The off-road industry needs to engage new riders in new ways and create new riding opportunities. We need to reach customers more efficiently and leverage mobile technology to do it. The historical trend toward loss of rider access in public forests and BLM-managed lands is troubling and it is no coincidence that participation in our sport has declined as well. With all the controversy and expense involved in accessing public land, why not take a closer look at the untapped freedom that is possible when riding on private lands? No more trail width restrictions or hyper-sensitivities toward low spots that hold water temporarily. A pivot toward riding on private property is already being driven by growth in the UTV market but today it only creates opportunities for the people that own these places. What if we could get landowners to profit from rider access so much that they might compete for publicly-accessible trails to be developed across their property and promote the growth of powersports? Further -- what if we could turn schools into Net Promoters of powersports to increase participation? In this blog we will review a hypothetical concept called EZTrail that changes the 2 key elements of land access and rider recruitment completely. EZTrail would also create an Amazon-like marketplace that enables the most efficient connection between product/service providers and active riders. Although this idea needs further refinement it should spark plenty of discussion on how to leverage mobile tech to grow the off-road industry.
EZTrail is an app-based approach something like a cross between a toll road network and AirBnB. It pays landowners to create off-road access across their property. It would be the most professionally-managed and successful trail-building program in history by meeting the needs of stakeholders in ways never before possible. It can accommodate off-road vehicles of all types including snowmobiles 12 months a year. EZTrail helps to fund and grow trail riding clubs. It helps land owners pay their property taxes and more. It grows the next generation of riders. It can be adapted in real time to changing environmental conditions or business opportunities. It helps reach a broader market by passing the requirements of “soccer moms”. It turns public schools into Net Promoters of our sport. EZTrail creates real-time, tangible business opportunities for everyone from restaurants to repair shops. It gives people with UTVs wider than 50” a trail network to ride. It gives people a chance to depart for an all-day run right from their back yard who could have never dreamed of doing such a thing before. EZTrail distributes traffic as evenly as possible to minimize rutting in any particular location. Some areas of the country would require years of lobbying for EZTrail to become a reality, but in others EZTrail could scale in a matter of months. It’s a new Theory of Everything for trail systems, and could be expanded to include other applications such as hunter access or bicycling.
The EZTrail model recruits a critical mass of participating land owners who allow the renting of trails that cross their land. EZTrail software developers would use Google Maps and other tools to propose routes, then work with landowners to select entry points, etc. More farmers and ranchers who have a mud hole or gravel pit could direct riders to these gathering spots (as some do today) while knowing that there is a blanket insurance policy in place.The entry and exit points would have to be in proximity to those on neighboring properties for routes to be contiguous. Trail riding club volunteers could help with this critical part of the process. Crossing roadways presents a substantial regulatory challenge, but the challenge varies in severity per locale. As the GPS database is built out it permits various routes to be digitally constructed either by suggestion of the app or by the riders who use the app. The trails would have to be narrow enough to avoid “cartway” or other road-type designations that would take control of the route away from the land owner. The system requires land owners to permit a minimum number of days and weekends per year for riders to cross their property. At the same time, landowners could be allowed periods when they can prohibit traffic such as during harvest season or other reasons. Once routes are created the area is opened up to riders. The use case could be as simple as creating a short lunch time route for someone who wants to de-stress, or something as complex as people looking to ride from their back door for 30 or 40 miles so they can connect to public land. Again as with AirBnB local laws must be respected and are likely to be prohibitive in some areas. In the short term there are plenty of states and counties with rider-friendly regulations. EZTrail will leverage these regulations to benefit schools, landowners and businesses alike.
Passive income for land owners
According to sapling.com: “Local property taxes often make up the majority of a school's funding, sometimes making up for over half of total funding. A study done by Bowling Green University showed half of all property taxes went to support elementary and secondary schools, and in Ohio the number was as high as 70 percent as of 2008. Schools tend to rely on property taxes more and more because of cuts in federal and state funding of education.” As much as they benefit schools, property taxes are a real sore spot with large land owners. The issue has been exacerbated by reductions in CRP and other government conservation programs that once helped landowners. In every problem there’s an opportunity. Being paid to open single-tracks through their property might be pretty appealing if it can help to negate most property taxes and this is one of the objectives of EZTrail.
Rutting and property damage is also a major concern for private land owners, yet the solution is often close at hand. Many farmers have to deal with lots of rocks, and they are the perfect ointment for stabilizing clay or sand. If EZTrail could be used to help trail clubs fund skid steers, laborers, and similar resources for rock relocation this could be one more benefit to private land owners that choose to open a trail across their property.
