“Like everyone else, we had to make some changes in the last year,” explained Michael Meissner, the CEO of Cal Moto in Livermore, California, a medium-sized town East of San Francisco. “The pandemic focused us on customer attachments and interactions. We concentrated on two things – making it convenient and creating trust. We did as much as possible over the phone and email.”
“In the past, we tried hard to get people into the store. Now, we do the groundwork remotely that is key to making the sales process efficient and pleasurable when they come in.”
Cal Moto got its start in the late Seventies when Kari and Gail Prager joined a group of enthusiasts who were starting an independent BMW repair shop, Bavarian Cycle Works, in San Francisco, California. Several years later, the group landed the BMW dealership for the San Francisco Bay Area, changed the name to California BMW and moved the dealership to Mountain View, south of San Francisco. By 1995, Kari and Gail were the sole owners. Michael Meissner joined in 2000.
California BMW gained a reputation as the go-to place for BMW touring and adventure touring enthusiasts. Eventually, the name was changed to Cal Moto. The company was doing well enough to start planning for a second location when disaster struck. Kari Prager, who had been the spark behind the dealership’s success, became ill. He died in 2010, shortly after the second location in Livermore opened.
Kari and Gail had the foresight to plan for a smooth transition. Michael Meissner became General Manager. After Kari’s death, Michael and his wife Anya Meissner bought the dealership from Gail Prager. The Meissners have continued to run the dealership as a center for enthusiasts. “Our shop motto is ‘Experience shared.’ All of the employees have motorcycle experience. We can match what is available to the needs and desires of each customer.” Online reviews reflect the view of customers that dealership personnel are motorcycle community members who understand and respond to their needs.
Along the way, Cal Moto has had to make some hard decisions. When Triumph returned to the United States, Cal Moto was one of their first dealers. However, when Triumph’s vision for its success diverged from Cal Moto’s, Meissner had to let the Triumph franchise go. Cal Moto now sells Vespa (including the new electric Vespa), Energica, KTM, and, of course, BMW.
Several years after the Livermore store opened, Meissner noticed that foot traffic in the original Mountain View location was plummeting. Research revealed that few riders lived in Mountain View or its surrounding area, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley tech center. Most of the people who worked there lived elsewhere and commuted, while the local residents were increasingly older people with no interest in two wheels. On the other hand, the Livermore location was lively. It sadly became apparent that there would be more reward for renting the Mountain View location to a tech company. Meissner resisted for a while – Cal Moto had been in Mountain View forever – but finally closed the doors in November 2019. Cal Moto is now doing well from its Livermore location.
Meissner has learned how to run a thriving business, both through extensive experience in motorcycle retail and by locating and analyzing relevant statistical and other evidence about the market and his customers. “We are getting better as we home in on what we are trying to achieve. 2020 started out slow, then people started buying bikes,” Meissner continues. “There is even a shortage of certain models at present. The pandemic narrowed people’s options. There were fewer choices on where to spend recreation dollars. Many people have always been somewhat interested in motorcycles, but their interest became more relevant when they had fewer options.”
Many of the new customers are new riders. “We try to encourage new people. We work to make the dealership inviting and friendly. Motorcycling can be intimidating. Our approach to new people is, “Let me show you how to enjoy the sport.” We have a good relationship with two or three training schools and regularly refer new riders. We find a good match between the person and a bike. There’s a segment of motorcycling that appeals to everyone.”
“New people need mentors and entry experience. We have shop rides – we just restarted after weathering the pandemic – on a variety of skill levels. We post the skill level on the website, and always have lunch spots, so people can connect on a personal level.”
Now that the pandemic is receding, Cal Moto plans to return to its usual schedule of events for its customer base. The dealership normally sponsors a monthly ride, occasional 3-4 day extended tours, track days and adventure training. One popular feature is the rewards program, with good customers earning store credit. This year’s Customer Appreciation Day – with talks by well-known motorcyclists and industry people – was held online.
Most children used to learn to ride bicycles at an early age, creating a familiarity with two-wheel travel. Surveys show that this is no longer true. In reaction, many dealers, including Cal Moto, have started selling Stayc electric balance bikes. “Stayc bikes are cool,” says Meissner. “They give children comfort on two wheels and a sense of freedom. They give kids coordination with wrist and machine. The concept is very adaptable. A child can paddle along or ride with the electric motor.”
Electric motorcycles for grownups, however, “can be a challenge for a dealership.” Meissner explains. “You are basically removing the service side from your dealership. Electric motorcycles need very little maintenance. They need tires and chains and brake pads, of course, but not much else.” Despite these concerns, Cal Moto is selling Energica motorcycles from Italy. “We chose them due to the battery capacity and the quality engineering. They look and feel like a motorcycle.”
The gear and accessories that Cal Moto sells, including Arai, Shoei, Alpinestars and Schuberth, are chosen to appeal to its tech-oriented customer base. “I have seen studies of motorcyclists,” says Meissner. “Very generally, there are two types of riders. Some are socially–driven and accept the dangers of motorcycling as a given. Others want safety features and safety engineering. Our customers are looking to enjoy the thrill while mitigating risks.”
Where will Cal Moto be in the next five years? Meissner sees continual technological improvement in the motorcycles the dealership sells. “People now take control for granted. Tech in the motorcycle industry is improving exponentially faster. Lean angle, control and ABS make the sport safer and easier to enjoy, but rider training on how to get the most out of the new technology becomes more important.”
Otherwise, Meissner plans no drastic changes to a winning business structure. “We are always looking for new opportunities, but mostly, we are just going to continue to be focused on our customers and keep giving them the same level of service and value that they are asking for.”