GROWING OLDER, BUT NOT UP

By Published on .

Most Popular

The wild one has given way to the mild one. That motorcyclist passing you on the highway? He's more likely to be a middle-age guy with a bad back and a bald spot than a raver with a postmodern buzz cut. And the only thing young about the forty-something exec zipping across the bay on his powerful personal watercraft is his two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, waiting back on shore to go for a ride with Daddy.

Young men may still covet Harleys and Hondas, Ski-Doos and Jet Skis, but they are no longer the core constituent of the market, industry watchers say. What gives? Manufacturers and dealers of these quintessential boy toys once took a pretty dim view of targeting anybody over 30, and with good reason: in 1980, the average age of the 5.7 million registered motorcyclists was 26. But now the $4.7 billion industry has discovered the inner beauty of aging boomers with disposable income and a yen for adventure. Manufacturers, happy to oblige, have introduced a line of bigger, safer, more expensive machines with plenty of extras-wide-body, big-windshield cruising bikes and sit-down, two-seater watercraft-aimed at customers more interested in comfort than performing daredevil acrobatics.

Even practicality has been turned into a selling point, say dealers, who are extolling the virtues of commuting to work on a motorcycle, working the farm on a snowmobile or going hunting on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV).

The result is that sales of top-of-the-line toys are driving the industry. Take the latest offering from Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of snowmobiles and personal watercraft. Their three-seater Sea-Doo GTX-RF1 comes with an adjustable steering column, deep-cushion seats and enough storage to accommodate a picnic basket and towels. "With the earlier models, you had to have some athletic skills," says Dany St. Pierre, director of marine products marketing for Bombardier. "But with the GTX-RF1, the only part you have to move is your thumb on the throttle."

"When we think about new models, we tend to cater to the older customer more than we would have ten or fifteen years ago," adds Patrick Kelly, watercraft product manager for Kawasaki Motors Corporation USA in Irvine, California. "We're not rushing to the drawing board to develop products for people in their twenties."

The same is true for motorcycles, sales of which have rebounded dramatically, from a low of 280,000 in 1991 to 356,000 in 1997. And they're coming back at the top end, says Elliott Ettenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of Bozell Retail Advertising in New York City. A fully dressed Harley, for example, can run from $18,000 to $28,000. "The motorcycle business was in disaster, but the resurgence of demand is at the Harley-Davidson level. Very expensive Yamahas and cruisers are driving the bike business back, not the $7,000 to $9,000 canyon racer." The lesson to toy marketers is clear, Ettenberg adds: "Go for the top end. Don't go for the middle."

Little wonder, then, that motorcycle manufacturers have had success following their market up the age and income charts. According to Mediamark Research, a market research firm based in New York City, nearly half of all motorcycle owners earn more than $50,000 a year, and nearly 25 percent pull in annual salaries above $75,000. Almost 60 percent are between the ages of 35 and 64.

People in the business of selling personal watercraft are seeing a similar demographic walk through their doors. According to a 1996 survey by the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C., the average buyer of a new personal watercraft like Jet Skis and Sea-Doos is 41 years old, with a household income of $95,000. Eighty-five percent are men and 71 percent are married.

HEADS AS WHITE AS SNOW A look at the history of the snowmobile market demonstrates just how the business of big toys has shifted over the years and offers valuable lessons for the makers of all such vehicles. Ski-Doo invented and began mass-producing snowmobiles in 1959 and, by 1971, the market was glutted with more than 200 manufacturers. Most were producing low-price, low-quality machines that putted along at 20 miles per hour on a four-horsepower engine. "A lawn mower motor," says Ski-Doo spokesman Dave Thompson with disdain, "and basically no suspension to speak of." North American sales peaked in 1971 at 550,000 vehicles, then the came the wipeout: by 1983, only 90,000 snowmobiles were sold, and it looked as if the industry would never recover. It wasn't until the early 1990s, Thompson says, that the snowmobile market began to revive thanks to technological improvements. Adults, who had taken an interest in the sport in their younger days in the '70s but had left it to raise their children, were starting to come back.

And this time around, the machines themselves had gone from being smoky, unreliable gut janglers to 165-horsepower, 110 mile-per-hour monsters with front and rear suspensions and a ride more like a Lexus than a lawn mower.

"Folks who were riding these things in the '70s and got out of it, got back in and said, 'Oh my God, these are incredible,' " says Thompson, "and that became the core of the sport." Plus, he notes, a national network of more than 200,000 miles of trails had been developed in the intervening years, making snowmobiling an easily accessible pastime for anyone living in the Snow Belt. "If you go to Minneapolis, the snowmobile is as much a part of the lifestyle as the motorcycle is in Southern California, or the watercraft is in Florida," Thompson observes. The industry more than tripled in size, from $300 million in 1990 to $1 billion in 1997, and fueled ancillary growth of $6 billion in winter lodging and accessories.

