bitter cold out, so we took my Chevy, which was still warm. What should have taken a minute or two ended up taking a quarter hour filled with wrong turns, dead ends and a stop in the wrong parking lot, where we were given directions to our destination. Bear in mind, this was only a half mile from our hotel, a mere ten minutes away on foot. But we valet parked, laughed it off and walked inside.

Beer Vat HBHI wouldn’t call the Hofbräuhaus romantic, but it is a fun place. The food is great, the beer is quite good, and they have live entertainment. It can be a bit loud, especially if your table is close to the stage, but it’s a good time. I would definitely go back. Try the warm pretzel for openers. Imported from Germany the thing is about as big as a dinner plate and comes with a cheese spread and two different types of mustard. Goes very well with a stein of beer.

PretzelFriday night was all about celebration and romance, but Saturday was fun, too—just in a different way. We got up uncharacteristically early for a Saturday, enjoyed a very nice breakfast buffet at the hotel’s restaurant, checked out of our room, and then took the heated sky bridge from the hotel directly into the convention center. The show had just opened and since I had already bought our tickets, we were able to walk right in without having to stand in line.

Fast MeThe best time to attend the International Motorcycle Show in Chicago is on Friday. The show opens in the afternoon, while many people are at work, and runs until 8:00 PM. There are fewer people, and the manufacturer and vendor reps are fresh. Since 2003, I’ve been able to do that once, and only because I was unemployed at the time. But for those who can go on Friday, I recommend it. The second best day to go is on Sunday. It’s way more crowded than on Friday, but still isn’t too bad during the early hours. The key to doing the IMS on Saturday, probably the busiest day of the three, is to get there when it opens, move as best you can, and try to be done by early afternoon. That’s exactly what we did and by the time we left, around 1:00 PM, the line to get in was intimidating.

Custom NessKaren and I have always viewed the IMS as having two essential two parts, the bike manufacturers and the merchandise vendors. There are other categories, namely the brand-oriented owners clubs, organizations and charities, motorcycle events and tourism, custom bike displays and contests, seminars and demonstrations, some sort of stunt show, and the motorcycle dealership exhibitors. All are nice, but we have always been about the bikes themselves and the product vendors.

We spent hours walking the show. We always spend some time with our favorite tee shirt vendors, an older couple out of New York who have watched our kids grow up, know our faces if not our names, and always greet us with sincere hugs. They sell an awesome selection of tee shirts, too.

Fast KawAs for the bikes, I always like to see what’s new, and because I try to keep up with developments from the major manufacturers, I often arrive looking for specific models. But my perspective has changed entirely since I began attending this show. In 2003 I had never owned a motorcycle and wasn’t entirely sure I ever would. I went to the show wide-eyed and salivating, but left knowing that a purchase wasn’t imminent. Or so I thought.

I wanted to get a bike. I didn’t see how that was possible, for a variety of reasons, but I could imagine the possibility. And so I never stopped thinking about it. Inside of three months, I had a Honda 750 Shadow A.C.E. in my garage. The bike was barely a year old and had something like 3,600 miles on it.

The next year I went to the show as a bike owner, a bona fide motorcyclist. I still salivated, because there were many bikes I thought I might enjoy more than the one I owned. But again I left feeling fairly certain that a purchase wasn’t imminent. One year later, same thing. But two months after that, I bought my first new bike, a 2005 Honda ST1300 sport touring rig.

From that point forward, the number of “bikes I’d rather have” dwindled. In 2007, I suffered my first and (so far) only crash and my insurance company bought me another bike. I chose the same model.

Six more years passed before I bought another bike, not because I didn’t want one, but because the only bikes I wanted more than the one I had were out of my reach. But I continued to follow industry trends and developments, attended demo ride events, religiously continued to attend the IMS, and never closed my mind to the possibilities of getting that next bike. In 2013 I took possession of a gently used 2012 Victory Vision Tour an American made, full-on touring bike powered by a 106 cubic inch v-twin engine. This changed everything.

Custom RatFrom a North American touring standpoint, my current ride is near the top of the food chain. There are other “full dresser” touring bikes, each with its own set of pluses and minuses, and I look at every one of them each year. But for the last two years now, I leave the show without wishing I could afford a different bike than the one I own. I may dream of a new accessory or two, but that’s the extent of it. I’m in a good place.

By early afternoon, Karen and I had seen everything we wanted to see and were ready to head for home. The show had become quite crowded by then and we couldn’t help but notice the depth and breadth of humanity that was outside buying tickets and waiting to get into the show. We had picked a good time to leave.

Beer MeI am grateful to Karen for having thought up this getaway weekend, which provided some much-needed “us” time and helped me not to dwell on the first-time absence of my son. Such is the power of love and motorcycles. As far as I know, our son will miss the show next year, too. Will we do the same thing again? You’re asking the wrong person.

Until next time…