Early on Tuesday morning, I received a WhatsApp message from a client in Hong Kong: “How does it feel to know that you are the guy that just made the entire toy trade hold their breath? I have been forwarded a link to your Nuremberg announcement by about 20 people in the last five minutes.”
News does indeed travel fast these days – especially major news like that. In case you have been on a digital detox this week, the Nuremberg Toy Fair announced that for the first time in its history, the event won’t be taking place at the end of January in 2021.
The news came as a shock to many, as the Nuremberg organisers had issued a statement only a month or so ago, stating that the show would be going ahead. However, ‘real world’ events clearly overtook the situation, while strong rumours had been circulating for weeks that potential complications were arising. It was a fairly open secret that a number of major multi-national toy companies wouldn’t have exhibited in Nuremberg in January: I even received a statement from one company, although I was asked not to release it, which I respected. It was obvious why: not only did they not want to be the first company to announce that they would be pulling out, but I suspect they hoped all along that they would never have to go public at all, should the show be cancelled. Another big clue came two weeks ago, when the organiser of the Frankfurt shows announced it would be postponing until April: at that point, it seemed entirely logical that if Frankfurt deemed postponement necessary, other German shows were likely to follow suit.
There is talk of the Nuremberg Toy Fair being delayed until the summer, which would undoubtedly have its merits: walking around the Messe showground or the old town in the evening in just a shirt, rather than thermals, two jumpers, a heavy coat and fetching gloves/scarf/wooly hat combo certainly appeals. On the flip side, many toy retailers will have finalized their autumn winter selection process by the summer – it’s a tough one to call.
Trust me, it makes us very sad to have to break news like this. I have spoken to numerous people this week who are genuinely upset that the toy community won’t be meeting up in the first few weeks of 2021: just as there was public outcry when our dear PM hinted that different households may not be able to mix at Christmas, so the toy trade feels similarly disappointed that it won’t be able to come together in the usual way. But is it the right decision? I believe so – I say that with a heavy heart, but there is no escaping the fact that shows under the current guidelines would be a pale shadow of what we are used to.
In the absence of trade shows, there will be challenges for retailers and suppliers to face: we coped relatively comfortably this year, as retailers saw all the new products at last year’s previews and shows. And while spring summer previews had to be conducted digitally, it is not an insurmountable problem, given the modest level of new launches for that period – previewing for autumn winter is a whole different ball game. I spoke to a couple of suppliers this week who admitted that a sense of ‘zoom fatigue’ is beginning to creep in. I’m hearing that some suppliers are looking at live, interactive broadcasts as a way to inject some pizzazz and create more engagement into proceedings, while there is also talk of socially distanced physical previews making a comeback in January / February.
Next week’s Festival of Licensing may give us a few more clues as to how digital events can be harnessed to good effect; the big advantage this event has is that licensors are showing broadcast footage and sizzles, not actual products. Few retailers I have spoken to believe there is a substitute for seeing the product in the flesh – which is why I am convinced that toy trade shows will return as soon as it is deemed practical.
Indeed, the Hong Kong government has just launched a $130m exhibition industry subsidy scheme, whereby it will cover the venue rental cost for organisers of exhibitions held at the Hong Kong Convention Centre and AsiaWorld-Expo. This is potentially good news for the conference sector in Hong Kong, but realistically the concept is unlikely to be replicated by our own government. The announcement also strikes a note of caution: “Exhibitions typically have long planning lead-times and re-launching them before the October 2021 deadline for the Subsidy Scheme may prove challenging.” Speaking to someone from the toy retail community this week, he admitted that 90% of what he traditionally does in the Far East could be done here in the UK – although the caveat is that he doesn’t have an own brand range to curate.
However, despite the latest wave of trade show cancellations, there has been plenty of good news to report from the world of toys this week: several retailers – including Studio, B&M and Halfords – have issued positive trading statements, backed by hugely encouraging sales numbers. We’ve also revealed the Amazon top 12 toys for Christmas and the winners of the inaugural Play for Change Awards, which were unveiled in a video in which you might recognise one of the presenters moonlighting from his usual role as publisher of the UK’s leading toy magazine. Let’s just say that I won’t be giving up the day job any time soon. But it was a great initiative to be part of - as chair of the jury, we certainly had some lively debates before we arrived at the winning entries. Kudos to the TIE for managing to get the awards up and running in this most challenging of years. I think it is important to recognise the great work being done by toy companies in the fields of empowerment, sustainability and future skills areas, and hopefully we will see many more toy companies following suit and launching their own initiatives in the coming years.
The bumper October issue of Toy World also landed on desks, accompanied by a special supplement published in conjunction with Mattel Licensing – both publications packed with great exclusive content. Trade shows may have had to hit the pause button for a short while, but we’ll continue to keep you up to date with what’s happening and all the latest products about to hit shelves. And in the immortal words of a certain British ‘sweetheart’ which arguably resonate more than ever this year: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” Or maybe it will be a wintry day. But we will meet up at some point – and what a show that will be!