Boy Scouts trailblazing a new customer base

Publish Date: 
May 23, 2012
By Holly J. Wagner

WHAT IF YOU COULD find a program that each year trains hundreds of young ATV and PWC riders — your next generation of customers — on safe riding, without costing you a penny? It’s probably right down the road.

It is almost impossible to picture a Boy Scout without envisioning a rugged landscape, campfires and pup tents. So it’s no surprise that Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has taken an interest in ATVs and personal watercraft.

For the last two summers, the organization has been testing a program to teach teenage boys about riding and maintaining ATVs and PWC. This year it goes to full rollout. So far, the programs are a hit all the way around. “They always have every ATV full and every PWC full,” says Pat Wellen, BSA’s director of research and program innovation. For scouting, the program is a recruitment magnet that came out of a survey asking youngsters what activities might make them more likely to join the Scouts.

Motorized sports had long been outside the scope of scouting, but ATV riding came in fourth in the survey. That made it a strong recruiting point for BSA, which strives to keep relevant among young people.

“They [motor vehicles] were not allowed in our program at that time. They were on our unauthorized list of activities. We asked why, and found that all of those risks could be eliminated with training,” Wellen says.

The program started with just three camps in 2009. After working out a few kinks, they expanded to nine camps for each type of vehicle last year, when the programs trained 600 riders. Programs this year will be offered at 28 camps nationwide — 11 offering ATV programs only, eight offering PWC only, and nine where scouts can do both activities.

In the first two years of the program, BSA worked with individual dealers for vehicle support. It also consulted with the ATV Safety Institute (ASI), an arm of the OEM-supported SVIA, on training matters. As the prospects for a popular program grew, SVIA helped facilitate other industry relationships.

American Honda stepped up with a three-year commitment to provide 150 ATVs in each of the next three production years, through a no-fee lease under Honda’s rider education program. So far no OEM has stepped up to provide watercraft for the camps, but each camp works with local dealers to get the vehicles and repairs. Basic maintenance like oil changes are part of the scout program. Camps offering the programs average 10 ATVs and eight PWC (two per camp program for ASI-trained instructors, the rest for scouts) per camp.

Some dealers saw the value of the program early on. Chip Huff, general manager of Frontline Motorsports in Christiansburg, Va., has fond memories of being a Boy Scout, and of his father (a dealer principal) being his scoutmaster for Troop 249. He’s also near BSA’s Camp Powhatan, the largest scout camp in the country, and one of the first to test ATVs. When his Honda rep mentioned the program, he jumped at the chance.

“I was a Boy Scout and I really wish we could have had something like that, where they could teach us to properly ride an ATV,” Huff says.

The dealership has provided two ATVs through the no-fee lease program since 2010, does all the BSA-paid repairs on them and stores them in the winter. “It brings in work to us, especially in the fall when we get the ATVs back. They are one-year leases, but at the end of the year, they bring them back in the fall and we store them for them. They don’t have a lot of room for storage,” Huff says.

The programs emphasize safety but also teach vehicle maintenance, the all-important judgment of what is an appropriate-sized vehicle, proper protective gear, and general responsibility. That’s great for everyone concerned, but there is an extra benefit for dealers.

“I’ve been out on some of the personal watercraft [rides] when the kids have said, “Wow, we want to get one of these, how much are they?” says Matt Ragan, director of support services at BSA’s Central Florida Council, one of the three test camps. While the programs are only open to boys aged 14 and older, Ragan says they are also generating excitement among younger scouts.

“They see the older kids riding the ATVs and say, ‘I want to do that!” Ragan says. “And they come back when they are 14 or 15 to do it.”

This story recently appeared in the Dealernews June 2012 issue.