Other obstacles with landowners would include liability concerns, potential lost income from crop rows that are sacrificed for a trail, and interference during hunting season. The first would be covered by a blanket liability policy that would be a necessary part of the business model. This alone would help many landowners open their property to area dirtbike and ATV jockeys. The second concern would need to be covered by a mixture of resourcefulness in selecting trail crossings and having enough funds to compensate the land owner (which would require work to be sure). The third concern is already mitigated somewhat by limitations governing ATV use during hunting season as well as judicious selection of trails. There is no doubt that other landowner concerns would surface, but no one is saying this will be easy to implement.
A “Trails to Tablets” program to benefit schools
School districts are constantly requesting more funding to keep up with technology and personnel demands. As EZTrail grows it could be a dynamic tool for helping to augment this funding, and provide some great partnerships with school superintendents and local business leaders who are partnering via the app. First of all, the element of covering property taxes for landowners should be publicized and re-publicized. Second, EZTrail could donate a percentage of funds to the school district of the subscribers choice or a default district based upon zip code. Once or twice a year the President of the area trail club makes the rounds handing out oversized tagboard “Trails to Tablets” checks to the Superintendent of each district to publicize how much money the riding community is providing them. In this scenario we can boast that more trail riding generates more tablets, sports gear and paraprofessional aides for school kids. We can put UTV and Dirt Bike riders out front as partners with education and keep them there. We could also begin to have our activities become school-sanctioned clubs. Archery and shot gun teams are some of the fastest-growing scholastic competitions in many states. It’s time for Snowmobiling and ATVing to become school-approved sports as well.
Getting the “Yootz” of America excited about riding
If you are raising a family in a city or suburb you know how hard it is to have opportunities for your kids to ride. For a subscription fee EZTrail would bring the trails and riding parks nearer to you. Some digitally-specified areas could be youth-oriented and allow only kids to ride (with parents) and describing progressive skill requirements such as grade variations that would be defined by the app as “levels” for kids to achieve. “Yootz” could be a companion app to EZTrail. For kids to do things today there must usually be a digital element and Yootz would do just that. Yootz would keep score and give awards for everything from miles ridden, to obstacles overcome, and even maintenance work done by the child. A good example of creating die-hard enthusiasts is the “Musically” app, and Yootz would attempt to create similar passion. Yootz would allow kids to share short videos about their favorite places to ride, work they do on their quad or dirt bike, etc. Themed rides could be developed with certain characters, graphics for the vehicles, etc. Business sponsors could host Yootz contests and there would be Yootz get-togethers. Businesses could select specific or random trail locations and give away prizes to Yootz riders. Yootz could also be used in ways similar to Pokemon Go to get kids to ride more as explained below.
Imagine announcing that some lucky kid who rides on a given weekend is going to be awarded an iTunes gift certificate or new tablet. Instead of lining up at a store to get their next game, we can encourage them to line up on trails! Yootz could work with schools or even partner with school apps like Schoology to offer kids free trail passes for good grades, or make kids answer math or science questions to “open up” a new trail. There could be events like an annual “Books and Bikes” weekend where reading and dirt bike riding are celebrated. By emphasizing safety and responsibility Yootz could help reduce the anxiety of non-riding mothers who otherwise wouldn’t take their kids out to ride. That’s a whole new customer demographic! And remember, schools are benefitting with every mile driven.
21st-Century Trail Clubs
Trail clubs should embrace the prospect of increased trail access and rider participation. Trail clubs would receive supplementary funds via EZTrail for everything from covering expenses to buying equipment for trail maintenance. EZTrail subscribers would be educated about the vital work clubs do and be encouraged to participate themselves. Club members would be empowered to go to land owners to introduce the new program’s financial benefits, discuss the payment options, and discuss trail routes. Clubs would also get great publicity and legislative clout by positioning our sport as a promising element toward increased school funding.
Laser-focused Business Growth
EZTrail would instantly become a premier platform for businesses to connect with riders. Increasing trail access would drive an increase in the overall customer base and open new business development opportunities. Dealers could purchase advertising to announce promotions and “flash sales” for people that they know are planning rides or searching routes via the app. New OEMs who want to accelerate growth in a certain region could become a premier sponsor and dedicate funds for trail development in their target area. Suppliers can target the most active riders with their latest products and special offers. Riders spend money, and they are loyal to businesses that support their sport. Restaurants, bar and grills, gas stations and dealerships could all reach serious riders directly via advertising – in real time to entice them to stop by. Advertising would reach customers who are in the process of spending money not just customers that might spend some day. A wild card could be the adoption of drones to deliver some goods and services directly to the trails. There is a lot of FAA regulatory activity in this area and the jury is still out on how common drones will become for delivering goods and services. Having Amazon to push this issue will certainly help. How cool would kids find it to be “sending it” at Farmer Johnson’s gravel pit and have Pizza delivered by drone? Should such possibilities become reality – drone access to private property is what EZTrail might also sell as a service to generate revenue.
