Kathy Abbott, StreamTimeLIVE Owner and Long-Time Ashland Resident
In August of 2017, the first two Virtual Railfan cameras were installed overlooking the historic downtown of Ashland, Virginia. Ashland was built by 19th Century railroad executives as a resort town, and the two railroad tracks that run down the middle of the street are now part of the busy Northeast corridor. For maximum views, the cameras were installed on privately owned buildings along the tracks, and were sponsored by Tiny Tim’s Trains and Toys, also on the tracks. As someone very involved with the town, I first met my business partner, Mike Cyr, when Virtual Railfan returned to install a 360 degree camera on top of our historic train depot in January of 2018. The depot is owned by the Town and currently serves as the Ashland/Hanover Visitor Center. It’s also an unmanned stop for frequent Amtrak trains.
How have these cameras affected tourism? Well, with nearly 50 million views of the cameras on the Virtual Railfan YouTube channel since it launched, it goes without saying that Ashland has received far greater exposure than any other kind of marketing effort we’ve ever undertaken!
Global Advertising at No Cost
Ashland is a small town (pop. 7600), but its rich history, historic charm, proximity to Richmond, and easy access right off of Interstate 95 makes it attractive to visitors. But the vast majority of the country, and definitely the world, doesn’t know that Ashland exists! That has changed since the cameras were installed.
No matter what time of day, there are at least 200 people watching the Ashland cameras on YouTube. More importantly, they are talking about Ashland in the 24/7 Live Chat that accompanies the feed. As a moderator of the Virtual Railfan YouTube channel, I’m very familiar with the online community that has sprung up around the Ashland cameras. They even call themselves “Vashlanders,” short for Virtual Ashlanders.
Between the arrival of trains, our viewers watch the downtown like hawks. They regularly discuss the businesses that they see on the cameras and ask questions about them. Vashlanders who visit always talk about their meals at the Iron Horse, or Trackside, or what they picked up at Cross Brothers. Often while they are still in town!
- Tiny Tim’s Trains and Toys – our camera sponsor will tell you herself that she has seen a significant uptick in phone orders, even from overseas. These customers can’t wait to tell her that they discovered her shop via the cameras.
- Ashland Coffee and Tea – because of its proximity to the town’s busiest railroad crossing, a very unusual practice has come about. During the school year, a crossing guard stands at the intersection to wave the buses through so they don’t have to stop. Leroy Foster has become a celebrity in the Virtual Railfan world, and Vashlanders now keep an open tab at the Ashland Coffee and Tea by contributing money via the “Super Chat” feature on YouTube.
5,000 eyeballs a day, 150,000 a month, more than 1.5 million since the cameras went up. The regular “chatters” represent only a fraction of those who discover the cameras, and therefore Ashland.
While it’s difficult to get real data around the number of tourists who come because they liked what they saw on the cameras, the evidence is there: dozens of people have discussed their plans to visit Ashland; regularity of people who wave to the cameras and bring signs; hotel rooms booked in advance of Ashland Train Day in November, as announced in the chats; Ashland Visitor Center logs – tourists are asked to sign in and mention what brought them here.
The Town spends thousands of dollars each year on advertising in local magazines and newspapers, and distributing marketing materials around the region. For the one-time cost of the cameras, we have benefited from much more exposure, a much greater reach, and an increase in the best kind of advertising – word of mouth.
Surprise Safety Benefit
The cameras have proven to be an effective tool for the Ashland Police Department. Ashland has a unique problem of drivers turning on to the tracks, and those incidents are now commonly caught on the cameras. Recently, one of our Vashlanders called the police in the middle of the night to report suspicious behavior in front of a business. And as part of a traffic and pedestrian safety survey, the APD monitored the cameras’ multi-angled views of one of our most incident-prone intersections.