• "Historical" Groups Audience Scams

  • General discussion related to all railroad clubs, museums, tourist and scenic lines. Generally this covers museums with static displays, museums that operate excursions, scenic lines that have museums, and so on. Check out the Tourist Railway Association (TRAIN) for more information.
General discussion related to all railroad clubs, museums, tourist and scenic lines. Generally this covers museums with static displays, museums that operate excursions, scenic lines that have museums, and so on. Check out the Tourist Railway Association (TRAIN) for more information.

Moderators: rob216, Miketherailfan

  by mxdata
Recently several presenters of railroad programs have commented to me about being drawn into doing programs for events that involved long travel distances and then arriving to find that the requesting organization had greatly "inflated" their estimate of the audience they would be able to produce, or worse still, had made no effort to promote the event and turned it into a "private" event for their core group of members.

I have had a few experiences over the years where the number of people in the regular membership turnout of the group requesting a program appeared to be less than the number of hours it took to drive to their location. One friend recently told of arriving at a major event after a very long drive to find they were loading everybody on the fantrip that the promoters had scheduled at the same time as his program, and having to present it in an almost empty room. Others have commented to me of groups that hold clinics and programs in conflict with ongoing model railroad or railroadianna sales in an adjacent room, resulting in a small audience and constant movement and talking in the presentation area.

I have also seen instances where groups had a speaker cancel several weeks before an event, they asked another person to fill in on an "emergency" basis, then never bothered to take a minute or two to change the program description on their websites. What a nice way to say thanks for helping us!

While these things are sometimes amusing to retell, they point out a real problem in the hobby. It is bad enough that we have groups with outdated websites advertising upcoming banquets featuring people who have passed away. Now in a time of difficult economic circumstances we have organizations that mislead people into donating their time and effort for events that they know very well will have little or no audience. That is just another nail in the coffin for organized railfanning.

Anyone else care to share their experiences dealing with groups that engage in audience scams?

  by Otto Vondrak
mxdata wrote:I have had a few experiences over the years where the number of people in the regular membership turnout of the group requesting a program appeared to be less than the number of hours it took to drive to their location. One friend recently told of arriving at a major event after a very long drive to find they were loading everybody on the fantrip that the promoters had scheduled at the same time as his program, and having to present it in an almost empty room.
I wonder if you and I have the same friend. Was his presentation on Alcos by any chance? I felt sorry for him, no way he could compete with the fantrip, never mind the hours he drove to get to said location.

I've done presentations. I don't do many. First of all, I don't think I'm all that great a speaker, so I don't seek out such engagements. I'm not really prepared to give presentations, so when I do, it's a lot of work on my part to make something quality. I also rarely accept invitations because I know the attendance at these meetings is usually under 10 people. Not that I expect to play to Carnegie Hall, but you want to know that the effort you are putting forth will be appreciated by more than a handful of people. Usually I accept an invitation if I know the crowd personally, and it's close by.

Hey, I think it's a great compliment to be asked to speak. And I don't expect anything in return (though its nice to get $20 for gas and tolls). But sometimes I feel like the "entertainment" portion of these meetings is just a waste of time unless you know the audience is going to be engaged and interested in your topic. Most of the time, it seems like it could be me or it could be a juggling clown up on stage, and both would be equally welcome.

By the way, if you're in Rochester, NY later this month, Tim Stuy will be coming all the way from NJ to present at our chapter. We've tried hard to get the word out in advance and make his trip worthwhile. Fortunately, Tim gave us a good description of his show to work from.


  by mxdata
Interesting posting, Otto. If the event was in Scranton, Pennsylvania, it was probably the same person I talked with. If not, then it has happened to other people too, which would not surprise me at all. By the way the same organization that loaded the audience on the train and left the speaker with an empty auditorium also waited until just two days before their event to post the names of the speakers and their program topics, even though they had them lined up several months in advance. At that point, it probably did not matter who they had speak at their event, with such short notice it would have no effect on peoples decisions to attend.
Makes you wonder what these people could possibly be thinking about that is so important that they so badly overlook promoting their own event?

  by GSC
Promotion is everything. I've handled promoting a few of my speaking engagements, I've done some PR for non-profits for over 20 years and have some great media contacts. Other times, the group I'm speaking for has done it. Most times, the turnouts were pretty good.