Smart Trail Markers
EZTrail access points need trail markers. These markers could be solar-powered, lithium-battery-equipped “smart” trail markers that could transmit or receive data wirelessly to each passing vehicle thereby validating each person entering the property. Land owners would have more peace-of-mind when they can see 100% authorized riders coming through their gates. Over time more smart trail markers could be added to communicate with each other in a chain. A chain of smart trail markers that has a node connecting to a mobile network could transmit critical data such as a request for assistance. A smart trail network could help riders anticipate an oncoming group of riders and show how many riders to expect. It would help riders understand where others in their group are whether a mobile network is available or not. Trail markers could have an LED beacon to alert riders to a safety alert, coupon code or sweepstakes giveaway from a product manufacturer. Vandalism and hacking would be a concern, but this is no different than in other areas of life.
Smart trail markers could also be incorporated into the Yootz youth-riding app. Yootz could use proximity to trail markers to provide elements similar to Pokemon Go (safely, of course) that turns rides into hunts for a trail marker with a purple LED, or simply a GPS coordinate to win a gift card.
The Off-road version of Global Entry screening
A smart trail system and app-based trail access involves risk. There are always a few goofballs who ruin things for everyone else and riders and landowners alike should be concerned about this. A system that vets riders before they are allowed on the trail networks might be necessary, something akin to Global Entry or TSA pre-check for airline travelers. Whether non-certified riders are allowed at all is open to debate. The screening may include things as simple as 1. Proving that you have current registration on your off-road vehicle 2. Proving that you have passed a state rider’s test 3. Proving you have a current driver’s license and 4. (possibly) a background check. A 5th, more controversial element may include installing an RFID-type device that can interact with every smart trail marker that is passed to help identify users.
There are multiple sources for revenue with EZTrail. They include member subscriptions, advertising revenue, Grant-In-Aid state funds, and Corporate sponsorships.
Since covering property taxes is a key aspect of EZTrail it is worth discussing in slightly more detail. Let’s assume the average property tax per 40 acres is $2,200 per year (unscientific). 40 acres offers a minimum ¼ mile of trail, necessitating no more than 400 of them for a 100 mile trail route. That means to hit targets the 100-mile trail route must cover $880,000 in property taxes – or $440,000 if it is assumed that each 40 has ½ mile of trails (one north/south, one east/west). 4,400 riders within the area of the trail willing to pony up $100 each would cover 50% to 100% of the relevant property taxes depending on trail density. Advertising, OEM Grants and State funds could cover the rest of the funding for this and more. If the thought of taking a one-time financial hit is too much for subscribers there is a way to ease the burden. A front-loaded toll system wherein every day that someone enters the trail network they pay less and less until reaching their obligation. An example of this pricing breakdown could look something like: $25, $20, $15, $15, $10, $10, $5, $5, Free. Another approach might be to charge higher tolls on weekends and less or no tolls on weekdays. There must be a maximum annual limit per family and per couple, however. Getting families into the sport is what it’s all about.
Once enough users are engaged EZTrail could start to become a more competitive bidding marketplace. Some landowners might want to be paid more than their property tax value, and some riders might be willing to pay more than a standard subscription fee to obtain certain privilieges. There are many possibilities for the revenue model depending on the granularity, far too many to list here. Trail access, food and lodging, parts, and even special deals on vehicle sales are all possible. EZTrail creates an Amazon-type market that is dedicated to powersports.
A Moon Shot for the Off-Road industry
This is not a finished idea, but it does illustrate some possibilities of using mobile technology to grow our sport. Local adoption of the model is probably feasible. However, creating something like 5,000 or 10,000 miles of EZTrails at a national level would require millions of dollars, thousands of man-hours, and years of patience. Small details regarding the revenue model, user interface, trail connection points, regulatory obstacles, youth appeal, etc. could make or break the success of the initiative. But creating a private land trail system that generates profits for multiple stake holders while bringing in 1,000s of new riders via schools could be just the thing to ensure a strong future for the off-road vehicle industry.
Powersports Industry Consultant and 25-year industry vet Gary Gustafson was the first designer of what became the RiderX and Ride Command systems for Polaris, as well as contributing to Yamahas new TRX trip planner system. His company G-Force Consulting Inc. provides Brainstorming Session guidance, New Business Development, OEM Account Sales and Market Research services to suppliers and OEMs alike.