Bike company CEO on embracing bicycles in cities

Chris Kang, CEO of Trek Bicycle Korea, poses at the company’s office in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul during an interview with The Korea Times. / Courtesy of Trek Korea

US cycling firmTrek to co-host riding festival in Samcheok city in April 22-23

By Kim Ji-soo

Korean cyclists are a formidable group, numbering around 10 million. On weekends, they dominate the parks and roads along the Han River, riding in groups. However, the way Chris Kang, CEO of Trek Bicycle Korea, sees it, more people should be cycling in the city.

“Korean cyclists like to ride along riversides and streams, but they are not too keen about riding daily,” Kang said in an interview with The Korea Times. Kang believes this can change when cities improve cycling infrastructure and safety, such as by adopting “protected” lanes.

“New York has seen an increase in the bike-riding population in the past decade or two, and Korea or Seoul could be headed that way,” he said. About 20 years ago, in New York, anyone commuting on a bike would have stood out, but over the past 15 years, the U.S. city has opened protected lanes for the estimated 700,000 New Yorkers who cycle twice or thrice a week, or one out of 15 New Yorkers who get around on two wheels several times a week. Kang sees Korea moving in that direction over the next decade or so, with bikes and cars sharing the roads. “Koreans too can move toward a more active lifestyle, one that (also) protects the environment,” he said.

Trek, founded in southern Wisconsin in the United States some 40 years ago, believes in such a lifestyle and bicycle culture. The bike company, which entered the Korean market five years ago, wants to promote bike culture in Korea and drive home the message that cycling isn’t just about joining a club or riding a bike on the weekends.

In line with the mission, Trek and the city of Samcheok in Gangwon Province will host a two-day bike festival on April 22 and 23. The Around Samcheok 2017 Trek Ride Fest will feature world-leading cyclist Jens Voigt and expects to attract an estimated 2,000 riders and 1,000 non-riders. Samcheok, located three and a half hours from Seoul, boasts a relatively untouched natural environment and dedicated bike paths.

“This event is intended not only for core riders but for the non-riders as well,” Kang said. “It encourages them to take part in the event hosted by a world-class bicycle company and the eco-friendly city of Samcheok.”

For two days, the bike company and the city will feature various events, including a concert, demo-trial of Trek bicycles and installation of virtual reality stations in cooperation with 15 partners, including Sony, Tacx and Zwift, to encourage Koreans to embrace bicycles. A non-competitive race will take place on the second day in two divisions, one on a 110-kilometer-long regular course and another on a 30-kilometer-long parade course, both starting at Maengbang Beach in Samcheok.

For the city of Samcheok, the festival is a way to promote itself to people in their 20s and 30s, one of key Trek’s customer demographic groups.

Trek, which is known to have the best sellers in each bicycle category, also stands out for its lifetime warranty and unconditional guarantee for bicycle frames and accessories. Its products are also equipped with the cutting-edge shock-absorbing technology Isospeed.

“Our main customers are those in their 30s and 40s, but among those in their 20s and 30s, our product awareness is high,” Kang said. His employees, who were seated with him for the interview, said many 20- and 30-something Koreans dream of owning a Trek bike as much as they dream of owning a Porsche. The company’s unique lifetime warranty for both its bike frames and accessories are pivotal to the company’s customer loyalty. The company has also launched such campaigns as “Share the Road,” which is about getting car drivers and cyclists to share the road safely.

Kang said Trek’s decision to enter the Korean market was based on the premise of the market’s significant potential. He estimates the high-end bike market in Korea stands at $200 million, an increase from $150 million five years ago. But looking 10 years forward, with a potential paradigm shift and advent of electronic bikes, he believes the market size could grow to as large as $1 billion. He has already seen a slight shift from cheap bikes toward performance ones in recent years.

Trek Bicycle’s shop located near Konkuk University in Seoul / Courtesy of Trek Korea

Trek performs in the performance bike market, competing with such makers as Taiwan’s Giant and others in Korea.

“But we are focusing on investing in the retail and sales environment, to teach people how to start riding a bicycle, how to ride it safely and how to maintain the gears well,” Kang said. To this end, Trek currently has seven concept stores, which competitors are attempting to benchmark. He sees the competition as a positive sign of Korea’s expanding bicycle market, which at the moment is still small.

Prior to joining Trek in 2012, Kang, a University of Virginia graduate, worked in IBM’s consulting team for eight years and headed outdoor brand Billabong. He saw after-purchase services, product quality and brand equity as Korean customers’ top three most important purchase considerations. Asked more specifically about the factors of buying a bike, Kang said consumers should look for stability, endurance and performance. “If someone wants to purchase an all-around, multipurpose bicycle for commuting and fitness, then I recommend the Domane model,” Kang said. Other models such as FX (Fitness Crossover) and DS (Dual Sports) are also fit for various riding purposes, he said.

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