I did a pile of lectures on the Morro Castle disaster last year (2009 was the 75th anniversary), and still have a few to do this year. Very interesting topic to people here at the Jersey Shore. I did one presentation at the Paramount Theatre/Convention Hall in Asbury Park. A free program, we had over 1000 people show up (I wasn't the only "act" on the bill). Plus I sold a few copies of my book on the disaster as well.

In the speaker's world, some groups offer an honorarium, a payment of some kind to make it worth your while to be there. I usually do free lectures to local groups, and charge a small fee if there is travel involved. Plus, I can sell a few books too.

That said, promotion is about 90% of the deal. If you bulld it, and they don't come, it's because they didn't know about it.
  by umtrr-author
Our coin club has speakers almost exclusively from our own membership; once in a blue moon we will have a guest speaker, nearly always local also.

And guess who's the coin club's speaker on February 18, who would also be interested in coming to the 40 & 8? Right. :( Sometimes you just can't win...
  by mxdata
"Promotion" is unfortunately the element that is lacking in many railroad historical group activities. This is why a railroad subject presented at the speakers program at a community library that takes out a notice in the local newspaper and on community television often draws a larger audience than the established railroad historical society that has a two year out of date website.

I have heard every excuse in the book from historical groups as to why they cannot keep their websites up to date. I know several webmasters who can't find the time to keep up their websites but find lots and lots of time to argue with everyone else on internet discussions. I am the webmaster for a group and I can tell you that posting the upcoming program takes all of two minutes time and effort. There is absolutely no excuse for having your website still announcing programs that were presented months ago, they should have been taken down or moved to an archive page.

The need for promotion of events to the public would seem obvious, but apparently not to some railroad historical groups. And that is one of the reasons that when you look around the room it is full of old people who have been in the organizations for years and there are very few who recently found out about the groups.

How many railroad historical groups have you seen that promote their events through coming events listings in the local newspaper or event boards on local community television? In my experience this kind of free publicity is rarely used by railfan organizations. How many groups have a call-in line to announce the upcoming program and tell if a meeting has been cancelled due to bad weather? How many post meeting cancellation notices on their website? Almost unheard of, isn't it. Yet all relatively easy to do.

So in metro areas with several million people we have organizations that have trouble getting two dozen to come to their meetings because nobody can find out about the meetings. They ask speakers to drive several hours to do a program for them, then they cannot produce an audience. And then they wonder why nobody new is coming to the meetings and why nobody wants to drive out to talk to them any more. The inability or unwillingness to promote events is eroding the interest in and the support for the historical organizations, and this will eventually have a direct and negative impact on participation in preservation activities and financial support for museums and collections.

  by mxdata
A local railroad industry official in my area tells me he was recently asked to travel quite a distance to do a program for a well known railroad historical society. They told him that they expected sixty to seventy people for an audience. They had sixteen show up. This in a large metropolitan area.

Looks like "organized railfanning" is dying.

The next time your at a railfan/society event ,take notice of the ages of the people attending. this is not only a problem in this hobby but almost ALL organized groups. Attempts to bring in younger blood/families is an ongoing problem,couple this with very difficult economic conditions,and I dont see this changing anytime soon. Te event promoters have a difficult job at least .The interest is dying away with the older generations,and that is a simple painful fact.
  by mxdata
Nowadays some groups seem to be living in a dream world of their departed glory, providing fantasy estimates of their attendance to justify guest speakers making long trips to visit them, while reading the announcements of the passing of members at their monthly meetings. The time to be concerned about the declining membership has arrived, if anyone is paying attention.

