September 7, 2013

Harley woos women riders

Female bikers are among the key demographics for Harley as it cultivates a new generation of riders.

By RICK BARRETT McClatchy Newspapers

Anne Zube's fascination with motor sports began with a muscle car at age 15, followed by a string of Jeeps, boats, all-terrain vehicles, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle shortly after her 40th birthday.

click image to enlarge

Crystal Swift poses on her Fat Boy Harley-Davidson in Charlotte, N.C. Harley is the top seller of motorcycles in its class in the U.S. and leads among women, minorities and younger adults.

The Associated Press

Now she's president of Stilettos on Steel, a Milwaukee-area women's motorcycle club that represents a wide range of female bikers, regardless of the brand of bike they ride.

Female riders are among the most important demographics for Harley as it cultivates the next generation of motorcyclists. About a third of the students enrolled in Harley's rider training classes are female.

The company has worked hard to overcome stereotypes that have kept women out of motorcycling, including the notion that a petite female can't handle a big, powerful bike. It's more about technique, skill and confidence than physical strength.

Zube, the events manager for Coast Restaurant in Milwaukee, says driving a motorcycle came naturally to her when she took a Rider's Edge safety class to get her license.

"As soon as I took my feet off the ground and put them on the bike's foot pegs, I throttled myself into a new life and knew it wasn't just a bucket list kind of thing," Zube said.

Still, she and other women motorcyclists aren't always welcomed or understood in a male-dominated activity where even the dealerships sometimes ignore them or don't take them seriously.

"They haven't quite learned to look at women as potential equals in the game," Zube said.

One woman who has spent many years trying to change that is Leslie Prevish, a former Harley-Davidson executive who now has a consulting business focused on marketing to women and diverse audiences in the outdoor and motor sports industries.

While at Harley, her duties included leading the "garage party" program aimed at introducing women to motorcycling in an unintimidating way. Before she was hired by the motorcycle company in 1989, she spent three years working at a Harley dealership.

Companies can spend millions of dollars marketing products to women, but it's wasted money if the people dealing directly with customers don't follow through and treat women with the same respect as men, according to Prevish.

"What I have witnessed is the owner or manager of a shop needs to drive the awareness," she said.

Zube and other women say they've been treated poorly at some dealerships, where the sales staff assumes the women are more interested in clothing than bikes, and the service department doesn't take them seriously. "And I am a pretty outspoken woman. I can't imagine what it's like for women who aren't," Zube said.

Harley-Davidson has a website for women motorcyclists and an outreach program with events aimed at women and racial minorities. The company has done more in both areas than other motorcycle manufacturers, according to Genevieve Schmitt, publisher of Women Riders Now, an online publication.

"There is not one other manufacturer that is dedicating resources to attract women riders, and that is very disturbing to me," Schmitt said. "Kudos to Harley. They get it."

The motorcycle industry is dominated by men who don't appreciate that women control the spending in most families, including money spent on recreation, according to Schmitt.

Harley-Davidson doesn't disclose what percentage of its customers are women but says the marketing efforts aimed at attracting female buyers have been a success.


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