Sitting at his desk, Jack Gabelhausen smiles as he recalls snippets from a recent business trip: the collective growl of gleaming, V-twin engines; the faint smell of spent fuel breezing through the hot desert air; and panoramic vistas of canyons and mountain peaks he describes as "simply breathtaking."
This is business? For the president of Industrial Lumber in Hamilton, Montana, it is. In April, Gabelhausen and a half-dozen friends and industry colleagues flew to Phoenix, hopped onto Harley-Davidsons, and cruised 2,100 miles in 10 days, through New Mexico, Utah, West Texas, and back to Arizona.
"Riding puts you in a different frame of mind," he says. "You clear your head of outside distractions, of the pressures of the office atmosphere. You sit down each evening with your people and talk about everything you saw that day. You talk about business, even at a refueling stop, and the discussion is a lot more focused because there are no other distractions. Touring also gives you a perspective you can use the rest of your life -- that you can do business and enjoy yourself simultaneously."
Jim Schueler, who joined Gabelhausen on this American Southwest excursion, discovered that what started as a trip with an acquaintance ended as an experience with a friend. "I was trying to develop more business with Jack, and throughout the ride, we had some great talks about that and about many things outside of business," says Schueler, president of Rocky Mountain Log Homes, also in Hamilton, Montana.
In fact, increasing numbers of businesspeople have found that the bonding that happens on a motorcycle tour, along with the one-of-a-kind memories, makes for a perfect incentive trip. And while some folks may dismiss this idea as one that would appeal only to hard-core riders, most tour companies have taken pains to accommodate casual riders and even nonriders so that they can also partake -- comfortably -- in the tour.
The motorcycle-riding demographic has changed immensely over the past decade, to the point where some of the mild-mannered business associates you regularly deal with may well be avid weekend cruisers. "Over the past several years, we've realized that ninety percent of our customers are corporate people," says Rick Perkins, president of Austin, Texas-based RideAmerica. "They are typically 45 years old or older, have a Harley or similar expensive toy in their garages at home, and just don't have the time to ride as much as they'd like. They are dreaming about that one great trip they want to take."
In light of this, Perkins began his business in 1997 with an eye toward corporate groups of up to 50 participants and their specific needs. "We take care of everything, from getting the bikes people desire, to hiring tour leaders, to planning the meals and hotel stays each night. This lets our guests concentrate only on preparing to ride each day."
To accommodate the growing number of women riders, tour companies can provide motorcycles of various sizes. In fact, they need not be Harleys; Japanese bikes such as Honda and Kawasaki, as well as German-made BMWs, are options as well. The latter brands tend not to vibrate as much -- albeit with a less-sexy rumble from the tailpipes -- and may make the trip more comfortable for newer or smaller riders.
For nonriders, there are three options that aim to satisfy any individual's comfort level: riding on the back of a large cruising bike with an experienced guide, riding in a sidecar that's attached to a guide's motorcycle, or lounging in the comfort of a large "chase" vehicle, which tows extra motorcycles in case of mechanical problems and also carries participants' luggage to each destination.
In any case, "You're riding through some beautiful territory, whether it be wide-open stretches of the desert or the lush greenery of the mountains, that you'd probably never take the time to see on your own," says Perkins. "There is no experience to match sitting on a motorcycle taking it in. But even if some people don't do that, everyone still shares all the aspects of the experience," namely the scenery, the small towns, the boutique accommodations, and the home-style meals.
And while an incentive program often allows people an opportunity to disconnect from the outside world for a spell, that doesn't have to be the case. "Every time we stop for fuel, there are always people on their cell phones, and others have twenty faxes waiting for them at the hotel each night," Perkins adds. "We understand that some folks are still going to do business while on the road, so we make sure the hotels have the ability to meet their needs, and that the total experience is conducive to the group talking about their business in a relaxing setting."
Many Days, Many Ways
Gabelhausen, Schueler, and fellow lumber-industry execs chose one of the longer itineraries -- 10 days -- that tour companies generally offer. There are, however, five- and seven-day itineraries on the same routes. And to make it easier for corporate groups to give it a try, RideAmerica has created three-day tours that originate from the meetings-friendly cities of Atlanta, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Orlando.
Keep in mind, though, that the range of touring possibilities is not limited to the United States. For instance, Coastline Motorcycle Tours, based on Vancouver Island, Canada, will meet your group in the city of Vancouver with motorcycles and guides ready to traverse the magnificent landscape of British Columbia and northern Montana.
David Graham, president of Coastline, says his firm has handled groups of up to 50 colleagues in the fields of medicine and engineering that have gone as far as Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. "We have tried-and-true accommodations, and we know every conceivable route in Montana and the Canadian Rockies," says Graham. He notes that there is never any night riding, nor is there riding on surfaces other than well-paved roads. In the case of rain, however, the tour must go on. Graham stresses that simple rain gear works extremely well, and is inexpensive. Riders simply must plan ahead for the possibility; a checklist from the touring company will help your participants.
Contributing to the relaxation found on a motorcycle tour is the loose scheduling. "The distances we ride each day are just right -- not too strenuous for anyone," Graham says, noting that an average day covers about 200 miles. "Each day's plan has lots of extra time built in, because people love to stop and photograph. It's the journey that's the excitement, not the destination." Groups can ask for helmets that house microphones and speakers so that folks can talk to one another during the ride. On the other hand, many riders prefer simply to bask in the relative solitude that's found on a motorcycle.
Gabelhausen and Schueler concur that the casual attitude toward time is what makes the motorcycle tour experience so peaceful. "You have someplace you need to be by evening, but it's up to you how quickly you get there," says Gabelhausen. "We all found Tombstone, Arizona, to be really cool, and we wanted to stay a few hours more than what was originally scheduled. It was no problem. The whole experience is just so different from the regimentation of the office. I'd think that's what a lot of people need in their lives."
"The countryside just goes by you. It's so beautiful, and there's nobody else on the road. It's perfect," Schueler adds. "We stayed in towns with less than 1,000 people, at historic hotels that deliver an experience you didn't think existed anymore. You settle in for a meal, you have a few cocktails, and just rehash and talk some business. I've never experienced such great relaxation and sightseeing in beautiful parts of the country, and had great business interactions at the same time."