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Keeping in touch with model makers through dynamic online events

The miniature Jeep created by an Indian model maker is seen next to a rare metal construction set that dates back to 1906 which is owned by a collector from Canada. And the complex astronomical clock built by an Australian horology enthusiast parallels the crane by a German engineer, as does the entire fleet of miniature utility vehicles built by the British design engineer, Terry Pettitt: lorries, tractors, buses, and bulldozers, with motorcycles creating a sense of lightness on the display.

So is it business as usual at the annual global meeting of fans of metal construction sets in Skegness on the east coast of England, where a touch of international flair is infused into this traditional hobby? Not quite. Everything is very different in the year 2020, the year of Covid-19. The actual exhibition, which focuses on the Meccano construction system invented in England, was cancelled for health and safety reasons – just like the regional shows were.

But then, Ellis Cory, a British retired engineer, had an idea: "I had heard on many other forums about turning established model exhibitions into a virtual event. And because so many who love our hobby were sad about the cancellation of our get-together, I suggested the Virtual World Meccano Show on a weekend in June." The show was staged on the forum's platform, www.nzmeccano.com.

Sudden lockdown

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic hit the entire model construction industry hard as of March 2020. Financially speaking, the restrictions proved very challenging for manufacturers and retailers. When the first shops had to close to their clientele, Sebastian Topp also saw the urgent need for action. The 37-years old business graduate is the managing director and co-owner of the German model maker Noch based in Wangen. "The difficult situation triggered the spontaneous idea to actively address our retail and end customers with a new format in order to keep in touch despite the sudden lockdown", Topp reports.

This resulted in the "Corona Chronicles" on Instagram and YouTube under the hashtag #nochworldwide, a vivacious and colourful social media soap. "At a time that was defined by a feeling of incredible uncertainty we were able to inspire retailers and end customers with our daily contributions", the businessman is happy to report. Especially the spontaneity of the format (Topp: "We trialled many things without anyone taking it the wrong way") was a favourite with the audience." After a few episodes, customers started to send us e-mails around lunch time already, asking when the next episode was streaming", Sebastian Topp says.

Personally, the Noch managing director was particularly thrilled during this time about "the mutual empathy from people around the world". Contributions arrived not only from German-speaking countries, but even from Singapore and Brazil. "That was a ray of hope for me personally during a very difficult time."

NOCH | Corona Chronicles Vlog 1

Expanding established exhibitions into the virtual space

This experience was similar to that of the globally connected technology model makers: "The echo was positive and quite substantial", says Bob Thompson. The former telecommunications engineer coordinated the upload of pictures for the Virtual World Meccano Show to a web gallery which served as a digital exhibition space. Participation was open to those who sent a photo of their model plus information on both days: "We received over 350 pictures from 71 participants", so Thompson's satisfied summary. For the future, he can readily imagine that the globally connected community of metal construction set fans will continue to use similar online exhibitions on specific dates.

"There were some fantastic pictures on display", says 84-years old model maker Terry Pettitt about the virtual show. He has remained loyal to his hobby ever since he received a Meccano kit at the tender age of four. Following the improvised premiere there is still potential for optimisation of the format for future instalments. How about, for example, photos of real table displays which usually send visitors of real-life exhibitions into a frenzy and invite them to engage in a dialogue, Ellis Cory suggests.

In the meantime, the first real-life Meccano shows are taking place in the United Kingdom with the respective hygiene protocols in place. Noch also came out of the lockdown well. The last episode of the Corona Chronicles was aired when their own shop re-opened, on 6 July. Topp aims to benefit from the experiences gained during the intensive communication on social media platforms even for the future. "I believe Noch will start a similar show again", the managing director says. However, of a slightly changed framework: not daily, but more likely every two to three days; also, "with the same spontaneity but a little less slapstick".

YouTube streaming schedule for the building bricks community

The world of model construction and construction toys benefited greatly from the digital formats during the coronavirus pandemic. The hobby profits hereby from having progressed significantly because of digitalisation over the past years already. This became very clear in the Lego community. The Building Bricks for Happiness initiative with virtual fan talks and Brick-and-Knob Block Round Tables ran from mid-March to the end of May 2020.

The format: Building together during a live YouTube stream and enjoying an exchange about one's favourite hobby – there even were real streaming schedules for this. Many Lego specialists and brick-and-knob block YouTubers were on board. The community's already intensive exchange on social media platforms consolidated further under this format.

Model railways builders online

The English model railways website, World of Railways, was also happy with its contribution to a digital exchange during Covid-dominated times: In July 2020, the first-ever virtual model railways exhibition, World of Railways Virtual Exhibition, took place with a moderated live presentation of the contributions. Over 100,000 viewers followed the spectacle in whole or in part, which "was more than anyone ever visited a real-life exhibition of our hobby in the United Kingdom before", so the organisers' summary in hindsight. And that explains why it will continue: At the beginning of September, the decision was made to have the second instalment of the exhibition take place on 7 and 8 November: "The biggest virtual model show is back!"

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