Being the last speaker of the day at a conference—the only thing between everyone and their evening plans—can be a tough place to be. Will your presentation send everyone off on a high note or possibly lull them to sleep? Thankfully, with a dynamic, off-the-cuff guy like Ken Schmidt, former director of communications for Harley-Davidson Motor Company, there was no doubt which direction his presentation would take the crowd.
As the keynote speaker during the Travel Network general session at Sabre Technology Exchange on Tuesday, April 10, the crowd was undoubtedly curious what a “Harley guy” would have to share at a travel technology conference. At that point in the day, various speakers had touched on planes, trains and automobiles—plus hotels and even boats—it was only natural to talk motorcycles next, right? Yes, but his keynote had very little to do with motorcycles and a whole lot to do with loyalty, branding and competition.
Ken Schmidt first got the crowd laughing with a funny anecdote about earning “Dad of the Year” points for taking his daughter to a Jonas Brothers concert years ago and how the experience left him shaking his head in dismay. Did you know the Jonas Brothers were NOT the original artists singing “Born to Be Wild”? His daughter did not.
After that little ice breaker, Ken started talking about loyalty, what it takes to build it and how it can be a strong competitive lever. When he joined Harley-Davidson in the mid 80s, the legendary motorcycle company was struggling. The execs at Harley-Davidson thought that people were loyal to the Harley product, so they focused on selling motorcycles. As he shared, “The problem with a product-based approach is that it doesn’t take long for someone to copy it.” People aren’t loyal to products, they are loyal to relationships. It took some time for them to determine that Harley-Davidson needed to focus on people. “We weren’t selling motorcycles, we were selling freedom!” he said.
And do Harley riders buy their bike and keep it exactly as it came from the factory? A resounding no. Part of the “freedom” appeal of Harley-Davidson is the incredible customization options. The #1 change? Exhaust (which makes it louder). People who ride a Harley want you to know that they’ve got a Harley, right? At the red light, do they pull up quietly and sit there until the light turns green? Nope. They rev the engine until you give them the attention they’re seeking.
Speaking of attention, Schmidt raised some eyebrows when he brought up social media. “[Social media] exists to prove the failure of the human race. We are not doing a good job of noticing each other in day-to-day interactions. We look to [social media] for the validation we are seeking.”
Tying the conversation to travel, Schmidt talked about remaining competitive in the highly competitive travel industry. “You can’t simply focus on price.” As Harley-Davidson saw, people have demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to pay for more non-essentials, provided they make the experience better or more personalized. The Sabre “YES Fare” study came to the same conclusion. It found that customers no longer want simply the lowest fare, they want the best fare for them (read “From Low Fares to YES Fares”).
We’re all trying to find a way to stand out, in business and in life. So, the next time a tough Harley guy pulls up next to you at a red light and revs the engine, give him a little nod. It’s the Harley-guy version of the Facebook “Like.” It’ll make his day.