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Train shows face pandemic pressures

By Sammi DiVito | September 16, 2021

Event cancellations, rising case numbers, and CDC guidelines all make these events challenging

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Visitors enter and exit the convention building for the 2019 National Train Show

WAUKESHA, Wis. — Train shows remain challenged nearly two years after the novel coronavirus first appeared in late 2019.

Several of the nation’s most popular train shows slated for 2021 were made virtual, such as the National Model Railroad Association’s national convention, this year called “Rails By the Bay” and scheduled for the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Amherst Railway Society Railroad Hobby Show in East Springfield, Mass. Meanwhile, long-running favorites such as Trainfest, organized by the NMRA Wisconsin Southeastern Division in suburban Milwaukee, were canceled completely.

Dennis Janssen, WISE member and Trainfest treasurer and co-chairperson, tells MR that it wasn’t an easy decision to cancel the show for the second year in a row.

“We were running the risk that the Delta variant would be dominant during a time when we would be exposing a whole lot of people to a crowd,” Janssen says.

Visitors enter and exit the convention building for the 2019 National Train Show
A bustling crowd enters the convention building for the National Model Railroad Association’s 2019 National Train Show in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Although Trainfest had plans to increase aisle widths, caution vendors to maintain a distance from guests, and make use of the sanitation stations and directional signage on the event site, organizers had a difficult time securing vendors.

The Exposition Center at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis, Wis., which traditionally houses the event, was turned into an Alternate Care Center in November 2020 to support hospitals that may have become over capacity with patients. When the fairgrounds were re-opened to the public in March 2021, Janssen says his group had to quickly try to throw together a show. However, due to the pandemic, there was a backlog of shipping, and many people didn’t have enough – if any – of their products, nor time to try to get some for a large train show.

“Manufacturers don’t want to rent a booth and have nothing to show, and the vendors don’t want to commit to a space if they don’t have something to sell,” said Janssen of the WISE Division.

This, paired with increasingly dismal coronavirus predictions for fall 2021 and a hobby that traditionally draws an older and more vulnerable crowd, led Janssen and his co-chairmen Mike Slater to postpone.

“We would be better to put our efforts into 2022, than trying to do something quickly in 2021,” Janssen says.

Despite this, some train shows have decided to roll on – the Great Midwest Train Show in Wheaton, Ill., is still scheduled, as is the Dayton Train Show in Dayton, Ohio. Alongside the big names, dozens of other smaller, more locally run train shows are still planning to stay open.

Scene from model train show
Train shows such as the Mad City Model Railroad Show & Sale in Madison, Wis., have always been a fun space to meet other modelers and check out new products.

Mike Zucker, Spring Creek Model Trains operations marketing representative, says that although attendance at train shows has been down slightly compared to previous years, the events have been drawing a consistently large crowd.

“Sales are still really good,” said Zucker.

Spring Creek Model Trains, a family-owned and operated hobby shop based in Deshler, Nev., has been to 14 in-person train shows this year alone, with plans for more in the near future. Although many train shows have been closed or postponed, Zucker doesn’t foresee this hobby pastime going anywhere anytime soon.

“We still see a lot of folks who want to see their friends. It’s a social thing,” says Zucker, “And people still want to hold the product and see the product.”

Do train shows run the risk of being made predominantly virtual? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, all people can do is exercise caution, look ahead, and hope for the best. Because, at the end of the day, as Janssen put it: “Everybody says, ‘I want to see some trains.’”

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