Head over heart: Piaggio Group's Paolo Timoni calls practicality key to next motorcycle sales niche

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One of the problems that the U.S. motorcycle industry has faced in recent years is the increasingly niche focus of new models. By specializing on a specific market, a manufacturer can earn new sales. But what happens once everyone who wanted a high-spec, large-displacement supermoto (with ABS and shaft drive) has bought one? In these lean times, it makes more sense to sell models with a broad appeal to attract a wider audience.

Paolo Timoni, president of Piaggio Group Americas, understands this point well. Last year he challenged the industry, the mainstream press and consumers alike to look at motorcycles and scooters as a viable option for daily transportation (click here for Dealernews' coverage).

To open a discussion about the practical side of riding, one must identify what defines practical motorcycling and what factors stand in the way. While there are many specific features that a customer would seek in a practical bike, like accessible power, easy handling, economy and convenience (see sidebar, below), Timoni feels that there are much broader issues to be dealt with first. “For many years, two-wheel products were sold as recreation,” he explains. “Baby boomers were the primary focus. With the average age of riders getting higher, it’s no surprise that the industry is down. Shifting focus to women and youth is obvious, but there is not much change in that direction.”

Instead of simply watching the market contract, Timoni set out with the goal of expanding the market as a whole by raising the issue of motorcycles as transportation. Timoni was notably critical of the role played by the powersports press in reinforcing the status quo of covering the enthusiast aspects of the two-wheeled world with little coverage of the practical sides. “Media may say they agree, but content doesn’t follow,” Timoni says. “We need to work together. Media can have a huge role in opening this debate”

Of course, the Piaggio Group wants to sell bikes, but Timoni never fails to use the pronoun “we,” highlighting his belief that the OEMs, the press and dealers all have to do their part. “There is a rational side versus an emotional side. The fun of riding will always be there, but common sense is important.”

Timoni and the Piaggio Group don’t have all the answers to fixing the motorcycle industry, but they do have some aimed at getting more riders on two wheels. One of the first arguments raised when comparing the U.S. motorcycle industry to Piaggio’s European home market is that the motorcycle culture is too different here to sell bikes as transportation. Timoni refutes this idea and instead believes the situation is far less complicated. “When comparing European and American riders, there are few differences in mentality,” he says. “The problem is that U.S. cities are not two-wheel-friendly.” Timoni cites the lack of motorcycle parking in many cities, the prevention of legal filtering (lane-splitting) in most states, and the oversimplification of licensing for two-wheeled vehicles. “Why is getting a license for a 50cc scooter [often] the same as a motorcycle license for a 180-horsepower superbike?” asks Timoni. “Laws like these are part of the reason people are reluctant to use two wheels for transportation. If many benefits like these are taken away, gas prices are the only remaining benefit. Laws are the first things that need to change.”

Dealers can take part by learning about the laws that can affect their business. The Motorcycle Industry Council (www.mic.org) and the American Motorcycle Association (www.ama-cycle.org) are both active in keeping an eye on the industry’s legal concerns.

Timoni’s point: If the fun factor is taken out of the equation, why would a rider commute on two wheels instead of four without practical benefits? As part of his effort to promote bikes as transportation, Timoni devotes time to educating others. “I’ve talked with officials [from different cities] about how two-wheelers can reduce emissions, oil consumption and congestion. There’s lots of misinformation, like bad press of high-profile accidents.”

Timoni aims to change motorcycle laws by changing the minds of the lawmakers. “[Rider] safety is also a huge concern in the U.S. like everywhere else in the world, but no one is taking the time to analyze statistics in detail.” By being able to support his position with hard data, Timoni aims to create change in the political landscape. “Politicians in D.C. hear about fatalities and are clearly very concerned,” he explains. But after contracting a third-party study of New York City fatality rates, Piaggio found that sub-500cc two-wheelers were actually safer than four-wheelers, with a fatality rate of 0.29 per 100,000,000 miles traveled compared to 0.33 for other vehicles.

If dealers want to convince drivers into becoming riders, promoting safety statistics and technologies might be the best way. Timoni believes the security of the MP3 scooter chassis is one of the primary reasons the MP3 was responsible for boosting Piaggio’s market share in the maxi-scooter market from 5 percent to 22 percent.

Costs are another concern, both for consumers and for lawmakers. “Benefit versus cost is the primary concern, and there is no question that [riding’s] cost is cheaper if the goal is to reduce emissions and congestion,” states Timoni. But to sell bikes, it is important that the buyer knows about potential savings.

The Piaggio Group has a plan that might be the Next Big Thing. While it is safe to assume that most people understand the fuel savings some bikes offer, many customers are unsure about other costs of ownership. Taking a cue from the automobile world, Piaggio plans to launch a program to make these costs more available to the consumer. “The car industry is more transparent than the motorcycle industry’s costs,” Timoni says. “This new initiative will increase transparency of service costs. Long-term satisfaction of customers is paramount in this economy.”

As part of the new program, owners and potential buyers will be able to search their Piaggio model online and see its servicing schedule broken down with complete costs outlined. “According to AAA analysis, it costs $650 per month to operate an average sedan,” Timoni claims. “But it is only $200 per month for a high-end scooter. Again, benefit versus cost is a primary concern in this economy.”

Dealers can easily follow suit by making sure that staff know more than just the products’ mpg ratings and can provide advice on total ownership costs. “Some tend to assume conflict between dealers and customers,” states Timoni. “We are confident that this information will be able to remove that conflict. It is important to remember we are in a customer service industry.”

Practicality in action
As part of our discussion with Piaggio boss Paolo Timoni, we also spent some extended time with Aprilia’s Dorsoduro 750. To some riders, Italian machines are considered exotics, but Timoni is quick to point out how the Piaggio Group offers plenty of practical rides. “The Mana is our idea of the perfect solution: light, easy to use, without the need to shift gears in traffic. We have the Moto Guzzi V7 Classic: small, light and simple. And many scooter options like the MP3s and Vespas.”

If a bike is going to be a practical ride for daily transportation, it needs to be easy to ride with accessible power and friendly handling. It needs to be comfortable in commuting situations. And it needs to be economical. Despite the sports focus, the supermoto-styled Dorsoduro hits these marks. The brakes and suspension are firm without being aggressive, the seat is wide enough at the rear to make multiple hours easy, and it cruises at 45 mpg. The power can be switched between mellow touring modes and feisty sport modes. Those engine maps alone might be all it takes to convince a customer that they could buy this bike and still be able to use it to cruise to work.

Many dealers are unable to sell a bike’s features beyond what the OEM press releases offer. Variable power modes, traction control and ABS are all surely performance technology, but they can be useful to customers looking at transportation options as well. Safety technology like ABS is especially important if a dealer needs to convert a car driver into a motorcycle sale. If there is a potential to sell bikes for transportation, a dealer will only be able to capitalize on it by knowing how to speak to this demographic.