Monday, October 29, 2012

Albion Classic Motorcycle Tours

(This is an article which appeared in "Majorca Daily Bulletin", 28 October.)

There are all sorts of passions that we all develop when we are young and which we never lose. For Hugh Birley, one of these passions was motorcycling. From the roads of rural Essex on a BSA in the 1970s to the roads of rural Majorca on a BSA in 2012, the passion still burns, and strongly enough for a new business to emerge - one that combines classic motor bikes with classic Majorca.

Some years ago, Hugh Birley had the idea for a fantasy business. It went under the name of "Hughie's Bike Barn And Fishing". The fishing doesn't feature, but the bike barn does - a unit on Calvià's Son Bugadelles industrial estate. This is The Albion Works, the workshop and operational centre for Albion Classic Motorcycle Tours. Note the word "classic". The bikes in the Albion collection are classic British iron (BSA, Norton, Triumph, Vincent) and classic European style (BMW, Ducati, Guzzi): classic bikes from a classic era of motorcycling - the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s.

"I understand bikes from that era," says Hugh. This is an understanding which is important, as it is essential to what Hugh is seeking to achieve: the building of a business that brings together a deep appreciation of classic bikes and their engineering, the popularity of motor biking culture and history, and a classic Majorca of its natural world, its traditions and its own culture.

Building businesses is something else that Hugh Birley understands. From an early  career in the music industry, he went on to make the Lexis PR consultancy one of the leading names in the world of marketing, developing the company to the extent that it employed well over a hundred people. "It was a lot of fun and I loved it. It was also hard work."

Fun and love are now going into Albion. Having sold his interest in Lexis, it might have seemed as though it was time to put his feet up, but no. Well acquainted with Majorca for some 30 years, Hugh and his wife found that they were spending more and more time on the island - they now live in Palma - but Hugh was looking for something to do. It was time, therefore, to live that old fantasy business of the bike barn. Time for Albion Classic Motorcycle Tours.

Albion is for anyone qualified to ride a motorcycle but especially for the biking enthusiast and connoisseur with knowledge of older bikes or a biker who is familiar with contemporary machines and their technology but not with bikes from a previous era that will mean learning some new techniques. Hugh takes great satisfaction, for example, in teaching the skills of kick-starting a bike.

Albion is very much a hands-on and personal business. Hugh conducts tours with his guests and passes on not just strong and intimate knowledge of the bikes but also of Majorca. "There is a chance for people to see parts of the island that they never normally see." Hugh's interests in the natural history of Majorca as well as its culture are as important as his interest in bikes. He is working on developing a programme that will unite biking with specific events during the year, be they natural events, such as the blossom, or traditional, e.g. fiestas, and with local gastronomy and produce. There is an association, for instance, with an olive-oil producer who provides tastings, while food and wine are very much a part of an Albion package - "excursions and epicurea".

Fundamentally though, Albion is about the biking experience and the setting for this experience. "There couldn't be anywhere better for motorcycling than Majorca. There are wonderful roads, such as from Valldemossa to Andratx or Pollensa to Sóller." Wonderful, I ask, bearing in mind the slightly hairy nature of some of Majorca's roads. "Challenging," Hugh replies. "The roads offer a mix of camber, gradient, different curves."

It is the relationship between rider, road and machine that intrigues me, as I confess it is not something which had occurred to me. "You can get a completely different experience from using a different bike. I have had clients who want to do the same roads but with different bikes, so as to see how they handle and how efficient, for instance, the brakes are in determining how to approach and take a corner. It's all about working and acting in a positive relationship with the machine. Mind you, it couldn't be anything else or you would fall off."

If the roads provide challenges, they also provide amazing views. "People are stunned by the scenery." In this regard, no, there is nowhere better for motorcycling than Majorca.

What, though, of other challenges? Had establishing Albion been plain sailing? What about insurance, for example? "It was incredibly hard to get responses from Spanish insurance companies. Finally I got one, and it was then that I put the collection together and shipped the bikes over. Unfortunately, the contact had by then moved to another office, and the company said they could no longer insure the bikes." Back to square one and without an insurer, Hugh was rescued thanks to personal contacts of his lawyer.

One other stumbling block had to do with the application for historic number plates for the bikes. Without going into too much detail, one aspect of this application requires a certified engineer to inspect the bikes and verify age and authenticity. This happened. However, Hugh found himself caught up in a fraud case which had nothing whatsoever to do with him but which had everything to do with the engineer. Thanks to the tenacity of Rebecca Evans at Mallorca Solutions, the situation was resolved, another engineer was brought in, but the business had been set back by six months. Albion finally opened for business in June this year.

The heat in July and August, Hugh accepts, means that Albion is unlikely to be a high-summer business, but it will otherwise be an all-year business. January, for example, is typically dry and sunny. It is a month which, in accordance with an Albion philosophy of combining motorcycling with local culture and landscapes, has fiestas and the first blossom to attract a winter tourist. Despite criticisms of air connections in winter, Majorca still has a good network of air routes, and Hugh sees Albion's key markets as being Germany, Holland and Scandinavia as well as the UK. For northern Europeans with months of dark winter, Majorca offers a perfect opportunity for motorcyclists from countries with strong biking cultures to take to the roads during those long northern European winter months. 

While Hugh wonders whether Majorca truly wants a load of tourists in winter - and he has some sympathy with this - he believes more could be done to attract off-season tourists. "There are opportunities to promote cultural tourism much harder in the low season, but without destroying the wonderful local continuity." Albion, in its own way, is doing just this, given Hugh's respect for Majorcan culture.

The summer months, July and August excepted perhaps, also offer opportunities. Already this year, Hugh has forged relationships with the yachting community. "There are captains and crew who have bikes back home but not classic bikes. They know very little about them." So, the chance beckons for motorcyclists based in Majorca in summer to try something different. And not of course just those within the yachting community.

Doing something different is very often a good starting-point for a business. Albion is different. There really isn't anything like it, and not just on Majorca. A good business, though, requires a good business brain. Hugh has a clear business model to follow and a clear idea of the building of the Albion brand, and he is undeterred by the economic situation. "Lexis was started during a recession. It helps you to focus on what matters. If it succeeds, a business founded in a harsh economic climate is in great shape to take advantage of growth when it comes." 

Focusing on what matters means different things. For Albion, it is the classic bikes, classic Majorcan landscape, gastronomy and culture, an intimate understanding of local roads and routes and of motorcycling and motorcyclists. It is also about, as Hugh says, "treating people properly" in creating an experience at the end of which "you would go away and say that was fantastic".

For more about Albion Classic Motorcycle Tours, visit

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