As the COVID-19 pandemic locked the world down, people took up new hobbies to keep busy at home. Some baked sourdough bread, practiced yoga or attempted DIY projects.
Others built model railroads. Milwaukee-based Wm. K. Walthers Inc., a global producer and distributor of model railroad equipment, has seen a double-digit increase in sales since the start of the pandemic.
“When you think about, at a high level, what the world is going through, it’s really out of control,” said Stacey Walthers Naffah, president of the fourth-generation family business. “It’s been a challenging time and people were looking for places to feel in control, comfortable, productive – our hobby has always done that for people.”
Increased demand has been driven largely by existing customers as they lean further into their favorite pastime and what, for many, is a social activity. But Walthers has also gained many new customers in need of a creative outlet or distraction from life’s chaos.
Prior to the pandemic, Walthers had already been working to draw railroading newcomers through its product mix, social media engagement and programs like the popular National Model Railroad Build-Off contest. So, the 85-employee team was ready to appeal to people seeking new leisure activities during the pandemic.
But even as a post-pandemic world emerges, the momentum behind model railroading is expected to stay on track.
“While some think it might be an old or stogy hobby, I don’t agree,” said Walthers Naffah. “The fundamentals are really sound because it’s based on people, and I think people like to build things. … People need to escape from technology and screens and be in the real world, but they need it to be connected.”