By Michelle Collins | March 31, 2004
Clinton Smout turned his life long passion for motorcycles into a unique business venture. As the owner of Canadian Motorcycle Training Services Inc. Smout spends his days teaching children and adults how to ride off-road bikes and all terrain vehicles (ATVs).
Smout's business was born,as many businesses are, from frustration. Originally Smout was an off-road motorcycle instructor at Humber College. When that program was cancelled Smout took matters into his own hands, and started his own training center.
An influx of baby boomers and young families has fueled Canada's motorcycle industry in recent years, enabling businesses like Smout's to thrive. Today you are more likely to bump into a middle aged accountant or lawyer than a rebellious bike gang member when shopping for a bike.
"The non-riding perception of motorcycles have changed a little. I remember going on a date when I was 16 and I showed up at this young lady's home on my motorcycle. I met her father and shook his hand, being the well mannered and clean cut guy that I was. He liked me, but he pulled me aside and told me that if I ever took his daughter on that thing, he would kill me, and he was deadly serious. We were all viewed as Hell's Angels then," says Smout.
The Canadian industry alone is worth $4.6 billion with 70,000 to 75,000 new units being sold each year, says Bob Ramsay, president of The Canadian Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council (MMIC).
"It's been very strong growth for the last six or seven years, double digit growth year over year. There's probably a number of factors such as changing demographics. It was more challenging back in the early 90's. Insurance rates were very high, but from 1995 until recently insurance rates were very low. Financing and interest rates have also been very modest and reasonable for the last six to eight years, that's helped a lot of people get started," says Ramsay.
Ramsay has seen a change in who is riding as well. Over the last 20 years more women are getting involved with the sport, with their numbers increasing from five per cent back in the 70's to 15 to 20 per cent today. The overall age of riders has also increased. Ramsay predicts that the average rider is 42 years old today. The last major change has been that riding is now seen as something the entire family can do together, whether it's street riding or off-road.
This growth has led to a lucrative industry for businesses as well. Although the riding season can vary depending on the location, most riders will be on the road from April through to the end of October. During the off season there are trade shows to participate in that can lead to heavy traffic for dealerships as well.
"More and more it's becoming a busy year-round occupation if you're working at a dealership," says Ramsay.
Fueling the future
Smout points out that while the industry has been growing enormously, some dealers have been reluctant to pay attention to the younger generations while the baby boomers continue to spend at record paces.
"What I envision happening in 15 or so years is that there will be a lot less of the 20-somethings that are in a buying market to keep the motorcycle industry in most industrial countries going at the rate it is now. Right now the big buyers of motorcycles are the baby boomers. In 10 to 15 years they will be very big purchasers of golf carts. They may not be riding in their 60's, some will, but I think a larger portion of them will venture off into other leisure activities," says Smout.
With this foresight in mind he saw the opportunity to approach the major dealers with an idea about how to create brand loyalty from a young age. Because acquiring the mini-bikes needed to run his facility is a challenge, he contacted the manufacturers directly and asked if he could borrow a fleet of bikes for the season which he would then in turn promote and create goodwill for.
Some companies didn't see the value in this saying they didn't need people like Smout to promote their bikes because they're selling so well anyway. However, Yamaha saw the potential of this arrangement and now loans Smout a selection of bikes each year.
"What happened was that all of our local dealers sell out of Yamahas, which are blue bikes, but don't sell out of other manufacturer's colours even though they may sell them as well. What they noticed was that all the blue bikes were selling because of the goodwill created by the training course. Moms and dads would go into the dealerships and buy the bike the child was trained on without even wanting to look at the prices or styles of the other bikes."
Bumps in the road
Although the industry continues to grow at all levels, it is not without its challenges. Both Ramsay and Smout name insurance as one of the biggest issues today.
"Motorcycle insurance is the same as car insurance with two major differences. The two major differences are that there is much less availability and choices as to who to buy it from. With these limited choices it's important that owners phone around and check out all of their possibilities," says Ramsay.
Another challenge that Smout finds is dealing with naysayers who see the sport as dangerous.
"Riders cause accidents and they cause insurance rates to go up. One of the challenges is that because people do have loud bikes and a small percentage are reckless we're all tainted with this yahoo brush."
In reality the training industry for new riders is also booming. Smout spends his weekends teaching adults how to become safe and responsible riders, and the novice riders are eager to learn.
"Even the rider training has become very big business. What's interesting is that most of my group that I'm teaching this weekend will probably be 40 and up. When that 40 year old was 20 they would have thought rider training was a waste of time. Now they have a lot more to lose, and less bravado. The program that I teach at Humber is the largest one in the world. On most weekends we teach 125 students at $400 each."
According to the MMIC there are six styles of bikes that consumers can choose from. With demand as high as it is for the industry there is much competition between the major manufacturers for your buying dollar: Harley Davidson, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, BMW all have a selection of styles. Other manufacturers include Ducati and Triumph.
The bikes range widely in price says Ramsay, with off-road models starting around $1,500 and go up to $28,000 for higher end performance models.
So let's take a look at the styles available:
On these bikes you can sit back and enjoy the scenery. Riders aren't bent over the bike as they are on sport bikes. These bikes are the signature style of the Harley Davidson and are consistently the top selling bike in North America, says Smout.
If you want sleek lines that lead to speed these are the bikes for you. Popular among the Europeans, riders crouch over the front of the bike as they travel.
Built for long distance travel these bikes can fall into one of three categories: sport touring, custom touring, and luxury touring. They are all equipped with saddlebags to carry luggage.
The name says it all, this style recalls the bikes of the 1970's. While they may not be fancy like the sport bike, they offer good value for the money. After-market accessories can convert these bikes to cruisers, touring, or sport styles.
Want to take your bike from the street to the trail? These bikes can do it all. While they may not have the performance of a standard street bike they provide the ability to travel over rougher terrains.
These bikes are intended for trail and off-road riding only. They are designed to take riders over dirt roads and grounds. Two models fall into this category: motocross, and off-road. Motocross bikes are intended for competition.
Along with a motorcycle riders need a good helmet which can range from $200 to $1,000, and leather jackets and pant covers that can protect riders from both the elements and a nasty fall. Ramsay points out that there are a selection of other accessories on the market, such as heated vests that can enhance the riding experience and improve comfort and safety.