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Bob Moon: I’d wager that Dennis Hopper, rest his soul, never could have imagined this when he was directing “Easy Rider” back in 1969: A motorcycle rally officially named for a big corporate sponsor. Perhaps you’ve heard of Laconia Bike Week. It’s the oldest of the country’s “Big Three” motorcycle rallies, and the event in New Hampshire used to be one of the wildest.
But, as Shannon Mullen reports, these days it’s part of a different scene.
Sounds of motorcycle revving
Shannon Mullen: It’s been a while since J.R. Wedlund came to the Laconia Motorcycle Rally.
J.R. Wedlund: Fifteen years ago I was here.
Mullen: You came 15 years ago. What was it like back then?
Wedlund: I don’t know, I was young and drunk all week.
Wedlund rode in all the way from Wisconsin. He says this year, Bike Week seems tamer.
Wedlund: It’s not like the olden days. We used to drink a six-pack going down the road. ‘Course I’m older too, maybe that’s why maybe I’m slowing down.
There’s a lot more gray hair and big guts at Bike Week these days. In fact, the American Motorcyclists Association says aging baby boomers are now the largest demographic of bikers. But you might still be surprised by the rally’s main sponsor. It’s not a beer or motorcycle company; it’s Progressive Insurance.
Rally organizer Jennifer Anderson says that’s not as ironic as it sounds.
Jennifer Anderson: It’s not necessarily like, in the way you might be thinking about insurance, it’s just like, “Hey you love this, take care of it.” And if something happens, you know that we have your back.
Bell dinging, bike horns and clapping
At the Laconia Harley Davidson dealer, a crowd cheers on Steve Boucher and his wife Lisa. The Connecticut couple just bought a brand new, bright blue Harley Ultra Classic.
Steve Boucher: It was spur of the moment. Life’s too short so we might as well just live large.
But before he can drive the bike off the lot, he needs insurance. No problem — Progressive Agent Leslie Kay Drury has a desk on the showroom floor.
Leslie Kay Drury: I don’t think it’s a sign of things going soft, I think it’s a sign of insurance companies becoming more aware that they need to be there for their demographic.
Drury’s a Harley owner herself. She says she’s selling several policies a day here.
Drury: If you can’t get in front of somebody, meet them, make a connection with them, share their interests, their values and their hobbies, you really can’t provide them the service that they need.
Rally organizers say having Progressive for a title sponsor means more money for marketing the event year-round. That’s key because attendance has been down for years. Younger bikers still show off their bikes, and link up with other riders — they’re just doing it online now. Throw in a recession, and the result? Smaller crowds at the big rallies in Florida, South Dakota and New Hampshire.
Laconia is the first of the “Big Three” to get a corporate title sponsor. Progressive won’t say whether it’s courting the other two.
In Laconia, N.H., I’m Shannon Mullen for Marketplace.