It's a clear, dry, South Florida winter morning, the kind where the breeze is light and the sun soaks into your leather just right.
Attendees of Harley-Davidson Motor Co.'s annual HOG (Harley Owner's Group) Rally Coordinators Training have gathered to be transported to Hawk's Cay Resort in the Florida Keys. Except that they aren't boarding motorcoachs for the trip. Instead, the rendezvous point is the Harley-Davidson of Miami dealership, where 109 brand-new bikes — half of them straight from the factory and including five of the revolutionary V-Rods — are lined up and pointed toward the Keys.
By 10:30, the band of glistening chrome and leather-bound riders is roaring down the wide open spaces of the Ronald Reagan Turnpike.
Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way.*
This would be no ordinary planning meeting.
Leaders of the Pack
For the past dozen years, Harley-Davidson has sponsored this all-expenses-paid event for the people — all volunteers — who organize the statewide and international rally events for HOG's 1,200 chapters and 660,000 members. It's an intensive training program that prepares them for the accounting, publicity, negotiating, and crisis-management issues that they are likely to face.
The theme of this year's program is “Leaders of the Pack.” Participants from 47 states and 14 countries will spend the next five days playing “The Game,” an elaborate simulation of what rally planners go through in real life. But instead of having 12 months to organize a rally, The Game gets it done in four days.
Terry N. Terry, president of Lansing, Mich.-based Message Makers, developed The Game for Harley-Davidson. “The concept is to develop a mental model of the entire rally experience. We know they can't get it all in four days, but it gives them a chance to negotiate a hotel, for example. They get a lot of hands-on experience. When they go back to do their own rally, they've had the whole view in a microcosm.”
Participants are divided by region (there are 10 in all), and get nicknames taken from motorcycle parts: “Screaming Eagles,” “Knuckleheads,” “Straight Pipes.” By being grouped them this way, they get the chance to work closely with the people who live closest to them and may be able to help them in the future. And they will probably see each other again at their respective rallies, since this group tends to travel. A lot.
Coordinators attend seminars on topics such as “Rally Vision,” “Rally Budgeting and Accounting,” and “Working With Volunteers.” They also meet in round-robin sessions with Harley-Davidson managers and guests playing the roles of graphic designers, entertainers, merchants, potential corporate sponsors, hotel sales managers, police officers, and CVB managers.
Terry is expert at throwing wrenches into everything. The resort's tennis courts are unavailable during the planned rally. The band shows up too drunk to perform. Fights break out.
Sounds about right … .
Where Attorneys Mingle with Bikers
F. Robert “Bob” Schmelzer, an attorney with Gault Davison, P.C., in Flint, Mich., is a biker and outside counsel for Harley-Davidson. The secret of Schmelzer's success with the coordinators is simple: He's one of them. He rides with them, he likes them, and he speaks to them — not down at them.
Most of the early part of the meeting belongs to him. Under the theme song “Flirtin' with Disaster,” he teaches attendees about insurance and liability, risk management, forming a rally corporation, and alcohol.
Do attendees really need all this detailed information to put on a motorcycle rally?
“It's a lot more work that you might think,” says Rick Frain, an insurance broker from Bozeman, Mont. “It's hard to approach a potential rally site the first time,” adds Troy Price from Fishersville, Va. “They think you're the Hell's Angels. But when it's over, they want to know how to get you back. Every night you don't tear the place up, they see cash registers churning cash.”
Attendees also quickly learn how to save the company money. Pat Fitzwater, a freight broker from Salt Lake City, Utah, is returning for his second year of HOG training. He learned an awful lot the first time around, he says, “more than I knew what to do with. I learned how to negotiate with cities and their CVBs, and how to get concessions from them and law enforcement.
“This year's rally, we're going to three different cities. I've got all three cities providing us a dinner, a park to hold it in, and even a P.A. system. Free.”
At the end of the first day's meetings, coordinators are told that they're about six months into planning their rally. As every planner knows, you never have enough time. But this is nuts!
This group is far from your grandfather's impression of a motorcycle gang: They sport PDAs instead of switchblades, track their rallies' accounting on their laptops, build their own Web sites. Nonetheless, a number of them still manage to get thrown out of the WatersEdge Restaurant lounge their very first night on property.
You can see trouble coming as members of J.T. Hasley's Region 1 group enter the restaurant. A group already dining begins chanting, “REGION 5! REGION 5!” Minutes later, when Hasley's group's table is ready, they snake past Region 5, shouting, “REGION 1! REGION 1!”
Then Hasley starts the ruckus by sending a bottle of Heineken to Region 5 — with 17 straws. Region 5 responds by sending Hasley a bottle cap filled with Jack Daniels. Then they tell the waiter to send him their tab.
It's hard to imagine anyone fitting the prototype of a Harley-Davidson employee better than Hasley does. A former construction manager, he has spent a lifetime devoted to Harley, first as a rider, then a rally coordinator, and finally as a company official.
“I spent all my time going to HOG rallies,” he says. “I saw what Harley-Davidson did — and I wanted to do that. … I don't hunt. I don't fish. I don't play golf. I ride a Harley-Davidson.”
When dinner ends, the waiters suggest that the group visit the lounge, where a karaoke machine is available.
“Karaoke?” Faces light up.
Moments later, HOG coordinators from Alaska and Idaho, as well as Harley-Davidson meeting planner Rebecca Foerst-Becker, are onstage wailing out the lyrics of Steppenwolf's “Born to Be Wild.”
Suddenly, a woman in a business suit bursts out of the lounge demanding to see the manager.
According to her, the bikers have crashed a private party hosted by a top-selling sports drink's producers, who were also conducting a training session at the resort. No less than the president of the sports drink company herself steps forward, ordering the music stopped — and the group to leave.
Foerst-Becker, feeling terrible about the inadvertent faux pas, sincerely apologizes and leads her group to a hasty exit.
There's just one problem: When the resort's night manager tracks down Foerst-Becker an hour later, he is the one apologizing. The sports drink people were way out of line, he says, having never requested or paid for a private party.
The only thing the HOG group was guilty of was singing off-key.
Forbes magazine named Harley-Davidson the best company in America in its January issue. So it's no surprise that keynote speaker and company president and COO Jim McCaslin gets thunderous applause.
“HOG is held sacred by our CEO,” McCaslin says in an interview after his speech. The way HOG works is that new owners of Harley-Davidsons receive a free year's membership; after that, they pay $40 annually. “Our motorcycle is fantastic,” adds McCaslin. “But it's more than just that. It's the lifestyle around the motorcycle. What HOG does is gather people together and form great friendships.
“What these rally coordinators do is give people a reason and opportunity to get together. Think about all the time these people put into it. It's really amazing. They are really important to us. HOG gives value and meaning to the Harley-Davidson experience.”
Biker with a Broken Nose
Back to The Game, where a crisis is brewing.
During the rally, someone started a fight with the rally's event coordinator. He broke a tooth in the melee and the other person suffered a broken nose. It's not clear who started the fight — and it doesn't matter.
“You've got three minutes to figure out what you're going to do,” says Region 6 manager Valerie Ledterman.
Each group is presented with this scenario as they file into their meeting rooms. “Biker with a broken nose — probably not the first time,” jokes one coordinator. In fact, the simulation was drawn from a real experience of J.T. Hasley.
The police descend on the rally organizers in record time. BANG! BANG! BANG! It sounds as if they're about to break down the door of the conference room. Then Sgt. Tim DeLuca bursts through the door. DeLuca, an honest-to-goodness, Harley-riding police sergeant from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, in full police uniform and boots, ready to kick some biker butt, has some serious questions about these Hell's Angels and their rally in his town.
“We got a call; what's the problem here?” DeLuca asks.
After the designated rally spokesperson explains the situation, DeLuca strings together a series of questions. “How many people witnessed the incident? What are the facts? Don't you think you should have notified the police you were here?
“Always remember,” DeLuca concludes, “if it really happens, separate the people. Thank you.”
“Would you like a doughnut before you go, officer?” a coordinator jokes.
One Wild Night
Saturday night marks the culmination of four days of intense training and playing The Game. After a gourmet dinner of lobster bisque, petite filet mignon, and poached yellowtail snapper, the real party starts.
Mike Keefe, Harley-Davidson vice president and director of HOG, takes the stage and rouses the crowd: “You're in a position now, as key leaders of HOG around the world, to create memories and form friendships and go places. We, in this room, are setting the tone for the next 100 years.”
A highlight of the evening is each group's presentation of the rally it concocted during The Game. Each group worked with one of the graphic artists who design Harley-Davidson rally T-shirts nationwide.
With “Born to Be Wild” blaring behind them, J.T. Hasley's Region 1 “Screaming Eagles” come forward to make a pitch for their “Fun in the Sun!” rally. Not surprisingly, the group's events and theme are centered around its run-in with the leader of a certain sports drink earlier in the week.
“We will have the (Sports Drink) Open on the miniature golf course. (The sports drink company) will provide the drinks. On Sunday, omelettes will be prepared by the president of (the sports drink company),” declares the group's spokesperson.
The “Screaming Eagles” rally logo features the president of the sports drink company — singing karaoke, naturally. Since by now the whole group knows the story, the crowd is roaring.
The next morning, after the motorcycles are trucked north to Daytona Beach for “Bike Week” in six weeks and Harley-Davidson's rally coordinators have picked up boxed lunches and boarded buses heading for the airport, we ask: Was it worth the time and money?
Tim Mitchelldyer, a J.T. Hasley's Region 1 rally coordinator from Portland, Ore., has no doubt.
“If you didn't go away from here with more knowledge than you came with,” he says, “then you weren't paying attention.”
* ”Born to Be Wild” lyrics by Mars Bonfire ©MCA Music (BMI). All rights for the USA controlled and administered by MCA Corp. of America (www.steppenwolf.com/lyr/brntbwld.html)
AT A GLANCE
Coordinators Training Rally
Location: Hawk's Cay Resort, Duck Key, Florida
Date: January 15 to 20, 2002
Number of Attendees: 70 participants; 147 total attendees
Objective: A combined training and incentive trip for Harley-Davidson's most elite volunteers
Why Hawk's Cay?
Every time training classes took a break, rally coordinators crowded by the floor-to-ceiling windows or out on the patio to see what the dolphins were doing — swimming, smiling, or soaring through the air.
“I don't know many places you can take your coffee break and watch dolphins,” says Paul Dake, director of sales at Hawk's Cay Resort.
Rebecca Foerst-Becker, Harley-Davidson's coordinator of meetings and travel, needed a location within a 2½-hour ride of Fort Lauderdale, and found the resort on the Internet. She narrowed her options to three finalists in the Keys before settling on Hawk's Cay because it had the most meeting space. “This site gave us the opportunity to be creative and see how a mock rally would work,” she says. “It met — and exceeded — our expectations for quality and service.”
On Duck Key in the middle of the Florida Keys, an hour north of Key West, Hawk's Cay recently completed a $50 million upgrade and expansion of its meeting facilities. It can accommodate as many as 400 people in a classroom setting, although the average group is about 150 to 175.