High on the Hog: Motorcycle Tours Can Rev Up Your Business

By Doug Oakley

Duffy Gold is one of those travel agents who knows the value of an untapped niche market. Since starting her own agency in Farmington, N.M., five years ago, profits from biker tours have risen to 25 percent of her total agency take.

Although the name of her agency is Seas the Moment Travel, Gold markets the motorcycle tours under the name Hog the Moment Travel. "Hog" refers to Harley Davidson motorcycles, although anyone who rides any kind of motorcycle is fair game.

Not only does this agent know the value of a lucrative, untapped market, she also has the know-how to dig in and make it work. "It was one of those things that said to me, 'This market is not being tapped,' " the New York City native explained.

Gold doesn't even ride motorcycles. In fact, she only got on the back of one for the first time just last year. So why motorcycles then? Why not go with something she knew better? Mostly it came down to survival. "You can't depend on your walk-in trade," said Gold. "You must go search the business. You have to pursue it." Gold also does group cruises, golf cruises and some general travel for repeat clients.

Like any successful entrepreneur, Gold dove into the biking world head-first. She learned as she went, enjoying the whole subculture of bikers and their machines along the way. "I started going to biker shows," said Gold, whose been in the travel business 20 years and now has six outside agents selling travel for her. "I would set up my booth right in between the booths selling body piercing and black leather chaps and bras. My card would be out and people would ask if I could find biker-friendly places to stay."

Then someone from the Honda group would say, 'Can you find 100 rooms?' " And that's how it started.

Gold still doesn't ride motorcycles. But she does know where to rent the bikes, nationally and internationally; where the good roads are, and how to get the client on a bike and on the road. She also knows that bikers are not cheap. Renting a motorcycle in Europe costs about $150 a day, she said, "and when you put air in, it makes for a very nice profit."

Gold maintains that there's a niche for every agent to take advantage of and prosper from -- if only they would take the initiative. "There is a place for agents, even with the caps, but some of them are so locked into their computer reservations systems that they don't get out and do it," she said.

Gold did it. Against the audible objections of her daughter, she practically rode a wheelie right into the market. "There are bike meets, and they sell all kinds of things: You can get tattooed, body pierced, you can buy chaps, gloves, bras, bandannas," Gold explained. "I'd be in the middle of all this and the bikers would say, 'Wow, travel!' And there still aren't any travel people at these things."

As Gold found out, the biker clients she cultivates are not your stereotypical beer-chugging outlaws who tear up small towns for fun. In fact, said Gold, many of her clients are mild mannered business people in gray suits by day who periodically put on a temporary tattoo, leather jacket and go for a ride.

"These people spend money," she said. "As long as it's not criminal, they do whatever they want. It gives the stockbrokers an opportunity to be one of the boys. Nobody knows him, he's got the beard, the temporary tattoo and a week later he's back on Wall Street. The wives do it, too."

Gold said the way she got over the stigma of bikers, a stigma practically set in stone by gory headlines from the Hells Angels and others, was by being "nonjudgmental." That mind-set has paid off. "I think because I was non-judgmental, I found acceptance," said Gold. "You do one show, then the vendors all know you because they are all the same at every show," and your name gets around.

Now she is even working on an inbound European program for bikers who want to come and tour the Southwest where the weather is good and the riding easy. The Italians in particular, she said, "are absolutely nuts about biking."

So are Americans who bike in Europe, she said. A couple will spend $7,000 for a week there. "Once one couple goes, they will go again, and they'll bring friends and there will be four instead of two, or eight instead of four," said Gold.

But first you have to get the clients. Going to biker conventions will cost you some money, but Gold said the investment has paid off for her. Four or five days at a show will cost about $600, which is not much compared to the dividend it will yield in the future.

And after doing the mining at conventions and shows and selling the trip, there's follow-up to make sure the client will come back and bring friends. "My clients continually educate me -- 'loved this tour, could not stand that one, this was a good place to eat' -- that's the relationship you build.

"Selling travel is listening to the client. I give them two days back after their trip, then I call them. If they had any problems they will tell you, and if I can't correct it, I will apologize."

That kind of work and customer service has netted a group of customers "who absolutely will not talk to anyone else about their travel," Gold said. And what more could you ask for?

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