Dealerships gear up for Harley’s 115th anniversary

Problems for Harley-Davidson include difficulty modeling future demand
Riders depart Harley-Davidson’s Milwaukee headquarters on the first leg of the MDA Ride for Life.

Live music, food, drinks and the chance to test ride motorcycles from Harley-Davidson’s recently unveiled 2019 model year. For the region’s Harley dealerships, the 115th anniversary activities next week are part celebration and part business opportunity.

Riders depart Harley-Davidson’s Milwaukee headquarters on the first leg of the MDA Ride for Life.

“Obviously because there’s this huge crowd, we can move some iron,” said Jake Swihart, marketing and events director at Suburban Motors in Thiensville.

Many riders have not had a chance to try out Harley’s newest model year since it was just introduced this week, Swihart said, adding Harley made sure local dealerships are well stocked with thousands of motorcyclists set to arrive in the city next week.

While selling motorcycles and other merchandise is a main goal, the Milwaukee Rally – a joint production of Harley-Davidson corporate and four area dealerships – is also a celebration. Planning got started a year in advance with the booking of music acts.

“I love planning the music because it’s like my own little, mini Summerfest,” said Brooke Pape, who handles marketing and events for Milwaukee Harley-Davidson.

Pape isn’t the only one to make comparisons to The Big Gig. Dianne Crowley, marketing and events manager at Wisconsin Harley-Davidson, said the Oconomowoc dealership’s 7 acres “literally become like a baby Summerfest.”

“From a business and a dealership standpoint, we love getting new people exposed to our dealership,” Crowley said, adding that hosting events gives non-riders a chance to experience motorcycle culture. “It’s kind of an invitation to get them in the door.”

The four dealerships involved in the rally include Wisconsin Harley-Davidson, Suburban Motors, Iron Town Harley-Davidson in New Berlin and Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, which will have events at its Silver Spring Drive dealership and its future location in downtown at the former National Ace Hardware building.

Each dealership is starting with events on Wednesday and will continue through Labor Day.

The Milwaukee Rally happens every year, but on Harley’s major anniversaries every five years, things go to another level. Crowley said the 100th anniversary in 2003 was a breakthrough year and Swihart said while the 105th was a little smaller, the 110th grew a little bit and he expects that trend to continue.

Swihart pointed out international attendees spend five years saving up to come to Milwaukee for a major anniversary and the trip alone can cost $5,000. To make sure those attendees have an enjoyable experience, Suburban Harley starts with inventory planning two years in advance.

For this year’s anniversary celebration, Harley has planned more events around Milwaukee and throughout the region instead of concentrating everything downtown and at Veterans Park. The company has embraced motorcycle racing including on the beach, a hill climb, drag racing and flat track racing.

“I do think that the motor company is doing a good job of looking at what the younger demographic is going to like,” said Pape. “I think moving to the races is going to really draw in a new crowd. I see where they’re going with their vision.”

She said the racing emphasis is a good fit for Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, which will have teams in several of the events.

Even with all the excitement of an anniversary celebration, it is hard to ignore that 2018 has been a strange year for Harley and the company is in the midst of a transition.

In addition to increasing costs and potentially pushing production of motorcycles for Europe overseas, new tariffs have landed Harley in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s Twitter habit. Several times this summer, Trump has taken the company to task for its decision to move work overseas, even going so far as to support a boycott of the company and promising to help competitors.

Crowley said most people understand the dealerships are locally owned small business and separate from the corporate company, but she added there is a portion of the public that does not understand the difference. She said Wisconsin Harley-Davidson does receive some negative comments as a result, but there are also many positive ones as well.

“Everybody is getting some backlash,” Pape said. “The politics doesn’t matter to us.”

Swihart said the tariff issues come up in small talk, particularly with longtime customers.

“We’ll talk about it, but it’s never a huge issue between buying a bike or not,” he said.

New motorcycle registrations in Wisconsin were up 0.8 percent through the end of July, according to state Department of Transportation data. Registrations were down nearly 22 percent in April alone with challenging weather, but May saw a 3 percent increase and June was up 26 percent. The 6,160 new motorcycles registered in the state – which includes all brands – is still down sharply from the 7,801 motorcycles registered in the first seven months of 2013, the last major anniversary year.

At the same time, Harley has also laid out a vision for what its offerings will look like moving forward. The plan includes the introduction of LiveWire, an electric motorcycle, next August, and the expansion into several new product segments.

“Any time a completely new model is released there’s always some hype and some concern,” Swihart said, adding that many people have been looking for the company to release something new.

“It’s a lot of personal preference, but we definitely look at it as more opportunity for us,” he said.

Pape said Milwaukee Harley-Davidson is placing an emphasis on getting more people riding motorcycles.

“Everybody that works in our dealership is really passionate about the sport of motorcycling,” she said. “Yes, it is a business, but it’s also a business we all really love.”

For details on each dealerships’ anniversary activities, visit their individual websites: Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, Suburban Motors, Wisconsin Harley-DavidsonIron Town Harley-Davidson, House of Harley-Davidson in Greenfield and Racine, and Uke’s Harley-Davidson.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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