LACONIA — Representatives of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association got an earful from a crowd approaching 75 people who gathered at the Belknap Mill last night to offer their thoughts on why attendance at the rally is flagging and what should be done to reverse the trend.
Some, like Doug Frederick of the American Police Motorcycle Museum in Meredith, pointed to the aging of the biker community and agreed with Paul Gilbin that a greater effort must be made to tap the millennial market. Many responded openly when Les Schuster, who owns and operates the Lazy-E Motor Inn on Weirs Boulevard, that the intimidating presence of police thinned the crowds. Most agreed that there is too little — or, as several claimed, "nothing" — to do. A few agreed with Russ Holliday, emcee of the wet T-shirt contest at the Laconia Road House, who said that "The bikers I talk to want to see boobs" and asked "Are we having a party here?" And less than a handful of speakers mentioned the high cost of accommodations.
Mayor Ed Engler, who with City Councilor Armand Bolduc, Ward 6, attends meetings of the board of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, said again that despite shrinking attendance, he feared many "take the rally for granted" and said that there is little or no investment in promoting and staging the event by those business and property owners who benefit from it.
"The one thing the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association doesn't have is money," Engler said. The income stream for sponsors has contracted and only three local businesses — the Naswa Resort, Faro Italian Grille and Half Moon Enterprises Inc. — and Hot Leathers of Manchester, Connecticut, a major vendor, are dues-paying members of the association. Laconia Harley-Davidson, New Hampshire International Speedway and the Weirs Action Committee recently resigned their memberships. The association operates on an annual budget of $360,000, but its revenue falls shy of that amount.
One man, who said he markets to millennials, said flatly, "They don't have the money to come here." He recalled making day trips to the rally from Massachusetts and camping, but said today "There is no place to sleep here overnight that is safe, clean and cheap."
Giblin said younger riders are turning increasingly to sport bikes and suggested efforts be made to draw a wider variety of brands to a rally that has been closely identified with V-twins, and especially Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
When Michael Foote, a resident of Roller Coaster Road, questioned "the amazing amount of police coverage of the Roller Coaster," he drew a round of applause. He said the four units working multiple shifts that put his dogs out of sorts" and added "I can't poop right myself."
Major Ray Conte of the New Hampshire State Police, replied, "We don't want to disrupt your life to where you have trouble using the bathroom," then explained that the troopers were posted at the invitation of the Laconia Police Department to protect the public and respond to accidents.
But, Schuster said his customers feel "harassed" by police ticketing them for minor offenses like "sunglasses on their head, not over their eyes. It's not a police event," he said. It's a police event."
Explaining the falling attendance, Mike Boudreau simply remarked "rain and police," noting that bikers seldom return after one bad experience with the police.
Conte countered that there have been fewer troopers deployed at the rally than in the past, while patrols on the major roads leading to Laconia have increased.
Bill Niland of the Chop Shop Pub in Seabrook, who diagnosed the rally as "all but dead," said there are simply not enough attractions to draw crowds. He claimed that plans to stage concerts for 30,000 people, which came to nothing last year, would only have poached patrons from other businesses. He allowed that the rally "can be resurrected, but not in Laconia," and suggested it be spread across the state. He said that the Chop Shop Pub, which he called the most successful biker bar in the state, will stage an event during the rally, but not return to Laconia.
Frederick said that, along with the lack of attractions and presence of police, the high costs were also stifling the crowds. He said that when Canada devalued its dollar, the number of Canadians attending the rally fell by nearly a third. Niland said that when he operated a beer tent at the rally, he paid $10,500 in rent to house his staff at three locations — two cottages and a basement — for a week.
Another man said the city consistently raised the fees charged to vendors, but Charlie St. Clair, executive director of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, pointed out that the fee — $450 for the nine days of the rally — has not been increased since it was introduced.
"Vendors complain more about the rents they are charged by private property owners," he said, "than their fees to the city."
St. Clair and Jenn Anderson, director of the association, said efforts are underway to strengthen the marketing program, including steps to improve the website, expand a digital presence and make greater use of social media. At the same time, they insisted that the association is open to suggestions for additional events, but explained that it lacks the resources to sponsor them.
St. Clair reminded everyone that when the association began in 1991, there were 50 motorcycle rallies throughout the country, while this year there were 650.
Engler stressed that for nearly a century Laconia has had what other communities have had to invent. "We could not invent Motorcycle Week today," he said, "but we have what other communities want."