LEESBURG — There are two things that make the sweetest sound during Bikefest: The vroom-vroom of motorcycles and the cha-ching of cash registers.
Last year, however, there was less of both. In fact, the giant street party on wheels fell short of budget expectations, according to Joe Shipes of the Leesburg Partnership, which sponsors the event.
“Last year was a weather event,” said Shipes, who is the chief executive officer of the partnership. “There were so many heat advisories EMS asked for more cooling fans.”
Weather is always a concern.
“If we have a weekend like we had Sunday we’d be wiped out,” he said. Not only was Lake County hit with heavy rain and wind, but there were tornado watches, too.
It wasn’t just the heat that withered last year’s attendance, however. It is typically hot the last weekend of April. Other factors play a role, including the entertainment, the economy and demographics. Harley-Davidson, for example, the king of heavy American motorcycles, has seen a decline in sales as baby boomers get older.
If this year’s event, from April 27-29, rakes in less money it won’t be for lack of effort.
The Leesburg partnership has been hunkered down in its “war room” for weeks preparing for the event that has almost as many moving parts as participants. A long line of white boards is filled with checklists. Tables are thrust together to form a giant conference table, and phones are ringing.
Security alone plays a major part in planning, with emergency officials discussing everything from minor first-aid to a potential major disaster.
“The three-day attendance for the event is projected to be as high as 200,000,” according to a recent memo to Leesburg city commissioners from the Recreation Department.
Shipes figures the total is probably closer to 150,000, but it is impossible to get an actual count.
The city each year establishes a designated vendor zone that can handle 30,000 people at a time. The downtown zone runs roughly from 9th Street to Lake Street. Built in to that concept are vendor fees to help the partnership offset its costs. This year’s fee is $2.33 per square foot, which is the same fee going back to 2015. The partnership’s costs of staging the annual event is about $671,000, according to city records.
Lake County chips in $40,000 from hotel taxes. This year, Leesburg cut a grant check for $38,000. Other funds come in from sponsors and vendors.
One of the biggest costs is paying for the bands. The bigger the name the bigger the crowd, but also the bigger the expense.
In 2016, Bret Michaels and his band Poison drew big crowds, “but you can’t do that every year,” said Shipes.
Unlike regular concert venues, there is no ticket fee. “If I could do that it would be different,” he said.
Big bands require promoters to pay for hotels and other expenses.
“We do the sound and lighting,” Shipes said. Because there are numerous bands moving on and off the stage, the partnership provides keyboards and drum kits.
There are also marketing expenses and labor. “There are a lot of volunteers but they don’t always show up,” he said.
Then, there are expenses for things like garbage removal, portable toilets and security. Bikefest generates 40 tons of garbage. Initially, the city removed it. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office also used to offer its services without cost, but the partnership must now pay for that too.
Key to success is keeping up with changing times.
Harley-Davidson has been king, but a younger set of motorcycle enthusiasts are also flocking to the Indian brand and sleek, imported “crotch rocket” sport bikes.
Harley-Davidson is countering with its own sport bikes and seeking new customers among the young, women and African-Americans, according to Forbes magazine.
“Harley’s retail sales declined 1.6 percent year-over-year in 2016, despite a 2.3 percent growth in international sales, due to a 3.9 percent decline in U.S. retail sales,” the magazine reported last February.
This year, Harley-Davidson announced plans to close a factory in Kansas City, Mo.
“The Milwaukee-based company said its net income fell 82 percent in its fiscal fourth quarter to $8.3 million, compared with a year earlier,” USA Today reported. “Earnings per share were 5 cents, down from 27 cents a year earlier. Revenue was $1.23 million, compared with a year earlier.”
Overseas sales helped, or else it would have been worse.
John Malik, one of the principal owners of Gator Harley in Leesburg, said his dealership has sold 80 more motorcycles in March than it did last year.
“I don’t know if the economy is getting better or what,” he said.
Harley-Davidson closed its Kansas City plant because the company quit making two models, and decided they could consolidate operations in a newer plant in Pennsylvania, Malik said.
One of the reasons for the decline is that a key Harley market — baby boomers — is fading out.
Mark Lane, a reporter with the with The Daytona Beach News -Journal, said this year’s crowd for Bike Week and Spring Break were both down, partly because of cold, wind and rain.
“Bike Week promoters trotted out the traditional 500,000-visitor estimate for Bike Week ’18. But my anecdotal, not-based-on-data, gut feeling is that the numbers dropped from last year. The noise level was lower, the congestion on U.S. Highway 1 was not as dense, and I noticed fewer guys in black leather in the beer aisle at the supermarket. Those are the metrics I usually go by.
“And this would be in keeping with the widespread belief that Bike Week, despite slight ups and downs, has been in a slow-leak mode. I suspect attendance peaked sometime in the early 2000s. This is due to a lot of things, the big one being demographic: Bike Week is aging out.”
Malik said it’s not just Harley-Davidson that is trying to reach millennials. It is also the ATV manufacturers, water craft and other types of bikes. “They’re just not buying,” he said.
Shipes has noticed a change as Bikefest is preparing to celebrate its 22nd year. Bikers who were in their 50s when the event first started are now in their 70s. They don’t hang out as much during the evening. That cuts into food and beverage revenues.
If Shipes has a motto, however, it is, “We must keep up with the emerging market.”
The partnership has switched up the music, from Southern and classic rock to hair and grunge, spanned the decades from the ‘60s to the current era, and offers a mixture at each year’s event.
This year’s bands include Tom Keifer of the Cinderella blues-rock band, Scott Stapp of the rock band Creed, and Colt Ford, whose range runs from country to rap.
Of course, you don’t need a bike to come, Shipes notes. “A lot of people consider this to be a giant street party.”