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Thunder on the River Ride-In Bike Show

Written by  May 31, 2005

A large ballroom with chandeliers and luxurious carpet provided an elegant setting for the inaugural Thunder on the River Ride-In Bike Show and Apparel Show in the Convention Center at Harrah’s North Kansas City Casino and Hotel. The event, jointly sponsored by the casino and Worth Harley-Davidson North, drew a field of around 50 stock, custom, and antique motorcycles competing for $100 cash prizes in the following categories: Best Engine, Best Paint, Best Display, Best Club Display and Best Ladies Bike. For the bike selected as Best in Show, the prize was $1,000.

The event took place on Saturday, April 16, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and there was no charge for admission. Kiera Sky was present to autograph copies of the classy event poster. The apparel show gave the audience an opportunity to view the latest in Harley-Davidson fashions. Several vendors had merchandise on display. During the awards presentation at the end of the event, the Best in Show prize went to Mark Merrill for his 2002 special custom Harley-Davidson named “Lucifer’s Lady.” Mark wasn’t the only big winner that day. One of the bikers who attended the show spent some time in the casino and walked away with a $900 slot machine jackpot!

Several days later, I visited Kevin Wilkey, Travel and Tour Manager at Harrah’s, to talk about the show.

CC: Thunder on the River was the first motorcycle-oriented event at Harrah’s North Kansas City Casino. How did the idea begin?
Kevin: I took my concept to the management of the casino, and there wasn’t a lot of support initially. Our General Manager had been the G. M. at the Laughlin, Nevada, property in 2002 when the bike rally kind of got out of hand. So when I brought up the idea of a motorcycle event here, I can tell you that the group around that table was less than excited. But we talked about how the old biker stereotype is becoming a thing of the past and how motorcycling is attracting enthusiasts from all walks of life. The involvement of bikers in the support of various charities has done a lot to dispel the negative image. I explained that the motorcycle community is a very loyal group, and I knew that if we were going to try to build a relationship that we needed to put on an event. I wanted to call special attention to our show by offering a $1,000 to prize for Best in Show. That’s more cash than is offered by any other show around here. Eventually the idea was approved, the show was on, and the event was a success. There wasn’t a single negative comment from anyone, and that’s uncommon.

CC: How did Worth Harley-Davidson North become involved?
Kevin: I went to Ken and Rick at Worth and told them a little bit about what we wanted to do. We wanted to buy a custom painted Harley-Davidson from them to give away on the floor. Everything here ties back to what we do in the casino. Rick was great! He gave us a great deal on the bike and had it painted for us with our logos on it. It took only a week to get the painting done.

CC: That bike was given away on April 30.
Kevin: Yes, it was. On all of our vehicle giveaways, the winners have the option to take cash instead. We pretty much expected that whoever won would be likely to take the cash, and we were ready to use the bike for another promo. But the guy who won couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Jimmy is a regular customer of ours, and when he won the Harley he was ready to just drive it away right then. He plans to put the bike on display at his house and give it to his son when he turns 16 years old. That’s going to be one cool 16-year-old rider.

CC: No doubt! I was riding a Honda 90 at 16.
Kevin: Yeah, I was still riding a dirt bike at that age. That giveaway was a great promotion for us, and so was Thunder on the River. It helped us to reach a new community of customers. We have also become involved with Janey’s Over the Next Hill Ride for Immacolata Manor that we will sponsor on an annual basis. The ride will start and end at Harrah’s. We’re also helping them financially. I would also like to do another bike contest in September and include an outdoor concert and barbecue. Next time I hope to do a much bigger promotion with an even bigger cash prize to draw people from surrounding markets such as St. Louis and Oklahoma City.

CC: How many entries were there in this show?
Kevin: We had a bit over 60 entries, and I think we ended up with around 50 at the event. There was no entry fee, and we had such a nice day that some of the riders probably decided to ride rather than show.

CC: It seemed that the number was about right for the amount of space in the ballroom and hallway where the bikes were on display.
Kevin: We didn’t do a lot of advertising. There was a joint radio advertising promotion with Worth’s, and promotional materials were handed out at World of Wheels and in the casino. We weren’t looking for a huge show this time around. The idea was to test the event and get the senior management more comfortable with the concept. It worked out well and everyone had a lot of fun. Many of the casino employees dropped in to see the show. There was a big demand for the event T-shirts. We did some poster signings leading up to the event that generated a lot of interest. Rick said he sold some bikes to casino customers who had seen the giveaway bike on display. We were happy about that. We wanted this to be a win-win deal for Worth’s and us.

CC: Were you surprised at the quality of the bikes that were entered?
Kevin: No. I had been to the All American Show at World of Wheels and the Easyriders Show, so I had an idea what was out there. After going to those shows and hanging out with the exhibitors, I knew we could have a great event. These are really good people. It’s not just the bikes, but the people who really make an event fun.

CC: The promotional material states that those admitted must be 21 or over, but I noticed that wasn’t strictly enforced.
Kevin: Harrah’s responsible gaming agenda is very important to us. Our C.E.O., Gary Loveman, emphasizes our “Code of Commitment.” We don’t have an arcade or a day care facility in our casino. We advertise everything as over 21, but there are certain exceptions such as this bike show. We don’t want to put people in a situation where they come to see the bike show and leave kids waiting in the lobby or in a car. Many of our hotel guests are families. Kids could enjoy this show without being exposed to anything that’s intended for adults only.

CC: Please tell us a little about the fashion show.
Kevin: It’s part of a bigger overall concept. My vision is for this to grow into an event that is an indoor-outdoor, all-day concert, barbecue, and bike show. I needed to start small, so I wanted to kind of test the fashion show to get the attention of our non-biker customers. Everyone, whether they ride or not, likes the Harley look. It added a bit of theatrical value. We are a casino, so we need to be a little flashy in what we do. We thought the event was really fun.

CC: Do you ride?
Kevin: I do. I sold my old bike before I moved to Kansas City. Here, I traded a Jeep to my neighbor who had bought a Sportster and later decided that motorcycling wasn’t for him. Now I’m ready to trade the Sportster for a Heritage at Worth. It was part of their display at the show. My little girl is just getting old enough to like bikes too. At first the noise scared her, but now she thinks they are pretty neat. She’s four years old, and she’s my buddy!

CC: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Kevin: I would love to hear from people in the motorcycle community. I would like feedback on what people liked about the show and ways we could improve the next one. I want to tailor this to the bike community. All comments, ideas, and suggestions are welcome. My e-mail is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

CC: Thanks for your time, Kevin, and congratulations on a good show. We’ll be looking forward to the next one.

Story by Stripe

Photos by Stripe and Mike Schweder