Meanwhile on the discussion sites the preservationists debate grand schemes to build glorious replicas of long departed steam locomotives while the existing collections rust and rot through lack of volunteers and funds.

  by 3rdrail
Hi Mxdata. I just stumbled on this thread and want to thank you for presenting it. It is quite an interesting and multi-faceted thread. (Sounds like the first three sentences in a public presentation ! :-)) I have some opinions about this that I'd like to share. First, regarding the "dying audience" sentiment, I flip flop on that one. Just when I grumble at the fact that some of my favorite shows are no longer, or others seem to be "down-sizing", I go to a show like the West Springfield Ma Amherst Railway Show, where they constantly have to go into extra buildings and increase fire safety enforcement due to a huge, ever-increasing yearly crowd. I do agree with you about our hobby being an older gentleman's hobby, but I believe that that is due to two things. The first is that I believe that most of us enjoy re-creating things that we found fascinating at about age 12. Take your birth year. Add 12 to it. If you're a model railroader, I'll bet that that's the period that you model in. Secondly, the period of the 20's through the 60's was a very dynamic, colorful, exciting, dramatic period which drew many otherwise non-hobbyists into the hobby. So, what I am suggesting is that what we may be seeing now, are the 62-75 year olds who represent a peak. Are there 21 year old hobbyists out there who love motors such as 2002 electrics from GE ? Absolutely. I just don't think that you will find them in the same numbers. This is what we are seeing at the shows. I'm not nuts about doing it, neither probably are you, but I think that in order to maintain and encourage this group into remaining in the hobby, a hobby that can stay with them their entire life, we must bring modern rolling stock and features into it, supplementing the R-1's and 2-6-4's.

As regards to presentations. I have led a very eclectic, varied life, and as such, I have had experiences which many haven't had, both professionally and privately. As a result, I know a little bit about a lot of things, and from time to time, I'm asked to speak with a group about something that I have been involved with. I have never turned a request down, have never been paid for my presentation, and always take on the subject matter with good will, friendliness, and a desire to share. I fully understand the dilemna regarding being mis-informed about a venue. The one already discussed that I find to be the worst is the talk that took place during a bus boarding for a sponsored event. The issue regarding crowd size has never bothered me. I have found that the smaller the crowd, the more that they pay attention, and usually the more that they are dedicated to your topic. I tend to speak from subject matter headings only, so as to be able to speak unrehersed as well as not devoting hours upon hours of research into what may be a "no go". As you may know, I like to have fun on here and joke around occasionally. However, I do not consider myself a silly person - not when you've done the things that I've done in my life. Having said that, I am a big believer in serendipity- the pleasant experience of discovering, by accident, a diamond among the coal. (Everbody thinks that "serendipity" is for sissies, right ?) Almost invariably, after a small presentation (not so much with big ones), somebody will approach me after the presentation and lend a very interesting discussion about a perspective that I had not thought about, or will re-live an experience that is inspiring or extremely memorable. For this reason alone, I never ask what the anticipated audience size is.
  by mxdata
Paul brings up an excellent point here, and indeed in the case of "willing volunteers" doing presentations for local ogranizations the audience size is far less important. The place the "rub" comes in is when an organization asks someone who is not a local or a member of the group to do a very long trip that may involve overnight expenses all paid out of their own pocket, and intentionally inflates their attendance estimate to try to make the event sound more worthy of a major effort than it really is. In the case of NRHS chapters that lack of honesty is sometimes further expanded by making the speaker sit through their lengthy business meetings where all the officers and members who love to hear themselves talk drone endlessly on about trivia, and then the president of the group comes up to the speaker who just drove five hours one way to do the program and asks him to cut it in half because the business meeting ran too long. The entertainment chairmen at the groups in my area all tell me they are having a tough time getting anybody to put together a presentation nowadays. When you consider the misleading audience size scams, the indifferent treatment of many speakers, the argumentative audiences that increasingly have "internet manners" and ask questions that are intended to be confrontational and disruptive, and the price of gasoline and lodging, it is no mystery that they can't get volunteers that are willing to drive long distances to do programs.

Then add to that the "external" factors: The new technology of doing electronic presentations with images from digital cameras, the aging membership that is rapidly declining, the lack of "historical" group appeal to the "new" railfans who are more interested in modern motive power, and the general difficulty of making an effective effort to get the word out far enough in advance of an event that people have time to plan and attend. It is on these "external" factors that many groups are falling down. Take a look through the schedules of events for conventions of our "national" historical groups in recent years for any clinics on topics like assembling electronic programs or effectively communicating through the media. You won't find much. They really aren't making an effort to help their chapters with this.