Destination Dealership: Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis, South Dakota

Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis centers its business plan around the status of Sturgis as both a destination in itself and as an entry point to the scenery and roads in South Dakota’s Black Hills area.

Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis, South Dakota is unique. Most dealerships source their customers from, at most, a 200-mile wide area. Due to the Sturgis Rally, one of the largest motorcycle gatherings in the world, the customer base of Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with some people from overseas even walking through the doors.

“I rented a bike from their rental department and it was a smooth and painless experience,” said one online poster from Arizona. “Great bike and a perfect way to see the Black Hills.”

“Absolutely awesome staff and store,” said another comment from a customer hailing from South Carolina.

As it turns out, the Indian of Sturgis signage on Main Street is a better business getter than a nationwide television ad. The Sturgis Rally was originally an Indian motorcycle event, started in 1938 by Pappy Hoel, then the Sturgis Indian motorcycle dealer. The rally quickly became popular, and increasing numbers of enthusiasts flocked to the little town of Sturgis each year to participate. The 2023 Rally will be the 83rd rendition, and well over 400,000 people are expected.

However, while the Sturgis Rally was taking off, the Indian Motorcycle Co. was floundering. Bad management decisions led to the end of U.S. motorcycle production in 1953, and Pappy Hoel started selling another brand. The Indian name remained bright in the memories of enthusiasts, however, and several attempts were made to restart the company. Finally, in 2011, Polaris purchased the trademarks and launched Indian as a subsidiary. Production started in 2013. 

Vern Eide, an established automobile dealership in South Dakota, learned of Indian’s resurgence and decided to apply for a dealership. With the help of the Sturgis Economic Development Corp., the franchise was granted in 2013 to one of the first Indian dealerships to be opened after the Polaris revival. Today, it is thriving and owns 60% of its market area, according to General Manager Lauren Hensley.

The dealership had barely opened its doors when management realized the facility was too small. Indian of Sturgis moved to its present location in 2015. Hensley, the general manager, previously worked for the car dealership and has been running the Indian shop since 2015. “We have had the same management for eight years, and that continuity is really important,” Hensley says.

Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis centers its business plan around the status of Sturgis as both a destination in itself and as an entry point to the scenery and roads in South Dakota’s Black Hills area. Hensley has the data at her fingertips.

“We do 33% of our business during the rally,” she points out. “However, we also sell a lot of motorcycles during our tourist season, which stretches from April to October. The tourist season is a major reason for our success.”

The dealership has capitalized on the cachet of the rally by commissioning a special badge and horn cover. These items are installed on every new Indian they sell and are not available otherwise. During the rally, staff has to refuse repeated offers to purchase these items. “It’s our badge of pride,” she says. “The badge has become known. We have traded a new Indian sold by another dealership for the same model bike with the badge. People reserve a bike at our dealership so that they can ride or trailer home with a Sturgis ID’d bike.”

Indian of Sturgis also runs a rental program. “We used to contract with Eaglerider, but they went exclusively to another brand and stopped renting Indians,” Hensley says. Meanwhile, the Indian company had set up its own rental program, then in the pilot phase. The Sturgis dealership moved to the Indian program and has been pleased. The rental program is not only a profit center in itself but also acts as a marketing tool.

“Although we always offer test rides, people will rent a bike for a couple of days to see if they really like it,” she says. “If they then buy an Indian, we will pay the rental fee. The goal is brand experience. For many people, renting an Indian is their first exposure to the brand — there are not as many Indian dealerships as there could be. Customers often come back, either to rent again or to buy.”

Indian of Sturgis sees “how” as an obstacle in a potential customer’s mind to a purchase and strives to take the obstacles out. New riders who decide to buy an Indian will have their riding courses paid for. If an out-of-town customer signs a deal to buy a bike, the dealership will fly him or her to Sturgis, gratis, and put that person up for a night in the comfortable, fully furnished apartment above the dealership. This fly-and-ride program is popular with vacationers who buy motorcycles, enjoy their vacations touring the Black Hills, have their first service and then take their new bikes home.

“The Black Hills have so much to offer,” says Hensley. “People are more highly motivated to ride in South Dakota. The level of motorcycle enthusiasm here was a major reason to open the dealership.”

Keeping the doors open during the cold and snowy off season is more of a challenge. At times, the dealership may not see a customer all day. Again, success is gained by proactive initiatives. The dealership takes in a lot of trades and is willing to accept boats, RVs and motorcycles from other brands.

Starting in the fall, these items are marketed in a 500-mile area and sold at low prices. People in South Dakota and nearby states have learned they can often get a bargain and will come to the dealership to buy their items. Once there, customers have been known to change their minds and purchase new Indians instead of the used bikes they were considering.

“We want to gain and nurture a customer,” Hensley says. “These sales are one way of doing that.”

The service department schedules major custom work during the off season as one way to remain busy. The parts department maintains an extensive parts inventory, which has become invaluable as a result of the ongoing supply chain issues in much of the industry. In fact, Hensley says 2022 has been the dealership’s best parts year ever, and people out of state even get parts through the dealership. The Indian of Sturgis website enables online shopping and has a very extensive list of items, from T-shirts to mufflers. It’s the parts and apparel departments that help provide stability in winter.

Indian of Sturgis has a “customer service first” motto. The organization wants to provide the best-possible customer service in order to keep customers coming back after they walk in the door the first time. It has a five-star rating in online reviews and a survey response score of 92%.

“Most people do not need a motorcycle,” states Hensley. “Motorcycle sales are not like car sales, where if one person is not happy, there will be another one along in a little while. Each customer is important, and we have to work harder for each customer we do get. We are a volume, not margin business. Our success comes from doing right by the customer.”

New hires undergo onboarding training, which is done in house. The department managers (one for every department, including apparel and parts) have meetings when problems arise, with the emphasis on solutions, not finger pointing.

Hensley sees Indian of Sturgis going “onwards and upward” in the next five years. “We are blessed by our brand,” she says. “Indian is committed to our brand, and we get great support, both from our parent company and from Indian. We just purchased the nearby BMW/Yamaha dealership, so we have added buildings and brands. We are planning for continued success.”

Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis, South Dakota
2130 Main St.
Sturgis, SD 57785
(605) 206-7830
Employees: 24
OEM: Indian
Aftermarket: Hogworkz, King Baby and Kuryaken

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