In mid-June, I spent four days in and around Austin, Texas to attend The Austin Eagle – the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention. I had an amazing time! Everyone I met in the region was incredibly friendly and even though they knew each other much better than they knew me, they immediately made me feel right at home.
I packed a lot into the four days – including two operating sessions, a day of touring layouts, a clinic presentation, speaking at the Saturday night banquet, and a whole bunch of great food, craft beer and engaging conversation. It’s hard to know where to begin.
But I’ll start with the banquet. I was the guest speaker, and whenever I do one of these I’m cognizant that there’s a wide range of interests in the room. Speaking at the banquet is not the time to present a tour of your home layout, no matter how well known you are (and I’ve seen that done by some people in the hobby who are much better known than I am). That’s fodder for a clinic (and I did discuss my layout in my Friday morning time slot).
As with other such engagements – including the Algonquin Turn 2016 in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and the Ontario Manifest (Ontario, California) last September – I used the keynote opportunity to share some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them.
I have done many things in this hobby. I have worked in several scale/gauge combinations, attended conventions, operations weekends, RPM meets, narrow gauge gatherings, SIG events, train shows, exhibitions in which trains are displayed to the general public, and more. I’ve given speeches, written articles, produced and co-hosted a podcast, and been both a guest and a host on TrainMasters TV. And, of course, I’ve blogged.
While that reads a bit like a brag, I feel I need to mention it because as a result of this exposure, I’ve had brilliant conversations with many, many people about our hobby. That includes people who have been railway modelling enthusiasts for decades… those who have just started… and even those who have never heard of the hobby.
One thing that I’ve learned from all of those conversations is that for many of us in the hobby, this is more than a way to kill some time. It’s been a lifelong journey of friendships and learning. We love this hobby – and many of us wonder how we encourage more people to join us as railway modelling enthusiasts. In particular, we wonder how we’re going to reach young people.
I run into similar questions in my professional life as a speech writer. I’ve worked with many clients who are trying to connect their businesses – and the products and services they provide – with customers, and one demographic that everybody is trying to figure out is the Millennials. Broadly described, the Millennials are the cohort of young people born in the 1990s or later.
One of the biggest factors that sets Millennials apart from the rest of us is that this is a group that has never known a world in which the Internet did not exist. That has had a huge influence on how the Millennials think and act.
I won’t get into detail here – I had an hour for my speech, and I filled it – but I shared a number of insights about the Millennials, including:
1 – The world in which they’re living. Millennials gravitate to urban cores for a variety of reasons related to lifestyle and employment. And those are expensive places to live. That means dedicated space for a layout is limited, or non-existent.
2 – The economic reality they face: For a variety of reasons related to cost of living and the changing nature of employment, it’s expected that the members of this generation will be the first who are financially worse off than their parents.
3 – The relevance – or, more to the point, irrelevance – of real railroads in their daily lives.
Those are challenges, but there are some positive things to be said, too. Specifically, there’s a group of Millennials – call them The Makers – who love to build things. They are the future of our hobby.
4 – The Makers are building battle bots, steampunk accessories, LEGO machines, and more. They speak Arduino and Raspberry Pi. They’re comfortable with designing on computer, to run a machine (such as a 3D Printer) that does the construction. They develop apps to integrate their smart phones with their devices. And so on. Our challenge is not “How do we get young people to build things?” but “How do we identify those who do – and convince them to give our hobby a try?”
5 – Our hobby embodies many characteristics that appeal to Millennial Makers – including the collaborative nature of the “operations” game that we play, in which there are no winners or losers.
6 – I’ve run into many examples in our hobby where our interests and those of The Makers overlap. So we’re not as far apart as we think.
However, to engage with The Millenial Makers, we have to take a different approach. For them, trains are not the gateway into our hobby. I believe we need to back them into becoming railway modellers by emphasizing those things that appeal to the Millennial Makers – such as electronics, interactivity, collaborative work, and social media. For example:
7 – If a Millennial is doing something with servos and controllers, ask them how they would tackle a semaphore signalling system or train order boards.
8 – If they’re doing something with RFID, ask how they’d apply it to tracking freight cars on a layout.
9 – If they’re creating designs for a 3D Printer, ask how they would replicate a diesel control stand, in miniature, to hold the electronics found in a DCC throttle.
10 – If they’re interested in APP development, ask how they would create an APP to turn a smart watch into a fast clock.
And yes, these are ideas that are already being tackled by hobbyists, but so what? These are the places where our hobbies meet. Let’s take advantage of that. And let’s recognize that there are many ways to approach a problem – a fresh, non-hobby set of eyes may be just what we need.
That said, reaching Millennial Makers will require changes to how many of us do things in the hobby. For example:
11 – We can’t do this if we’re preaching to younger people, because that will just drive them away. To encourage more people to join our hobby, we need to do more listening – to find out what fires a person’s interests, and then relate that to what we do. We enjoy a hobby unlike any other in terms of the depth and breadth of what can be done in it. No matter what a person says they’re interested in, I am confident we can find examples in our hobby to which they can relate. But we have to know what they like, first – so shut up and listen. And yes, I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to not listening. I think we fall into this because we are so keen to tell people about our great hobby. We want to share it. And sometimes we smother others.
12 – We also can’t engage Millennial Makers – or anybody else for that matter – if our only public presence is the Train Show. That’s because at train shows, we’re mostly talking to ourselves. Say the words “Train Show” and an image comes to mind that, frankly, many people outside of the hobby would not consider interesting. To reach Millennial Makers, I think we need to do more to take our hobby to where they are – to events such as Maker Faires, and meetings at Maker Spaces. (If you’re not sure what those are, Google them.) And we need to do more to put our efforts online where younger, connected people can find them. Starting a blog is a good example of how we can do that, and in a previous post I’ve offered some thoughts on doing that, as well as some reasons why your hobby might benefit from one.
I hope I left the banquet attendees with some useful information and some ideas for further discussions. If you were in the room, thanks for letting me speak – and do share your thoughts on this via the comments section on this post (or start your own blog!), because it would be great to hear from you.
In fact, I’m already receiving a great deal of interesting (and positive) feedback from the banquet speech. A number of attendees approached me afterwards, to run ideas past me or offer up suggestions on how they intend to incorporate some of my ideas into their local activities as a way to encourage more people outside the hobby to consider railway modelling as a worthwhile, rewarding, lifetime hobby. What was especially notable about my presentation this time around is that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive – rather than fret that the hobby may be changing, the members of the Lone Star Region of the NMRA seem, to a person, to be ready to grab the bull by the horns and wrestle it. It convinces me that the hobby will remain strong in the Lone Star Region.
As an aside, The Austin Eagle was the final regional convention for Charlie Getz in his role as NMRA President. I was pleased that he was in the room for my address. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to talk to him afterwards – so I didn’t get any immediate feedback. But I was pleased to read Charlie’s thoughts in the July/August 2018 NMRA eBulletin:
(Thanks for the kind words, Charlie. And you’re right – this hobby is robust enough that it has a bright future!)
Finally, I ate some superb food in Texas. The greater Austin area has a vibrant food and craft beer culture. A highlight on the trip included Jack Allen’s Kitchen, a small chain of farm-to-table restaurants. I liked it so much I bought the cookbook on the way out the door and my wife and I have been enjoying a taste of Texas ever since.
Thanks to the organizing committee for putting on the terrific event – and a special thanks to Riley Triggs for reaching out to me and asking me to speak at the banquet. I had an awesome time (despite picking up a nasty cold on the plane trip home) and I look forward to returning to Austin in the future!