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To populate its off-road vehicles, Polaris takes the adventure to riders

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A Polaris off-road vehicle rented from Happy Trails Rental in Lucerne Valley.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Polaris Adventures figured it could sell more of its off-road vehicles if it could just get people to try them in the wild. So a year ago, it purchased a California town.

Not a very large town. In February 2018, Polaris acquired the historic Glamis Beach Store in the Southern California desert, along with 166 acres of property adjacent to the famed Glamis sand dunes, for an undisclosed sum. Though the store and buildings are hardly a dot on the map, the spot identifies itself as the “Sand Toy Capital of the World” and is a gateway to one of the country’s busiest and most popular off-road destinations.

“This all started with the idea of how do we get people to experience the great things you can do with our product, or around our product,” said Polaris Adventures director Gray Rentz. “We wanted to deliver the experience to people who don’t fit our traditional mix, especially families and couples.”

Polaris Adventure was launched 2½ years ago by Polaris Industries, the Minnesota-based adventure vehicle equipment giant best known for its snowmobiles, Ranger utility vehicles, RZR side-by-sides — collectively known as utility terrain vehicles, or UTVs — and three-wheeled road-ready Slingshots. (It also owns Indian Motorcycle.)

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Since then, Polaris Adventures has worked with 90 outfitters in 35 states to create a variety of riding options, from desert outings in Sedona and the Grand Canyon to forest rides in Montana and Maine to mountain passes in Colorado, Utah and California. Last year, the company hosted 30,000 individual “rides,” Rentz said.

The off-road sports and utility-vehicle market has been one of the bright spots in the power sports industry, which is struggling to regain sales after the catastrophic drop-off that accompanied the 2008 financial crisis. While motorcycle sales in 2018 were about half of their 2008 levels, UTV sales doubled over the same period, to 410,000 from about 200,000, according to Motorcycle Powersports News.

As a result, the once-dominant Polaris — with $6 billion in annual sales — now faces stiff competition from BRP-owned CanAm and the motorcycle companies pushing into the four-wheel market, principally Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha. A recent sales survey by power-sports blog Ride Now showed Polaris holding six of the top 10 sales positions, but sharing an increasing piece of the UTV pie with its rivals.

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Ben Stone, right, helps Daniel Noll put on a safety helmet before he ventures out in a Polaris vehicle.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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One solution: Reach out to millennials who prefer experience to ownership, by making one-off adventures accessible to consumers who can’t afford or don’t want their own off-road vehicles. That may result in sales to inspired adventurers, and it definitely results in sales to the outfitters and tour leaders who need the vehicles to transport them.

The Polaris Adventure push has been a boon for outfitters such as Ben Stone, proprietor of Happy Trails Rental. The charismatic entrepreneur, who dresses in denim overalls and a cowboy hat and lives on the adjacent property with his wife, Keary, charges day-tripping adventurers $349 per vehicle for a two-hour spin and $549 per vehicle for a six-hour desert tour.

Lindsay Gibson had never been on a RZR or any similar contraption when she and her husband, Trey, slipped on their helmets and goggles and climbed into the desert-ready vehicle.

Five hours later, they’d completed a 50-mile “self-guided” loop of Johnson Valley sand and canyons, following an onboard GPS device that took them deep into the desert, swung them past a remote cafe for lunch, and returned them to their Happy Trails starting point.

The Gibsons, who live in Hesperia, were hooked.

“We had so much fun!” Lindsay Gibson said. “The straightaways were a little scary to me, but I loved the bumps! I would definitely be up for doing it again.”

Stone was able to get brand-new Polaris RZRs by paying a program fee, rather than leasing or buying. The aim is for him to increase his business to the point where he can afford a straight-up lease of Polaris vehicles.

Polaris in turn offers support in marketing, check-in, billing, insurance and other software, hoping to create a turnkey operation for willing outfitters. “And we have revenue streams built into all of that,” Rentz said.

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Stone said most of his clients find him via the internet, where they may be scouring the area looking for something offbeat or different.

Word of mouth and a strong recommendation from a friend drew Chad and Leigh Cook to Happy Trails. They’d come from their home in North Carolina to visit extended California family, and brought their two daughters to Johnson Valley for a two-hour RZR ride.

They paid attention while Stone gave them the safety talk and explained the simple operating system on the RZR XP 1000, which looks like a Mad Maxed Jeep and drives like a car. Soon the family had put on their helmets, buckled their safety belts and roared off into the desert for a two-hour ride.

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Ben Stone, right, explains the features of an off-road vehicle to Daniel Noll, left, Mike Huhn and Maura Sughrue.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The group that followed had opted for the full-day experience, a ride that included a lunch stop at Slash X Ranch Cafe, a sand-blown institution deep in the Barstow-area desert.

Lindsay and Trey Gibson were in one vehicle, trailed by their Mission Viejo friends Jason Nash and Tammy Farfone. Over beers during a mid-ride lunch break at the cafe, all four said they wanted to do it again. They preferred renting, even at the $549 rate, to owning, because owning meant storing a vehicle, transporting a vehicle and being responsible for maintenance.

“The RZRs really impressed me, with how easy they handled the rough terrain,” said Nash, who operates a gun shop in Westminster. “I thought it was good value for money. Now I’m thinking about taking my employees out there for a trip, for a team-building event.”

Stone has already hosted a few such events. Forty or more employees of an automotive parts company had a corporate retreat, complete with RV accommodations. His ranch has hosted multiple bachelor and bachelorette parties. A local veterinarian held his annual Christmas “getaway” on Stone’s Polaris RZRs.

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Polaris is pleased.

“There is no question that more awareness of these vehicles is good business, but a lot of these people will never own one,” said Polaris’ Rentz. “So it’s great to have those butts in our seats and people experiencing us at our best.”


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