Bombshell…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 6th October 2023

I’m taking the unprecedented step of writing this week’s Blog on Wednesday evening. I landed back in the UK yesterday after three full-on days in New York, only to head straight off to London to do it all over again at BLE. As a result of this Transatlantic Road Trip, my voice is already hoarse (my own fault, I know), but on the plus side the London Underground strike was called off at the last minute, making a lot of people’s lives just that little bit easier.

As I will be flat out at ExCeL for the next two days, I am getting this one ‘in the bank’ – next week’s Blog will have much more from BLE, but for now, let’s digest the week’s news from New York…and boy, there were some interesting curveballs along the way.

It all started well, with the TOTY Awards once again providing the glitzy Friday night curtain raiser for the Toy Fair. It was a hugely successful night for Mattel, who took home no less than seven awards, followed by Lego with five and Jazwares (Squishmallows) and Playmates (TMNT) with two apiece.

Despite media reports of an apocalyptic flood in New York which greeted our arrival at Newark, thankfully by the time we reached Manhattan the storm had passed. To be fair, it did look pretty horrendous in the boroughs and outlying districts, and the storms saw many flights cancelled, including that of Walmart team, who I understand sadly never made it to the show.

The following morning saw the storm clouds disappear and Toy Fair open. If the aisles seemed marginally quieter than usual, the audience was still a good blend of the US and international toy communities. Only a handful of UK retailers made the trip (Toymaster, WHSmith, Hamleys, Wicked Uncle…did I miss any?), although there were plenty of Brits present overall.

I had wondered in advance just how the change of date would affect the show. I knew that some of the biggest toy companies wouldn’t be exhibiting, especially from the ‘LA crowd’ – Mattel, Hasbro, MGA, Zuru etc. Some companies chose to showcase ‘holiday’ ranges for this year, which worked for US specialty retailers and US media visiting the show, but for me personally and most of the major retailers, we were there mainly to catch a glimpse of ’24 ranges. There were some great new lines which we were given a sneak peek at (Wow! Stuff has an absolute belter of a new launch which I am not at liberty to talk about just yet…but I gather it is already being fought over by retailers from across the globe), and I saw plenty of other good new introductions during the trip which we’ll cover down the line.

However, the mix of current product and a smattering of new lines arguably gave the fair something of an uneven, inconsistent feel…perhaps it lacked a clear identity, or a common goal that united exhibitors and visitors. Nevertheless, I felt that there was something there to build on for future years. Then came the bombshell(s)…

We were invited to attend a press conference on Sunday morning. There had been rumours on Saturday of an announcement about future plans for the show. I heard a few whispers, but none that ultimately proved accurate. One by one, twists and turns were revealed. No show in 2024. Then back to New York in March 2025. We were just trying to process this information when the real bombshell was dropped; from 2026, the show will be moving to the second week in January …and relocating to New Orleans. We certainly didn’t see that coming; in fact, a few of the international journalists turned to me to check that they had understood correctly what had been said.

There will be much debate about these new arrangements – just about every conversation in New York and at BLE has involved someone asking my thoughts on the news. First, some context: there will be no show in ‘24 because the Toy Association has decided that Q1 is the right timing for the event, rather than Q4, and they have (rightly) concluded that two shows held a few months apart wouldn’t work. However, does the 18-month gap hand LA an opportunity to build its momentum even further?

March in 2025 may seem a slightly odd choice, especially as the reason the show moved from its traditional February timeslot to September was because February was deemed too late. However, this was the earliest available slot in New York, and New Orleans is hosting the Superbowl in 2024, blocking the move until 2025.

As for the most FAQ so far – why New Orleans? I suspect that was mainly because it could accommodate the show on the chosen dates, where other locations have presumably already been booked. The Toy Association is enthusiastic about the new location – however, having spoken to literally hundreds of people since the announcement, it is clear that it is going to have a tough job to sell it to the US and global toy community. So far, I have struggled to find many people who are keen on the plan.

There seem to be two principal concerns: the new timing and the location. In terms of timing, the show will fall in the week after Hong Kong and before London Toy Fair. With Nuremberg the week following London, that theoretically means some people could potentially be visiting four shows in four weeks. Realistically, I am not sure many will relish that punishing schedule – especially Brits and Europeans, for whom London and Nuremberg are key events.

As for location, most people seem intrigued about the prospect of visiting New Orleans …but it is already becoming clear that it won’t be entirely straightforward. My understanding is that you can count the number of direct flights from the UK each week on the fingers of one hand. That means connecting flights, making it potentially double or treble the flight time compared to New York (and almost certainly double the cost too). Or, as has been suggested by frequent New Orleans visitor Dave Middleton, do we fly to Atlanta, rent a bus and turn it into a Brit Road Trip? (Please note that Dave was drinking Diet Coke when he made this suggestion, which also involved an American school bus painted with the Toy World logo…). Apparently, even many Americans would have to catch connecting flights, so that is not just a European problem.

These travel challenges would maybe not be an issue at a quieter time of the year, but in an already congested January, many people will question whether it is a step too far. Ultimately, the show’s fate may hang on the decision of the LA crowd as to whether to participate. If they do, it may attract a similar audience to the one which seems to be heading for LA twice a year. If they don’t, there is a suggestion in some quarters that the show will become more domestic and less international – almost a regional Toy Fair.

It’s a big gamble. As for whether it pays off, I guess we will find out in the fullness of time. There are many more nuances to the situation – not least how this whole scenario plays out versus LA, and what impact it has on the other January toy shows in Hong Kong, London and Nuremberg. My guess is that the organisers of those shows will have their own concerns about an already frantic January period becoming even more congested. I dare say I will be returning to this subject in the future, as there is much more to say which space constraints preclude (plus the fact I need to sleep to avoid jet lag kicking in). If anyone has any thoughts on the subject, as ever, feel free to share them (on or off the record).