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19th annual Daytona Biketoberfest

By Mike Savidge

Daytona Beach, FL, Oct. 13–16—You can’t do anything about the weather other than pray to get lucky and this year’s 19th annual Biketoberfest celebration in Daytona Beach was blessed. The weekend prior to the event had been a total washout for the area when a storm front blew through with buckets of rain and tent-tearing winds, causing several bike events around the state to be cancelled or have their schedules shortened. And while the rain gods did take one last swipe at the area on Thursday morning just as things were getting underway, the rest of the weekend weather was custom designed for a motorcycle party.

The Biketoberfest event was conceived back in 1992 by the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau as a means of getting more people to come to Daytona Beach during the annual season-ending motorcycle races. The first event was known as the Daytona Fall Tour and added a few extra thousand heads in beds, as the Chamber of Commerce likes to call it, during the race event. A name change to Biketoberfest, coupled with an aggressive marketing campaign over the years, has seen the event grow to where it now attracts more than 100,000 bikers and other interested parties annually. The attraction has spread beyond the motorcycle community to where Biketoberfest is one of the Top 20 Events listed by the Southeast Tourism Society.

Accurate attendance is always hard to gauge at an event where there’s no admission gate and the party zone is spread out for miles, but the Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that they were pleased with this year’s turnout. “Overall, we think it was a very good Biketoberfest,” said Georgia Turner, the director of specialized markets for the CVB. “Early indications from hotels show that they were flat or a little bit up from last year. Main Street, Beach Street, Destination Daytona and the Daytona International Speedway seemed to be the most highly traveled areas, as usual, but the event continues to spread out, as far south as Oak Hill (south of New Smyrna). We won’t have tourism/occupancy figures for a couple of months but past economic impact has been reported at $214 million,” said Turner. With a haul like that for four days and another estimated $500 million being generated by Bike Week in the spring, you’d think everyone in town would want to run out in the street and hug a biker. Right? Not quite, and I’ll explain as I go along.

While it’s officially a four-day event, Thursday through Sunday, the allure of warm-weather riding had a number of people rolling into town several days in advance. In fact, up until Saturday, the visitors might have outnumbered the home team based on the lineup of license plates along Main Street and in my hotel parking lot. I found some who were first-timers, but many of them were veterans of both events who favored the smaller Biketoberfest party over the mega event in March—much like myself. A few attendees I spoke with had even taken advantage of the Florida real estate market and now had a home or property here. While some of the big players choose to skip the fall party (c’mon, no Harley Demo Fleet?), there’s still plenty to see, do and spend your money on. As a bonus, the weather is usually warmer. And if you were on Main Street late Saturday night, you probably couldn’t tell the difference between the two events. It was loud and crowded and, for some of the locals, that’s one of the problems.

Remember those unhappy citizens I alluded to? Well, some of them think their beachside burg would be better off without the bike events taking place anymore. The noise and crowds that come with motorcycles are not what they want the image of Daytona Beach to be. They’re developing a plan called the E-Zone that includes a renovated pier with a restaurant and vendor shops, a revitalized Main Street with year-round businesses and possibly a bigger convention center. Bringing in conventioneers and more tourists is the ultimate goal of the plan. I’m not sure how Daytona plans to make itself unique enough to compete with the other existing Sunshine State convention-hosting cities and attract some of the dwindling convention business that is out there, but more power to them.

I don’t blame them for wanting to get more out of what they call the “core tourist area.” If you’ve ever seen Main Street when a bike event isn’t taking place here, you’d give them some sympathy. Locked-up storefronts and empty lots are the norm. An amazing transformation takes place just prior to the bike events when the street comes to life with stores offering all the usual biker goodies and huge party tents covering the empty lots. Problem is, many people would like to see more of those buildings housing businesses that are open year-round and some of them don’t think they can have their Daytona Utopia if the bike events continue to take place. Here’s a suggestion: Why don’t you make it a biker destination year-round? While it’s tough to get anything going in this economy, consider making the renovation a mix of traditional tourist and biker attractions by replacing some of the existing biker bars with something more tropical, and adding in some art shops, entertainment arcades and the like. And don’t neglect Nascar. (I guess they like those fans better because they keep the noise at the track.) Instead of considering ways of eliminating events that generate hundreds of millions of dollars, embrace what you have and make it pay for itself. Then when the bikers show up twice a year, we’ll be able to sit around and watch the tourists.

There are other people, including some major property owners, who think the revitalization will be good for tourists and bikers alike. I don’t think it will drive the bikers away if you clean up the place a bit. But heavy-handed rules and enforcement will, just as it did a few years ago. The many “You’re Back, We’re Glad” signs around town should be a silent reminder that the motorcycle events have a big impact on the tourism bottom line. If I recall correctly, the signs went up after the bikers bailed out a troubled and storm-battered tourist season a few years ago. That’s the great thing about us; we’ll show up if the place is half in ruins or if it’s pretty as a postcard. Both settings can make for a good party.

