Shenendoah Harley-Davidson Stakes Claim to an American Treasure

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Stretching through northwest Virginia and a portion of West Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley lies between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. It's a 150-mile-long run of rural landscape steeped in a distinct American history of Native American life and Civil War fame.

As a section of the Great Appalachian Valley, Shenandoah Valley is considered one of the classic American landscapes. The name of the valley itself is derived from a Native American expression for "beautiful daughter of the stars."

While not a natural feature of the picturesque valley as is the Shenandoah River, I-81 traces its length on the way from the Canadian border down to Tennessee. The route is not only a busy trucking corridor, it's also a tourist highway.

When considering a new location for his dealership three years ago, Shenandoah Harley-Davidson owner Bob Ladd sorted through all these factors before nailing down a spot that is now as much a way station as it is a destination.

By locating directly off I-81 and I-64, Ladd positioned himself to grab the local Harley market, the trucker crowd, the tourist trade and those who head to his dealership during blowout events such as his Rallyin' the Valley, now in its fourth year.

"I've always said that if all you wanted to talk about is local business, you could sell Harley-Davidsons from the basement of a pancake house," says Ladd, a 65-year-old former pharmacist. "They're going to find you if you're the only dealer. But it's this location that lends itself to making it easier for tourists.

"Nobody will ever convince me that being on the interstate and paying that premium for the real estate is a bad idea. We sell four hundred and something thousand dollars of T-shirts a year," he says.

The interstates may drive a lot of the traffic, but it's his spot on a hill overlooking the valley that keeps many of them coming back. Ladd says he often de-stresses by looking out of his office window at the 50-mile-wide panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Customers can do the same on the 1,500 sq. ft. exterior deck that serves multiple duties as vista point, beauty pageant stage, band shell and (yes) wedding altar.

"Once they're here they go, 'My lord, look at the view,'" he says. "I think the beauty of the surroundings is what they take back to friends in wherever they're from and say, 'You need to stop here.'"

CALLING ALL CARS

Given Shenandoah H-D's location, Ladd invests heavily in promoting the business via billboards — about $80,000 annually — along the interstates. He also directs a healthy chunk of his advertising and marketing dollars to brochures he displays at all interstate rest stops within 75 miles of his dealership. "That's not a cheap thing to do but we think it's effective," Ladd explains.

To help his brochures stand out from the rest, Ladd had them designed so that a cutout of the top part of the Harley-Davidson bar-and-shield logo sticks up farther than the rest of the brochures.

His location also dictated the type of accommodations he offers customers and travelers. Like any good motorcycle dealership, the shop features vending machines and a comfy customer lounge. But for those who pinpoint the store as a stop on a long tour (he advertises in the HOG touring book), there are showers, an Internet cafe and information about local hotels and tourist spots.

The dealership has worked out deals with most local hotels for discounted rooms, and the store will call in the reservation, print out a map and even suggest where to eat, drink, sightsee or shop.

When he moved into his current spot along one of the three busiest truck highways in the country, Ladd says he knew he was going from serving a local customer base to reaching a national audience. He's also near airports that see a lot of international tourists.

As such, he's instructed his MotorClothes manager to buy the breadth of all that Harley-Davidson has to offer, and to stock enough T-shirts to get him through three months at a time. He uses one of H-D's retail environment specialists to merchandise his store. "I wanted to satisfy the New York tastes, the Florida tastes, the Ohio tastes and the European tastes a little bit, too. That's why I go with breadth," Ladd says.

EYE CANDY

Once the signs have enticed travelers into taking Rolling Thunder Lane, the private road leading up to his dealership, Ladd's made sure the store offers enough visual oomph to get them inside.

"I use the old Western Auto marketing [tool] of having as much glass exposure up front as possible and my motorcycles up front because I remember riding by Western Auto as a kid and seeing the bicycles in the front window," he says.

Ladd adds that once whilehe was looking through an old district manager's photo album of all the people he'd put into business, the ones that stood out the most were the stores with glass storefronts that showed off the bikes.

When customers enter the dealership's front door they can see the entire showroom. There is nothing higher than about 4 feet, and if something is, it's made of glass. This way, customers can see everything at once.

Ladd also tapped his background as a pharmacist (he once owned five different drugstores) in setting up the dealership. "When you walk into a drugstore, where's the pharmacy counter? In the back. Why? So you'll be exposed to all the things that drugstore has for sale. We set our store up so that the T-shirts are on the back wall, well exposed so that you see them when you walk in the front door, but it's a long walk back there," Ladd says. "You pass by MotorClothes, parts and accessories and sales getting there."

SALVAGING THE PAST

The exterior of Shenandoah Harley-Davidson was designed with its surroundings in mind. Ladd had the architects give it a silhouette that mimics the mountains.

For the interior, he borrowed elsewhere. The heart pine and brick used on the showroom floor were salvaged from a defunct textile mill in his wife's hometown. The slate in the entryway served in a previous life as the roof of the train depot in Meredith, N.H., Ladd's parents' hometown (and a major player during Laconia Bike Week).

Sure, there was some nostalgia in salvaging these materials, but they also served a practical purpose. Turns out the used pine and the brick cost the same as new, but came infused with that extra something inherent in reclaimed materials. "It gives the store a very warm, comfortable feeling when you come in," he says.

It makes sense to make sure your dealership is as pleasing on the inside as its surroundings are on the outside.

Ladd says he had architects design overall something like a "mountain lodge with glitz." But not so much glitz that it was garish enough to detract from the imagery of the surrounding Shenandoah Valley.

"Everybody who comes in here and stays longer than the normal motorcycle dealership stay, they end up on that [exterior] deck with their feet propped up, looking at that view," Ladd says.