Earlier this month I was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR). I used to be a member, many years ago when I lived in the nation’s capital. And that experience inspired me a few years ago to set up a similar group in the Greater Toronto Area.
The Toronto Railway Supper Club is a social club – we don’t build a layout, hold a contest, or have clinics. There are plenty of other organizations that do that – and members of those organizations are part of the supper club.
As the name suggests, we get together once a month and have dinner. More recently, we’ve started having a member (or members) do a brief after-dinner presentation. The point is to gather with hobbyists who are, perhaps, outside our normal circle of friends or modelling interests. We can learn from each other, over a meal and an adult beverage. New friendships are formed, too!
I ran the Toronto Railway Supper Club for three years, before stepping aside to let some others take over for a while. I think it’s important to build up a group of people who can manage such an organization. (That’s the OVAR model, too: that group has an executive team that regularly changes up as people decide it’s time for someone else to take a turn.)
Some people have asked how I set up the Toronto Railway Supper Club, so here are a few tips – based on my admittedly limited experience – for setting up a supper club of your own:
- 1 – Work with the venue. Before I even approached other hobbyists about the supper club, I talked to my local gastropub to see if they could accommodate a large group. We picked a Monday, since that’s a day that’s normally slow for the pub. Each month, I’d check with the pub to confirm a date, so they could write it in their calendar. And I would get in touch with the pub about a week before the event to let them know how many people we would have – approximately – so they could plan staffing, etc., accordingly. (More on that, below.)
- 2 – Start small. For the first event, I invited fewer than a dozen friends. I described what I wanted to do, and then at our first dinner, I invited to each invite somebody to join them at the second dinner. The idea was to grow gradually, so I could figure out the details as I went along. And by having my friends invite friends, I would meet a bunch of people I did not know well – that was the point, after all.
- 3 – If the group grows too big for your venue, look for another. This happened with us: once we were regularly getting 25-30 people at our first location, we found the noise level was overwhelming. People started to leave the club because it was just too loud. So I went looking for another venue. A friend in the club suggested a place that has a mezzanine for larger groups, complete with audio-visual equipment that allowed us to do powerpoint presentations after dinner.
- 3 – Don’t get stuck in your own niche in the hobby. In other words, don’t make it an S scale group – or a free-mo group – or a D&RGW modellers group. Branch out. In our club, some are primarily interested in operations, while others focus on electronics… or live steam… or building structures. A broad variety of scales, gauges, eras and so on are represented. Some are members of clubs, or historical societies, or museums. Some are manufacturers, while others work at (or own) hobby shops. Some are historians, with no interest in modelling. But the best conversations happen when three or four hobbyists talk about a common subject from different perspectives.
- 4 – Find a way to organize the event that works for you. When I started the Supper Club, I did this almost entirely by email, and kept a list on my smart phone of who was attending in a given month. Now that two others are managing the club, they use Doodle polls to announce dinners and tally attendees.
- 5 – Lay out some ground rules – but not too many. The Toronto Railway Supper Club has one main rule: If you plan to attend, let the organizer know at least a week ahead of time so an accurate number can be given to the venue. That’s it. Oh – and pay your bill at the end of the night: My rule for that, as organizer, was that I would stay until the end of the evening and would cover anybody’s bill – but add a 30% tip for the server. And then I’d collect from the person who dined and dashed. (It’s surprisingly easy for that to happen: when you’re in a conversation and realize your car-pool driver is about to leave, you might grab your coat and go…)
- 6 – Encourage participation: ask people to bring out models or other projects to display and talk about. If someone is a member of a club, or historical society/museum, or organizes a train show, ask them to talk for a minute or two about what’s going on with their group. Supper clubs should be all about the cross-pollination of ideas. Getting people to talk about what they’re doing is what it’s all about.
- 7 – As for presentations, they’re a great idea – but keep them light, and short! Remember, most people in the room will not have a strong interest in or extensive knowledge of what you’re doing – and most of them will probably have had a bit too much to eat and drink, because hey: we’re having fun, right? So, no RPM-style clinics. No displays of your encyclopedic knowledge. Give your audience a break, with a presentation that will appeal to a broad range of interests: An overview of your layout is a good one, as is a rail fanning trip you recently took. Pictures are good! 20 minutes is fine. 40 is probably the limit.
- 8 – Encourage responsibility: encourage car-pooling with designated drivers. If you’re in an urban area, pick a venue that’s close to public transit.
That should answer most of your questions – but if not, ask via the comments. And if you start up a supper club, let me know: Maybe I’ll come for a visit!