Taxes are paid, crocuses are emerging from frosty soil, and the snow tires are off of the Jetta. Even though there are flakes in the northern forecast for later this week, it is spring. For some, this means it’s time to clean the collection, refresh the displays, and roll out those classic military vehicles. Like the proverbial groundhog, many in the hobby sheepishly poke their head out of their collecting bunkers and look around, sniff the air and wonder, “What’s the state of the hobby?”
“Where do things stand?” is a question Nick (our advertising “Man on Point”) and I ask each other nearly every day. When I walk the aisles of any show, it is, without a doubt, the most common question I hear. These days, it seems everyone is wondering, “How’s the health of the hobby?”
The fact that it is foremost in most people's minds, is, in itself, an indicator: People are worried.
What has happened is a confluence of two major factors. First, the recession of 2008 has finally caught up to the collecting world. Second, the hobby has reached its first significant turning point: Those folks who dominated the market in the 1990s and 2000s, have looked in the mirror and realized they are now 60 or 70 years old. Many of these people have decided to downsize or cutback their collecting at a time when others are still reeling from all the hurdles of the recession: Loss of income, jobs, retirement funds, and general uncertainty of employment.
This past weekend, I spent Saturday at the Battlefield Show in St. Paul, Minn. I have been going to this show, either as a seller or a buyer, since I was 18 years old (for you mathematicians, that’s more than 30 years!). The show has weathered all sorts of economic swings, but like most shows, it is grappling with aging vendors and attendees.
This year, I just walked the show, or should more accurately say, “talked” the show. I would look at a few tables when someone would see me, call me over, and strike up a conversation. I felt like a priest in a confessional… everyone wanted to talk about how they were “cutting back,” “refocusing,” or “just not doing as much” as they used to do in the hobby. I am not sure, but I think by sharing these feelings with me, they were hoping to hear they were not alone, and things would turn out okay.
Nick and I remind each other repeatedly: “Part of our job is to be the cheerleaders for the hobby.” We both look for new avenues to promote the hobbies of collecting militaria, restoring historic military vehicles (HMVs), and interpreting our military heritage. But like any “club” or “fraternity” of like-minded folks, the hobby depends on every single person involved.
The good news is there are many new people entering our established hobbies. The unsettling news, however, these new people may not be entering or pursuing the hobby in the same way as we did. Regardless of how they satisfy the urge of learning about our military heritage, they share the same basic interests, whether it is collecting relics or driving HMVs.
OPEN YOUR ARMS
I understand, “It ain’t a club if you can’t deny entry to someone,” but these are desperate times. Exclusivity is great for a club or group when there is plenty of demand to join. Country clubs, business groups, and even churches don’t place an emphasis on recruitment when the coffers are full, and all of the chairs or pews occupied. It must be human nature, but most groups don’t begin to worry about those things until they notice the red ink on the spreadsheets or the empty seats. At that point, it is often too late to react.
One of the small efforts that I make to promote our hobbies is to continually scan club publications and websites for show listings. I try to compile all of these so that our web site and magazines serve as a central location for militaria shows, HMV rallies, and reenactments.
The other day, I received a very long letter from an organizer of a particular Jeep rally asking me to take his show listing off of our website—he only wanted his particular flavor of Jeep showing up and was afraid “Someone with a MUTT might come.” Okay, no problem. I get it—sort of. You just want to play with kids who have the same toy as you. I took his listing down.
On the other hand, I just received my registration information for the Military Vehicle Preservation Association’s International Convention. This coming June, the Convention will be held in Louisville, Ky., at the Kentucky Expo. Wisely, the MVPA is hosting the event in conjunction with the massive National Gun Day Show on the same weekend. Kudos to the MVPA for seizing the opportunity to share our hobby with the thousands of people who will be going to the gun show—that is some serious hobby promotion! For years, the MVPA aggressively discouraged a mixing firearms within the HMV hobby, but this is a step in a very positive direction—the sort of inclusiveness of diverse interests that the HMV hobby really needs right now.
IT’S EASY AS “ABC”
One thing I have noticed when caring for the elderly: Many people become worried about being forgotten. I have witnessed two basic reactions to this concern: Isolation is one. And getting out to talk and visit with as many others as possible is the other.
The same thing happens in our hobbies. As some people grow older, they become concerned about whether anyone will care about the particular aspect of military history that so excited them in years. Believe me, as a scholar of Mexican-American War history, I know this feeling all too well!
Some try to isolate (like the show promoter who wants to restrict attendance to a certain type of vehicle or collector). Others, however, get out there and start sharing their interests with a wide array of people. They seem to know how contagious their passion can be, and they work relentlessly to infect as many people as they can.
The number one question I receive from older collectors is, “Will there be someone who cares about my stuff?” A quick translation of this is, “Who will buy my relics / vehicles when I can’t take care of them anymore?”
Well, there is no magic potion that is going to make new customers appear. As our advertising “Man on Point,” Nick, will tell you, you need to always be actively grooming customers, even when selling isn’t your primary goal.
The collecting life cycle is sort of like farming: You define the area where you are going to grow your collection. You have to study and prepare that area before you plant your seeds. And before you finally harvest your crop, you have to line up customers who will buy it before it spoils.
We all excel in some aspects of this analogy: Most of us are great researchers, planters, and harvesters. On the other hand, a lot of us really fall short when it comes to lining up customers for our crop. Rather than actively promoting the hobby, we tend to fall back into our dark, safe dens of collecting and look at the harvest. Before we know it, 30 years go by before we re-emerge, worried that no one is around to buy our crop.
Well folks—and I say this with my brightest cheerleading uniform on—it’s time to crawl out of the bunker and work for your collection! You want customers? You want to sell it “for what you’ve got in it?” Get out there and make some interest stir!
During an economic downturn is not the time to cut back on promoting your collection or business. It is, in fact, the most crucial time for you to get out there and share the excitement. You say you do it to “preserve the memory of our military ancestors”? Well, it is time to put your feet where your mouth is. To usurp President Kennedy’s admonition, “Ask not what the hobby can do for you, ask what you can do for the hobby!”
It's time to open our collective, hobby arms. It is not the time to say, “This activity is only for people with white stars on their trucks,” or “We don’t want no stinkin’ Rev War reenactors at our military heritage festival.” No, its time to embrace peripheral interests. Maybe your local, conceal carry handgun club would be interested in your collection of Lugers. Ever consider driving your GPW to a four-wheel-drive “mudding” event? You will be surprised how many will ask you, “How can I buy an old Army Jeep?” Is there a gaming “Con” in your area—imagine the reaction when you and your reenacting buddies show up in full GI-attire!
It's time to think outside of our collecting box. Sure, its easy to talk to veteran groups or scout meetings. Those folks are the “low fruit” on our recruiting trees. If we really want the hobby to continue with the level of passion that we have enjoyed, however, we all have to be active. This is not the time to dig in. Get out there… ADVANCE the hobby! Share your ideas with other collectors. Tell us what you have done. Your efforts, like your passion for collecting, can be contagious. Let’s infect a generation!
As Nick, the Man on Point, always tells me, “ABC, man, ABC: Always Be Campaigning.”
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine
JAG’s Shout Out: Hey, did you know long-time relic dealer, Craig Luther, and internet auction guru, Troy Kinunen, have teamed up to host a regular, online military auction? Their inaugural sale runs through April 19. Check it out—right now—at www.mearsonlineauctions.com