Upscale water toys have attracted a similar fan base: successful boomers. "Right now, boats 35 feet and up are the most vibrant sector, with the most growth," says Greg Proteau of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. "There's wealth creation, a strong economy and a lot of entrepreneurs end up owning a boat as an escape."

That makes sense to Bozell's Ettenberg. The oldest baby boomers-those born in the late 1940s-control the most wealth, he says. "These are the folks who are driving these toys. They can spend $25,000 to $30,000 and reward themselves for what they believe to be a life of hard work."

Ettenberg, 51, has only to look at his own lifestyle for confirmation of the wealthy buyer/big toy connection. He's one of the top income earners, he says, and "toys, for me, are a very important part of my life. They're the relaxation." Ettenberg drives a twin turbo Porsche and is indulgently putting the most modern automotive technology into the body of his 1966 Corvette convertible.

Although Ettenberg claims no midlife crisis has dictated his decisions, marketing experts say such passages are very much at the heart of these purchases. "These baby boomers, as they get older, are looking for ways to recapture their youth," says David Urban, associate professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "They bought SUVs [sports utility vehicles] instead of minivans, not because they want to drive off-road, but because they don't want the minivan image. They're not like the Griswolds in National Lampoon's Vacation. It's a little more of a macho statement, and that goes for women, too."

Not surprisingly, the oldsters are also into customizing their wheels. After all, they can afford it. Motorcycle buffs have no compunctions about spending extra money on big windshields and wider seats for their motorcycles, says Ed Burke, manager of research and development for Yamaha Motor Corporation USA in Cypress, California. Annual sales of accessories, including paint and other custom features, combined with motorcycle-related tourism, is estimated at $6.2 billion, according to Beverly St. Clair of the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Tom Hall, 66, started riding 35 years ago on a 350 Honda, a $1,200 model. But as Hall (and his bank account) has matured, so has his taste in bikes: he now rides an 1100 BMW GS, which retails for $15,000. "As you get better, and grow in economic stature, the bike gets bigger and better,' Hall says. A magazine editor, Hall is a longtime leader of the Montgomery Street Motorcycle Club in San Francisco, named for the main drag in that city's financial district. The group limits its membership to 40 people and has quite a long waiting list.

"A lot of guys start out with rice rockets," Halls observes, using the derogatory name for high-speed Japanese bikes. "But as they get older, more conservative and have families, they want a family bike. A little more fear starts coming in."

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD Even with the maturing of the market, it's often been a bumpy ride during the boom years for boy toys. Sales of personal watercraft have experienced a series of peaks and valleys, says Proteau; they claimed one-third of all new powerboat purchases in 1995, up from just 6 percent in 1988. But sales dropped last year to 176,000 units, down from 191,000 in 1996. And they may drop again this year, Proteau says.

Motorcycle sales have faired somewhat better, says St. Clair, up about 4 to 5 percent a year from 1992 to 1995, 6.8 percent in 1996 and 8 percent in 1997. Still, marketers know they can't afford to take the middle-agers for granted. And they are equally fearful of alienating their younger customers, despite dwindling sales numbers in that demographic. Keeping both groups happy can be a tricky endeavor, however, like straddling the great divide. "They have to balance their appeals," says Urban. "Somebody who is twenty-five is not suffering from a midlife crisis. The marketer is going to have to do a better job, a more precise job, of targeting different emotions."

Different product lines help. A Jet Ski brochure prominently features a silver-haired stud piloting various sit-down models, but a much younger man riding the stand-up 750 SXi Pro. "A product for someone younger is something that takes a lot more athletic ability to ride, that's ridden in a more aggressive manner, that's much more user-involved," says Kawasaki's Kelly. But, he adds, "Sales of that product are almost minimal [even though] at one time, that was the whole market for us."

Part of the problem is that the Gen-Xers who can afford a high-end Jet Ski or motorcycle are simply more interested in other kinds of gear. "Computers were never a factor until five years ago," says Ettenberg of Bozell. Now young people consider high-tech equipment "very much a necessity. They want surround-sound and DVD and a one megabyte modem and a 17-inch color monitor. I used to bring my friends over to drool over cars. Now people drool over computers. It's getting in the way of hedonistic expenditures."

