Lisa M. Rager, executive director of the Greater Johnstown Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Thunder in the Valley creates millions of dollars in direct visitor spending that trickles down into the community.
“That’s what traveling tourism is all about, expanding and spending money to help businesses in the surrounding region,” Rager said.
“Our overflow lodging goes into Somerset, Westmoreland, Blair, Bedford and Indiana counties. We have limited hotel and motel rooms. Some use camping facilities, others stay with friends and relatives and have a party in the backyard.”
Before the first motorcycle rolls into town, the economic activity begins with locals buying a bike for the first time or servicing, upgrading and customizing what they already own.
Thunder’s economic effect continues once the rally is in motion with visitors buying goods, gas and other services, hotels and motels giving their staff more hours and the visitors bureau incurring expenses as they promote and operate the rally by purchasing tents, portable toilets, security and the time of city employees for cleanup.
“That’s more dollars for local employees to spend in the community,” Rager said. “We support local businesses and also advertise outside the community. There are a lot of moving parts to the economic engine of Thunder.”
The intangible aspect of Thunder is that it creates a fun and exciting event for those who live here, benefiting residents and visitors alike.
“Thunder is the largest event in the area,” Rager said. “It provides entertainment and has a vitality and liveliness. Residents have family who come back for Thunder. They might not have been back to Johnstown in years, but Thunder is their reason for coming.”
Rager said some residents schedule their vacations around Thunder so they can attend more activities, retaining local dollars that could be spent elsewhere.
Others coming to Johnstown for Thunder also schedule vacations around the event.
“It creates excitement,” Rager said. “It’s a lot to look forward to. Thunder is a vacation in your own backyard and makes the area a great place to live.”
The feedback Rager receives from visitors is that they love the area and love Thunder.
Some have come for a number of years, and others are coming for the first time.
Some who have visited the area for pleasure consider relocating to Johnstown or developing a business here.
“We can use Thunder as a tool to introduce people to the area,” Rager said. “We don’t know what the end result will be, but we can showcase what we have.”
Area assets include the Johnstown Flood Museum, Inclined Plane, Johnstown Flood National Memorial and Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.
“These are unique to us,” Rager said. “They can’t be exported. They deserve our investment and support.”
After getting an introduction to the community through Thunder, visitors come back at other times of the year to see the sights.
“They can visit historic attractions by motorcycle on scenic back roads,” Rager said. “We get repeat visitors, so there’s good word of mouth. The event is four days in June, but the effect is long lasting.”
Rager said the motorcycle rally has put Johnstown on the map, and we are becoming known as the place where Thunder in the Valley is located.
Thunder in the Valley began in 1998 when local motorcycle dealers approached the Greater Johnstown Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau about holding a rally in Johnstown.
Within a month, a 21-person committee consisting of motorcycle dealers, clubs and enthusiasts as well as CVB staff members was formed to organize the first rally in Johnstown.
“The timing was good when we started because there weren’t a lot of rallies in our neck of the woods,” Rager said. “Since we started, others have popped up.”
With six months to prepare and a small budget of only a few thousand dollars, the group crafted a marketing strategy to attract bikers to the region using a grassroots advertising effort featuring fliers, radio advertising, word of mouth and the CVB’s website, www.visitjohnstownpa.com.
From a local standpoint, Rager said there were concerns about the out-of-the-box event.
What did it mean? What would happen?
That first year’s effort resulted in an estimated attendance of 5,000 bikers.
For its second year, Thunder’s advertising budget grew to $20,000, enabling the CVB to attract a much bigger and more diverse crowd.
Print ads were purchased in motorcycle magazines, and committee members handed out fliers promoting the rally at various swap meets, rallies and events along the Atlantic Coast.
Inquiries poured in to the bureau office from all over the United States, and vendors from as far south as Florida were calling daily to reserve space.
Bikers logged onto the CVB’s website to obtain lodging, information and event details.
The second annual Thunder in the Valley in 1999 had an increased attendance of more than 10,000 bikers and more than 50 vendors.
“After the first and second year, people thought it was cool and nice,” Rager said. “We never met any strong resistance to the unknown event.”
By 2007, Thunder had grown to host more than 125 vendors and more than 200,000 bikers, with new featured entertainment, events and venues.
Fifteen years after the first rally, Thunder continues to grow.
Rager said it is no Sturgis, but it does land in the Top 10 of motorcycle rallies.
“There are hosts of people who have not heard of Thunder,” she said. “We can’t get complacent and not advertise.”
“The community has embraced the rally, and community support can make or break it. We rely on the cooperation of hundreds of volunteers in this effort.”
Financially, there is a perception that the visitors bureau, the organizers of the event, make a profit from Thunder.
“We don’t do it for the good of the organization,” Rager said. “It’s our mission to bring in visitors. We try to put on the best event we can with the resources we have.”
In the tough economy, Rager is keeping sponsors and getting new ones.
The visitor’s bureau relies on the purchase of official Thunder merchandise and vendor fees, which are not guaranteed, to get some revenue back.
“We try to keep a hold on expenses, but it’s not easy,” Rager said. “We need fresh entertainment and more portajohns as the event expands. It’s hard to hold the line on costs.”
There is no admission charge to Thunder in the Valley, unlike some other motorcycle rallies, making it more challenging to generate revenue.
“People ask if we don’t profit from the event, why do it,” Rager said. “We are accomplishing our mission – spending locally and supporting local businesses. It’s for the community good.”
Rager calls Thunder an economic driver and jobs generator that brings money to the community.
“This is a half-million dollar event,” she said. “That expense won’t change. We’re at the mercy of the weather, so it is a risk. No one has put in more blood, sweat and tears than the CVB. We gave birth to this baby, so we want everything financially sound. The reason it works is we’ve made a deliberate effort to have someone in charge.”
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.