Mr Neidhard, a model railway needs two things above all: time and patience. Now that the coronavirus has presented us with just that, the industry must be booming, correct?
Horst Neidhard: (laughs)
Yes, we are doing great. However, the development has been showing itself in the past couple years, as we have managed to win over new customers, especially young families and people returning to the hobby, with a communicative approach and appropriate products. The coronavirus pandemic gave this development additional momentum.
The hobby itself is an opposing movement against the throw-away mentality in our ever faster moving world. A hobby cannot have better reasons than that. Does that message make its way through to the customer, and if so, who are the recipients?
Yes, I believe that we are now doing a better job at getting our messages to their destination, which is not only people who have always been our customers, but also families and young people who want to take up a hobby. They want to work on a project they themselves designed in the comfort of their own homes. We have also noticed an increasing inflow into the clubs, among which there is a lively exchange. I can see it clearly when I just take a look at social media activity on Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube.
Does the fact that the model railway is considered an educational toy help?
Yes, definitely. No other hobby combines haptic playing and craftsmanship with communicating knowledge about basic electrical principles or radii and digital control systems with a lot of fun and shared time for all generations as successfully as the model railway. I believe, however, that for most people, the fun aspect is the most important. The educational aspect may play a role for some young parents who want to spend quality time with their young ones. For Werkstatt Modellbahn (model railway workshop), a project by Spielen macht Schule (Playing and Teaching), the additional pedagogical value is an important aspect. Here, too, we have registered a lively demand from schools, which makes us happy because our patience seems to have paid off.
Spielwarenmesse was postponed, the model railway exhibitions all entirely cancelled, club life has been reduced to a minimum. How hard has this development hit you, or are you able to compensate to some extent via social media? Faller is even broadcasting live!
The live broadcasting format has not only been discovered by Faller, but by many companies in the industry. It works very well. My colleagues seem to agree. However, we are quite disappointed by the fact that we cannot go to any exhibitions, it is not an easy situation for us. Being right up there in person in the hobby and with our customers is especially important. Social media is nice, and we also sell online, but retailers are ultimately ambassadors which we do not want to miss and probably cannot do without.
Does this have any financial consequences?
We cannot simply think in the short term. At the moment, the prospects for the model railway and model railway accessories look good. In the long term, it is all about emotionality and experiencing and building model railways in person. Part of that is even just to be able to touch something, the face-to-face interactions. We are not an online industry; we are partly an online industry but with a lot of craftsmanship. It’s just like print media. I want to hold a book in my hands, even if I sometimes read online or on my e-book reader. The difference being that our hobby is more than print media.
Because we can only create a model railway system offline, which contributes to making it so fascinating. Of course, you can create railway track plans online with a programme; you can put the project into scene in a film. That is all fun, but using your own hands to implement an idea with various technologies is what constitutes the key factor. I am extremely optimistic concerning our hobby, and we are all looking forward to going to exhibitions in the future.
You are Speaker of the Specialist Model Railway Group founded in 2017, which really put itself out there in 2019 with www.wirmodellbahner.de. Was the pressure so high in the end that even competitors worked together for a common cause?
No, it was not the pressure. The model railway industry has already been doing projects together for a long time. Already at the start of the Spielwarenmesse 70 years ago there was a lot of cooperation. Or let me remind you of the IGEMA, the Association of Model Railway Exhibitions. The hobby thrives on the fact that it is very colourful and diverse, especially because of the smaller manufacturers.
But this time it has a different quality to it, going into the offensive together for the first time; just think about the short film with the biker!
I perceive it this way: in the model railway industry, several companies went through a generation change on the executive level. This new generation is absolutely open to modern presentation ideas, for example via social media. We wanted to realise what many companies had already developed, but with a lot more power, with our image campaign. So, it was not really out of pressure or necessity, but the will to breathe fresh air into the industry.
For many years, the industry was fighting for survival, its image was in the gutter. When we look at your website now, that seems to have changed. Are we going to experience a U-turn in the sense of: If the big trains are climate savers, the model railway is the last playground for all generations?
We have managed to change our image to a certain extent, but you are correct; there was a time when our image was a bit stale. But that was a couple of years ago. The model railway hobby is a very open matter, to which many people find their way. And that is the central message of our image campaign. The hobby is often pursued under completely different aspects. One person may be into the technical intricacies, another loves the creative potential, and another just wants to collect nice things.
The calendar is full of memorial days and holidays. Now, on December 2, Model Railway Day is upon us. Were we really missing that one?
I’m not sure about that, but we are using it to collectively put something together. Model Railway Day bundles up activities. It should not, however, keep us from having a bit of fun and doing something useful every day.
It took place for the first time in 2016. What are the results so far?
The companies that took part in it are absolutely happy. People liked it. Some companies had an open house day; some retailers managed to put something together. The feedback has been positive.
What do manufacturers or the wirmodellbahner initiative have planned for 2020? An open house day is probably not going to be possible.
Each company is going to announce whatever they are developing on the official Model Railway Day website or on www.wirmodellbahner.de. However, because of the pandemic, not much is going to take place offline, but some things will happen online. Every company has the freedom to decide what they would like to do. Faller is also planning something, this year of course on a smaller scale. However, much more important are the activities planned by model railway clubs and retailers, who can present themselves on the official website. Their activities bring the model railway to families and their children. But the pandemic will here, too, take its toll.
Does the industry itself support retailers?
Surely several companies are giving out special offers to support the retail side of the business. We all do so gladly. Model Railway Day, however, thrives on retailers being proactive themselves, not on what we manufacturers do. We just collect the ideas and get involved wherever we are needed and can help.
Social media now plays an important role for the industry, but only people who are already into building models know where to find the right accounts. When will the first joint TV ad be on air? It doesn’t have to be right before the news!
That is of course something we all wish for, but our budget sets the limit. However, I must correct you in one thing: In our social media activities, we can tell where we are most successful, and the largest target group is people between 18 and 54 years old. The peak is between 25 and 34 years of age. The analysis shows us that we are not only generating attention in our established community, but also in adjacent areas. The data is actually relatively precise. Some social media channels run by model railways builders even have an enormous reach and do not only attract classic model railway exhibition visitors, but also much younger people. We are reaching completely different target groups.
The coronavirus pandemic has not only shown us our biological vulnerability, but also the fragility of supply chains. Is model railway production going to make a comeback here?
I don’t think so. It will be just like in so many other industries as well; it will, and it will not make a comeback. Some companies are already active in Europe. It should prove difficult, however, for smaller companies to simply start up production in Germany or in Europe. There is no way around using international markets for production in the model railway industry.
Mr Neidhard, many thanks for this interview.