Oliver Muoto is just the sort of young, wealthy, high-tech exec who makes the power sports companies salivate. But this 28-year-old from Menlo Park, California, who makes more than $100,000 a year, sinks his money into toys that don't need gas, a key or insurance to operate: a Motorola StarTAC phone, a Sony digital camera, a cable modem, a new Apple Macintosh G3 and a Hewlett- Packard Pavillion PC.

"The only thing he's missing," says his friend, Carmen Hernandez, "is a high-tech jet pack to whiz him up and out of traffic snarls." The point, says Muoto, is that "there's a group of us-the early adopters-we find value in these products for a variety of reasons. We think we can make use of these tools because we are significantly ahead of the curve. And we find these toys are also an investment."

Muoto, director of marketing for TouchWave, a Silicon Valley start-up, can justify his purchases all day long, but he acknowledges, "It's also just the toy aspect." He loves showing friends how he can put digital snapshots from his camera right onto the television screen. "It's like-whoa!" Muoto says. "Right now, most [young] people would rather buy a personal home Web server and a cable modem than sink money into a Jet Ski. We have less and less time to go outside and play."

PRETTY IN PINK Muoto and his techie compatriots aren't the only ones who have proved elusive for big-toy marketers. In many ways, women still represent the great unknown when it comes to things that go vroom. Although some dealers report increasing interest from women (females now make up 30 percent of all snowmobilers, up from 5 percent in the mid-'80s, according to Ed Klim of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association), few companies have devoted significant resources to developing that market. "In all of Kawasaki's accessories we do have women's sizes, but we're not specifically using women to help design them," Kelly says. "That's what it would take. Typically, we end up insulting women. A few years ago, we made things with pink accents, and a lot of women took offense."

Harley-Davidson now sponsors motorcycle clubs for women as well as men-and not just for the "biker-babe stereotype," says Robert Skaggs, operations manager for Call of the Wild, a Harley dealership in Mundelein, Illinois. "We try to cater to the ladies with bikes and clothing and accessories," he says, adding that Call of the Wild also employs two "lady salespeople."

Yamaha's Martinez says the company just introduced its first full-size automatic ATV. "That's going to encourage more females to try them," he says. "As far as directly marketing to females, we don't. We've got a very small total budget, and we primarily have to go after the meat of the market."

But even if women aren't gung ho and gunning their engines, they still exert a not-so-subtle influence on sales. Buyers may predominantly be male, but more often than not that buyer is married, and dealers say that wives wield considerable influence over the final purchasing decision. "Men are the drivers in making the decision, but women decide the amount of money," says Proteau of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Bad news for marketing departments? Hardly. They're just organizing events for motorcyclists that are unabashedly family friendly and that encourage the participation of wives and children. Ad brochures offer a similar spin. "They show fresh-faced, fun-loving couples," Urban says. "Wholesome, basically middle-class young people taking the motorcycle out on a weekend for a ride in the country."

Marketers are also looking for new ways to get the word out about their products. Ski-Doo, for example, targets outdoorsmen and auto-racing fans. "The demographic of the race fan almost exactly mirrors our buyer," says Thompson. That is, 85 percent are male, the average age is about 35 and annual income is in the $60,000 range. "In the summer, they watch auto racing. In the winter, they go snowmobiling," Thompson says. And now, companies such as Arctic Cat and Polaris are advertising in magazines like Popular Mechanics, Field & Stream, and Outdoor Life, whereas once they stuck to snowmobile enthusiast publications.

"We're interested in mainstream magazines because we want to find newcomers to the sport," says Heather Hauschild, spokesperson for Arctic Cat, which is based in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Most of their customers, she says, are outdoor types, so Arctic Cat is advertising in consumer publications aimed at that group. "Our demographic research tells us that makes a good fit."

HOW ABOUT A HOVERCRAFT If some graying boomers with discretionary income and aching lumbars fail to see the appeal of snowmobiles and cycles, William Flett suggests they consider what could be the ultimate all-terrain vehicle-a Hovercraft. The device rides on a cushion of air like an air-hockey puck and can traverse water, snow, dirt or asphalt. "This is the next toy," proclaims Flett, vice president and cofounder of the Miami-based company Hovercraft Concepts.

Hovercrafts start at $15,000, and the company has sold 125 since shipping began in September 1996, Flett says. So far sales have been strongest overseas, but Flett hopes to double production to 25 a month by next year. His customers? Seventy percent are male, between the ages of 35 and 65.

Flett, who is 41 and has had operations on his back, knee and shoulder, is betting that Hovercraft will be just the ticket for others like him who are willing but not altogether able to mix things up on the open road (or sea or plain). "Your creaking bones need a little support," he says.

In this article: