Motorcycle rally promotion was much different when Thunder in the Valley first roared into existence in 1998 than it is today.
Back then, the Johnstown event had little regional competition. PA Roundhouse Rally in Blair County, Gettysburg Bike Week and Roar on the Shore Bike Week in Erie did not exist. Even farther away, major gatherings that now run in Ocean City, Maryland; Sandusky, Ohio; and Morgantown, West Virginia, had not yet started.
Nowadays, though, Thunder in the Valley and other gatherings – even New Hampshire-based Laconia Motorcycle
Week, the oldest rally in the nation, which began as a gypsy tour in 1916 and added sanctioned racing events in 1938 – must find ways to attract riders in what is a saturated market.
“I know when I started my job part time in ’91 and then full time in ’92, there were approximately 50 other motorcycle events that could be deemed a rally or an event nationwide,” Laconia Motorcycle Week Executive Director Charlie St. Clair said. “And now – and this is no exaggeration – now there are over 850. That has been really the biggest drain on motorcycle events. The herd is only so big and you keep thinning it. It’s hard enough for people to get away for a week or a four-day weekend or whatever. They plan it. But now you’ve got them having to literally pick and choose.”
Rallies are usually similar, in many ways – with motorcycles, merchandise booths, food vendors, pubs and live music.
So events need to find ways to differentiate themselves.
Thunder in the Valley, unlike many rallies, has always been free to attend.
Also, St. Clair said along with activities in downtown, Thunder in the Valley offers the “whole package” with outlying events and attractions, and beautiful natural mountain scenery.
“There’s a lot to do for riders and that’s what they all want,” he said.
Still, Thunder has felt the impact of the ever-growing number of competing rallies.
At its peak, the event attracted an estimated 150,000 individuals, who pumped about $20 million into the local economy, according to Lisa Rager, the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau’s executive director.
The number is now around 100,000, with attendees being counted multiple times for going to events on different days at various locations.
Rager compared the impact of there being more regional rallies on Thunder to the gambling business that was once dominated on the East Coast by Atlantic City, which now must compete against casinos all across Pennsylvania and in other states for visitors.
“Within our primary target market, there’s been an influx of newer rallies that have developed since ours,” Rager said. “I think what that does is it gives people a lot of options closer to home.”
Thunder in the Valley is different from any rally she knows because it is operated and funded by a visitors bureau.
CVB needs to spend about $500,000 for advertising, promotion at motorcycle shows, entertainment, program books, signage, pageantry, insurance, operating expenses, port-a-johns, furniture and tents, overtime for Johnstown police and fire, bagged parking meters, trash hauling, temporary labor, lot cleaning, overnight security, property rentals, transport vehicles, EMS, crowd barriers and partner contracts.
Much of that money is spent with local businesses, according to Jayne Korenoski, the CVB’s director of advertising and sales.
“There is so much of what we do that is coming right back into the economy here in the area that it’s amazing,” Korenoski said.
The organization does not break even, especially when attendance is negatively affected by rain, as it has been multiple times in recent years.
But the goal is to hold the rally in order to bring customers to local businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and gas stations, while raising tourist interest in the city and surrounding region.
Money for the operational expenses is raised through sponsorships, fees for vendor space, revenue at the pubs, official merchandise sales and tickets for entering the premium viewing area during the headliner concerts.
“Probably the biggest factor for us is that we still heavily rely on the revenue sources that come from the pub and our official merchandise sales, and those are the two things that are most affected by weather,” Rager said.
“And that’s why we try to promote the fact this is a free rally. You get four stages of entertainment, over 40 bands, national-scale, for basically free. And all we ask you to do is buy some official T-shirts and merchandise and buy a couple of drinks in our pubs. That helps to go back to support the event, since we don’t charge an admission.”
CVB, in recent years, has also brought in national vendors to help build Thunder’s reputation as a prominent motorcycle rally, compared to when only local businesses were involved in the early days.
“We had to go out and search for a company for our merchandise that could set up 20 booths,” Korenoski said. “We had to go out, because, in order to grow to a national-scale rally, you can’t have 10 local vendors doing hot dogs and hamburgers. Unfortunately, in growing, it means sometimes you have to outsource stuff from other areas. The pubs became too big to do. We had to bring in professionals who could look the part that a national rally is.”