Rail history organizations mixed on effects of COVID-19

Meetings move online in response to 2020 pandemic
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The Center for Railroad Photography & Art is hosting regular online events, often tied to its collections.
Center for Railroad Photography & Art
LYNCHBURG, Va. – The COVID-19 pandemic, and associated restrictions on travel and large group meetings has played havoc with a number of railroad-oriented events in 2020. Both the annual Summerail and Winterrail photography-oriented events were cancelled, as was the annual National Railroad Historical Society’s national convention. In some cases, local and even national railroad groups have found ways to continue operating, albeit utilizing different concepts and techniques than what they and their members have been used to in the past.

The Blue Ridge Chapter of the NRHS, based in Lynchburg, held monthly meetings at a local restaurant that typically included a presentation, as well as an annual “Rail Day” show and sale that generated revenue the Chapter could distribute to entities engaged in railway preservation.

When restaurant dining was basically closed by the state of Virginia, there were no meetings for four months, from March through July, according to Chapter President Rick Johnson. Subsequently, when restrictions were eased, meetings commenced again, with participants wearing masks, and practicing “social distancing.”

According to Johnson, prior to the 2020 pandemic, typical attendance was 25 to 30 people; under the new rules, the maximum number of participants to date has been 10 people. Rick states that the overall impact on the membership has “been hard to determine,” and, although there has not been a significant effect on the operating budget, cancellation of Rail Day has eliminated the ability to make donations to other organizations.

Online presentations were considered, but Johnson says that the Chapter concluded that it did not have sufficient resources to undertake this. Post-pandemic, the group expects to return to a normal schedule of in-person meetings.

Further north, the Potomac Chapter of the NRHS, which typically met in county government offices in Rockville, Md., had to cancel its March, April, and May meetings due to a county facility closure. It also had to eliminate a planned 50th anniversary event, and a joint picnic with the Baltimore Chapter, according to Chapter Secretary Bill Holdsworth.

They have since elected to use Zoom software to have virtual meetings, including presentations. Holdsworth says that, “Zoom has worked out surprisingly well, with attendance strong, including out-of-town members.” In addition, quarterly board meetings are also held using Zoom. He indicates that “there has been no negative feedback about online presentations; some members have noted that they are of higher quality than those that previously utilized projection in the county meeting space”

While typical in-person attendance had been about 20, the Zoom meetings are attracting about 25 to 30 participants, although Holdsworth notes that there seems to be less participation by members that are not “computer savvy.” Financially, the Potomac Chapter has benefitted by not having to pay rent for the space used previously for its meetings.

Holdsworth believes that going forward, in-person meetings will resume, but planning for this has not been finalized yet, pending knowing more about when people will feel comfortable about attending these events, and when there will not be significant restrictions constraining them.

On a larger scale, the Wisconsin-based Center for Railroad Photography & Art typically held an annual meeting with multiple presentations attended by about 180 participants prior to the Pandemic, as well as other smaller events. This was cancelled for 2020, but as indicated by Scott Lothes, the Center’s president and executive director, the organization “became an early adopter for online events,” replacing the planned spring 2020 in-person conference with a well-received “virtual” conference.

Two notable benefits were that “this included attendees from all over the world”, and that rather than being limited to 180, over 400 people participated. Lothes was “really amazed” at the support for the video conference: “I was blown away by the reception.”

As a result, he adds that “Participation is way up; costs are way down,” and that the Center has gained an “Expanded member base, as well as greater brand recognition.” Financially, results are close to 2019, which was a record year for the Center.

Lothes sees the future as including a “hybrid of in-person and online events” and hopes to have an in-person event by the fall of 2021, conditions permitting. Meanwhile, the Center continues to present monthly online programs at no charge, although donations are welcome. Typical participation has been about 150 people.

It has been apparent for some time that people enjoy getting together to see presentations about railroads, either in-person or now, online. It looks like when the pandemic is over that in-person events will resume, and it’s likely that we will also see a proliferation of online presentations on a wide variety of subjects.
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