As his new Mega Cycle made its way onto College Avenue in downtown Appleton, Chris Burns knew he was onto something.
Drivers popped out of sunroofs and stopped at traffic lights to snap pictures of the bike, named the Social Station. A flock of burgundy-smocked Performing Arts Center employees rushed to windows to smile, point and wave.
When your mobile business is a red, white and blue, 15-seat party bicycle, all you need to do is park it on the road, and some of the advertising handles itself.
Burns has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, so when a college friend launched a pedal pub business in another state and invited Burns to go into business with him, his curiosity was piqued. Burns ultimately declined, not wanting to risk the friendship, but the idea stuck, and the timing proved fortuitous.
The Appleton native says he’s participated in regional leadership programs, and a common theme emerged: the need for more to do in the Fox Cities.
“A big narrative to a lot of the conversations in leadership programs was cities like Appleton and Green Bay are losing millennials to more metropolitan areas like Milwaukee,” Burns says. “I knew in the back of my mind that when I was pitching the business, I had to bring that up because the city is very aware of the fact that we need more things to do.”
When Burns, who also works as director of business development for social media company BConnected, decided he wanted to bring a mega bike to Appleton, he and his wife first spent a lot of time researching. He knew another person had tried and failed to bring a pedal pub to the city. The business had wanted a liquor license, and the city was quick to reject the idea, Burns says.
His vision, however, was for something else entirely, and he took his idea for a family-friendly Mega Cycle to the city attorney.
“I talked to the city attorney and I said I’d really like to do this without alcohol, and all of a sudden the door opened, and they said, ‘I guess there’s no reason you couldn’t operate a Mega Cycle without alcohol if you’re taking people on pub crawls or different types of themed tours.’”
Still, when Burns brought his idea before the city council, he went in prepared for rejection. He had prepped an answer to all objections, but to his surprise, the council voted unanimously in favor of it.
The cycle began making voyages in early July, and buzz heated up before it even hit the road, with several people contacting him in hopes of getting on the road sooner. Burns parks the cycle at the Downtown Appleton Farm Market and finds the bike is a natural conversation generator.
“People are still learning about it and continually generating more and more buzz, which is pretty exciting, especially on social media.”
Launching a new business and bringing a fresh concept to the city, Burns set out to start simply with three themes: a pub and craft beer tour, an exercise expedition, and park and scenic tours. Burns is also open to creating customized tours. In the future, he sees opportunities for history-themed and wine tours as well as kid-oriented expeditions that include scavenger hunts.
People typically book the entire bike, though some tours offer the opportunity to book by the seat. The bike, which Burns purchased from a manufacturer in St. Paul, Minn., needs a minimum of eight pedalers, and a guide accompanies each tour. Tours depart from the Appleton Beer Factory, and traveling at a maximum speed of about six miles per hour, Burns says the experience is meant to be leisurely.
Appleton is a great city that lacks some amenities, Burns says, but he sees that changing with the coming exhibition center and new tours available. In addition to his company, Appleton businesses now offer Segway and kayak tours.
“The Mega Cycle brings a dynamic visitor experience and new level of engagement from an entirely unique perspective,” says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc. “We see great value in employee groups, friends and families coming together to ride and enjoy downtown and the riverfront.”
Pricing: $270 – $375, depending on day and time; options also available to book by the seat.
For more information: www.socialstationwi.com