In a normal year, more than 5,000 visitors would visit North Platte for the annual Rail Days celebration presented by the Golden Spike Tower.
Because of COVID-19’s restrictions on large crowds, the Golden Spike staff decided to create a virtual event.
The pocketbook took a hit because the event was offered for free, but Golden Spike Tower Executive Director Kirsten Parker said the event reached more than 21,000 people virtually.
The Rail Days event, now in its fifth year, is an annual celebration of the world’s largest railyard in North Platte. The Aug. 7-9, 2020, event included virtual tours of the Golden Spike Tower (a 104-foot tower that gives a birds-eye view of Bailey Yard), the Lincoln County Historical Museum (including the North Platte Canteen story), and a yard tour of the World’s Largest Railyard, a virtual train ride and ask the expert Q & A sessions.
Parker said the event was free to attendees, and they had limited merchandise for sale.
“Our goal for this annual event is to break even on the event itself and sell merchandise as profit,” Parker said. “For the virtual event this year, we continued to sell limited merchandise and “survival kits”, which included an event t-shirt, annual trading pin, hand sanitizer, mask and engineer cap.”
The most popular moment of the 2020 event was the virtual tour of the yard that attracted roughly 300 viewers in real-time and more than 3,000 who watched later.
Parker said the event taught her many lessons about recording events. When a video platform she purchased didn’t work, she relied on Facebook. She also learned that having playback or on-demand viewing options is important.
“Engagement in real-time was very low, but on-demand was strong,” Parker said.
About 500 people participated in Rail Days in real-time video, while playback and on-demand attracted 5,000 engagements and nearly 10,000 video views.
The virtual views were a positive note on what has been a down year for the 12-year-old attraction that normally draws 33,000 guests per year. As of mid-August, only 9,000 people had visited in 2020.
The Golden Spike Tower closed March 13 due to COVID-19 and reopened Memorial Day weekend. They are following the health district’s guidelines for occupancy, currently allowing just 10 guests at a time in the tower. Staff are required to wear masks when within six feet of anyone, and guests are strongly encouraged to wear masks. They disinfect the attraction areas every one-and-a-half to two hours and purchased an air purifier. They also have limited merchandise that is on display and have added virtual guides to assist guests.
But, Parker said the biggest challenge has been the “unknown and planning.”
“You can make one plan one minute and within moments (or a press conference) it could change,” she said. “It takes being flexible to a higher level. Keeping anxiety in check is key and important, as it is lonely, not knowing what each day, or hour will bring. You have to have faith that you are doing the best you can with what you have.”
Parker said the training, education and a support system offered through GROW Nebraska® has been important to her. She also looks forward to selling the tower’s exclusive products through Grow Nebraska®.
At this time, the Golden Spiker Tower remains open daily from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. and will adjust to non-season hours after Labor Day, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations are encouraged, but walk-ins are always welcome.
GROW Nebraska® Foundation is a statewide non-profit training and marketing organization. Serving over 400 Nebraska small businesses, the organization provides marketing opportunities, education, and training to launch and connect Nebraska businesses to the global marketplace. GROW Nebraska’s educational programs receive federal and state funding, along with generous support from foundations and individual donors.