Saturday night, I was the guest speaker at the banquet for Algonquin Turn 2016 – the convention for members of the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA. This was held in Ottawa – a place I lived for much of the 1990s – and it was great to reconnect with a number of fellow hobbyists that I hadn’t seen in many years. Ottawa is only 4.5-5 hours away by highway, but it seems like another world sometimes, and I haven’t been to the nation’s capital in many years.
When I was asked to speak, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to say. A banquet speech needs to be special. I wasn’t going to stand in front of the crowd and give a how-to clinic, and I certainly didn’t want to make it “all about me” (and boy am I glad that I did not, as I’ll relate*). Fortunately, 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.
But most of all, because 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 those who have never heard of the hobby.
And one thing that I’ve learned 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 – and I’m as guilty of that as anyone else.
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 – about 80 people, I’m told – 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.
Unfortunately, other commitments prevented me from attending anything beyond the banquet portion of the convention. But I did get to take a quick spin through the convention’s contest room and model display area. The photos below show off some of the creative and accomplished work on display:
I also treated myself to a nice room overnight – at the Chateau Laurier. This is one of Canada’s legendary “Railway Hotels”. Originally owned by Canadian Pacific, they are located in major cities, near the station (or, as is the case in Ottawa, where the station used to be). I always enjoy the rooms and the lobbies, which are from a different era. And the Sunday morning brunch was a terrific way to start my journey home.
(The view from my room of the interior of the U-shaped hotel)
(Mailbox in the lobby)
(Mail chute in the elevator lobby)
(Close up of the mail chute)
*On a technical note, I had a moment of panic when my PowerPoint presentation refused to launch on the NMRA’s laptop. In the end, I gave my speech without the support of pretty pictures. Fortunately, I was delivering a philosophical talk – a subject that does not rely upon visuals.
I had joked with a couple of friends before dinner about how PowerPoint presentations can be deadly dull and that instead of subjecting everyone to a slide show, I was going to describe my layout via an Interpretive Dance. Little did I know it almost came to that…