Are virtual model railway exhibitions the future? Will they become the norm?
My previous blog post introduced the "Great Electric Train Show" virtual model railway exhibition. That virtual exhibition is now over but there are more virtual exhibitions coming up, including this one from the Oxford District Model Railway Club in England - Oxrail 2020. This virtual exhibition will be online from 24 October to 1 November, UK time.
Virtual model railway events also take different forms. The National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) ran a series of virtual events (NMRAx) this year from all around the world. More generally, there are live streaming options on Facebook and a plethora of layout videos on Youtube.
After some in-person discussions with a couple of railway modellers (who choose to remain anonymous), the question is whether virtual exhibitions will become the norm and take over from traditional on-the-ground model railway exhibitions. They both said that while a virtual model railway exhibition may be a good idea during the current Covid-19 pandemic, they'd hate to see virtual model railway exhibitions take over completely. This photo pretty much sums up their argument.
My learned friends put forward these three arguments:
1. model railway exhibitions are essentially social events, whether among friends or family, or just making those annual model railway contacts with other exhibition die-hards. Virtual exhibitions cannot replicate the level of interaction and social dynamics of an on-the-ground model railway event.
2. model railway exhibitions allow visitors to look at whatever is of interest to them and focus on any particular train or scene of their own choosing. They can spend 17 seconds or 17 minutes taking in the whole sweep of a layout down to the finest of details. You can ask questions and get information directly from the exhibitor in real time. The in-person model railway experience is totally self-directed. For some high quality layouts, the feeling of actually "being there on the prototype" can
transform a model railway into a truly personal and evocative experience.
Virtual exhibitions are beholden to one individual's videography, the lighting and the camera angles, as well as the editing of the online video with limited Q&A options. (As an aside, another discussion involved whether virtual exhibitions were really any different to a catalogue of Youtube videos, and whether virtual exhibitions needed high quality video standards to differentiate themselves from the average Youtube experience).
3. model railway exhibitions are also about the commercial stands - not just the buying, but also the chatting about upcoming or new items; getting advice and modelling tips; and the shared experience one has with modelling friends "ooohing and aaaghing" together over models in display cases or bargains to be had. In other words, the on-the-ground experience with the traders is much richer and more meaningful than any infomercial from a virtual exhibition. Anyone visiting Anton's stall at a model railway exhibition will have a fair idea of what this is all about....
I pretty much agreed with these sentiments. But is this just a preference based on years of exhibition attendances and our general demographic? Would virtual model railway exhibitions create new ways to attract the public to the hobby? It's hard to know at this stage, but I don't think it has to be an either/or situation.
Personally, I don't see virtual model railway exhibitions taking over from on-the-ground exhibitions once the health issues of the pandemic are controlled (whenever that may be). Layouts still need to be built. I know exhibitors like showcasing their work in person as it allows engagement with their peers (one-upmanship?) and enthusiastic compliments from the public. It's social for them as well. Making a video about their layout would be an added impost, and something that not everyone can do very well. I imagine the commercial traders also like the personal contact. However, I don't know if on-the-ground exhibitions are more financially rewarding compared to online events.
For now, I will enjoy watching any quality virtual model railway exhibition from the comfort of my home office. I'll still watch a selection of layouts on Youtube (for example, Dean Park Station, Everard Junction, Seaboard Central, and Central Jersey in N scale) and more commercial offerings such as MRVideo Plus and TrainMasters TV). But I'll still be yearning for a return to the exhibitions of yore, meeting up with kindred railway modellers, checking out layouts, and having a good chat among friends. Let's hope we can resume normal life as quickly and as safely as possible.