And, as damning as it may appear, Main Street also provides ample evidence that bike events and tourism can—and do—coexist peacefully. Stand in one place long enough and you will notice that for every eight or 10 bikers there are three or four non-bikers in the crowd. They include students, families, foreign visitors and others who are drawn to see what the biker lifestyle is all about. Some of the curious are even pushing baby buggies down the sidewalk. They don’t ride but they come to see the bikes and they spend their money in the shops and restaurants and hotels and gas stations. Can you think of any conventions that would pull in so many gawkers?

If you want to see how fickle the economy can be, look across the river at Beach Street and what happened to it when big development plans fell through a few years ago. The shops moved out and the area was ignored. The good news is that Beach Street is once again becoming a destination point during the bike events with vendors, food and entertainment in Riverfront Park where the H.O.G. pin stop was also located. A sure sign of rejuvenation for this area was the announcement that Bruce Rossmeyer’s original Harley-Davidson shop will be turned into a museum featuring bikes and memorabilia from the Rossmeyer family collection. The retail store was open for business and very busy while the museum, which is just beginning to take shape, is scheduled to be open in time for Bike Week. They actually have a little extra time to put everything together because Bike Week 2012 has been moved back a week to March 9–18, due to a change in date for the Daytona 500.The downside was that if you pulled in for service on your bike during the event you discovered your H-D dealership choices were limited to either Destination Daytona or New Smyrna Beach. Progress has a price.

While there aren’t as many custom bike builders as there used to be, those remaining are building some cool rides. There’s at least one bike show each day during Biketoberfest and even if you’re not a wrench or a designer, it’s nice to appreciate the creativity that goes into some of the bikes. The bike show, presented by Willie’s Tropical Tattoo on Thursday got a quick shower but that didn’t stop the party. Bikes, babes, beer and a band make this one of the livelier shows. And this show should be another lesson to those who want to eliminate bike events. When it looked like Willie was going to stop doing his shows due to the financial impact it was having, people in the motorcycle community stepped forward to keep it going. That’s tradition and not something a committee can create or regulate. The bike show benefitting the most from the weather was the Boardwalk Show on Friday. It’s hard to argue with sunny skies and a scenic beach backdrop. And everyone seems happy that the Rat’s Hole Show is back outside at the water park. There were almost 100 entries with the revived café racer class drawing a lot of attention. According to show owner Ted Smith, the gate attendance was up a bit from last year despite a misprint in the local event guide that had an incorrect and inflated admission price.

Last year the Speedway track was silent while undergoing a repaving project but this year the racers returned. The newly instituted $25 infield entry fee limited my report covering exactly how the new track surface looked, but there was ample entertainment to be found in the vendor area outside the track—which was totally free. And while I didn’t get a chance to speak directly with any track officials about their opinion of scaling back on the bike events in Daytona, I have a feeling I know their answer. The races were the impetus for both bike events getting started and are still a major draw with many fans making the track their one and only stop during their visit to Daytona.

Geographically the event has spread to include most of Volusia County and beyond, making it easier to get to more places in less time thanks to the smaller crowds. I usually avoid places like Destination Daytona and the Ormond Strip on Saturdays during Bike Week because I don’t like sitting in traffic, but on this day I found almost no backups on my way to the Broken Spoke to check out the IMBBA Bike Show. At the Spoke, the bike show entries were starting to roll in, a large pile of sand was being meticulously groomed into a biker-themed sculpture, and a mechanical bull named Sue was more than up to the task of taming the biker bronco busters. Next door at Smiley’s Tap I found a small, friendly crowd and some of the best bar food on the planet. Farther up the road, getting into Destination Daytona and finding a parking spot was fairly quick and easy. Like elsewhere, there seemed to be fewer vendors here but the biggest indicator of crowd size was a beer stand that never even opened for the day. But on a positive economic note, I saw a huge pile of take-off exhausts behind one of the pipe trailers.

Next year will mark two decades of Biketoberfest celebrations and just days after closing the books on this one, the planning was started to make next year’s something special. Speaking with Janet Kersey, the leader of Biketoberfest for all of its 18 years and now the managing director of the new Rossmeyer Museum/Store on Beach Street, I learned that the marketing for the event has evolved and is using more of the social networks to publicize the party. I’m not much into the social networking thing myself but I did download the Biketoberfest phone app to see if it had any value—and it did. If you needed info about the event, the app most likely had it. You could find out what was happening, along with when and where. You could even get directions if needed, along with the news link tied into the local newspaper, which included a weather link that helped keep me dry on the ride over from Tampa. I might be converted to this newfangled technology yet.

Some mighty fine weather and a manageable crowd make Biketoberfest the top choice for many bikers. Hopefully, some logic will prevail in the reshaping of Daytona Beach and they’ll develop a plan that is successful and has a combination of features that will appeal to the tourists, conventioneers and those loud bikers. Maybe they’ll even find something to make the locals happy.

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