Monday 7 January 2019

Looking ahead 2019 - Exhibitions

Every new year I make a mental list of all the things I want to achieve in the coming year. I have done this for many years now. However, I stopped calling them New Year resolutions because I wasn't particularly resolute in making the hoped-for achievements come to fruition. Still, I think that tradition is important and so my mental list prevails despite annual disappointments.

In 2019 I have a number of things I would like to achieve; some even related to model railways and this blog. As an aid to help me on this treacherous road ahead, my blogging will become what it was originally intended to be: a place to put down some thoughts about model railway layouts and the hobby in general. Over the past few years, the bulk of my posts were about exhibitions. I know that many people really enjoyed these exhibition summaries and accompanying photos. However, I am less inclined to visit exhibitions these days and even less inclined to photograph the same layouts over and over again.

That said, my first few posts for 2019 will be on model railway exhibitions. I appreciate that a frank discussion on some of the accepted practices in the hobby might cause some consternation, especially those closer to some of the issues than myself. I therefore preface the following thoughts by saying that I wish only to encourage some serious thinking about exhibitions and the hobby in general so that we can actually grow the hobby and make it successful in the years to come.

In this first post for 2019 I want to explore a couple of issues about model railway exhibitions. The first is the well-worn claim that model railway exhibitions are important to introduce the hobby to people who will then hopefully become active participants in the hobby, even if it is just as consumers of model railway products.

I appreciate the logic behind the claim but I have never seen any evidence that indicates any type of conversion rate. Reading articles in the model railway press, many authors cite childhood prototype railway experiences and/or train sets as an early introduction to the model railroad hobby rather than exhibitions. 

So, how many punters who attend model railway exhibitions ever go onto become railway modellers? From my observations, many punters (especially with children) pay only occasional attention to what is being displayed in front of them. Lego layouts seem to grab a lot of attention though. I often wonder why it is that Lego train displays remain overly popular compared to scale model railway layouts, especially those with strong prototype fidelity.

 And this brings us to another model railway exhibition mantra: the public want to see trains running around the layout at all times. I admit to having some sympathy to this claim in an age of attention deficits and immediate sense gratification. Lego layouts may also support the claim. I do wonder, however, if displaying exhibition layouts in this manner really provides a representative experience for the people who may want to join the hobby at a later stage. Does aimless running of trains enhance the model railway experience or not? Is it an effective demonstration of the hobby to entice new hobby participants? Or are exhibitions really just about entertainment?

In conjunction with the layouts and what is portrayed on the layouts, we must also look at the "real" model railroaders themselves. How do we come across to the public behind our model railway layouts? Are we engaging, knowledgeable, and approachable? Are we human showcases for the best of what the hobby of model railways can bring? Do we want the "average Joe" who visits the exhibition to say to themselves: "model railways, I really want to be like those guys and gals behind the layouts?"

In conclusion, do we even know why the "average Joe" comes to a model railway exhibition? Do we have any clue as to what they want out of the experience besides killing a couple of hours with the kids and grandparents (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Has there been any research to find out what percentage of exhibition visitors are your "average Joe" compared to existing railway modellers; and then discover what it is they get out of the experience? Do we even really care about the "average Joes"?

This leads me to the fundamental question behind this post: are model railway exhibitions really about showcasing model railways to the "average Joe" in the hope of converting them to the hobby at some point in the future?

My answer: I have no idea!