The future is wide open …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 11th February 2022

The last two years have seen significant changes to the ways many of us have been used to working, and nowhere is this more evident than in the trade show arena. Toy Fair Season is changing, and based on a few interesting developments in recent days, there may be even bigger changes on the horizon.

First up though, on a local level, this week has seen Spring Fair taking place in Birmingham. The toy section seems to get a little smaller every year, although there were a handful of toys and games companies dotted around the gift halls, in addition to the main toy presence in Hall 5. And thereby hangs the rub: from numerous conversations at the show, it strikes me that the majority of toy companies that have kept faith with the event have done so in the expectation of meeting gift and other retailers who are perhaps less likely to attend the London Toy Fair.

Sure, a handful of toy indies visited the show, but I didn’t see much in the way of major toy buyers there – and those toy retailers who did attend were mainly looking for different ranges to broaden their offering, rather than sourcing mainstream toy lines. I heard of a couple of companies that decided not to show this year as they were told they couldn’t get a stand in the gift halls – but does the creation of a toy ‘ghetto’ make it more or less likely that gift retailers will visit that section of the show? The organizers clearly believe that creating a kid-focused sector attracts gift stores, but I wonder if toy companies share that view – many that I spoke to would rather be mixed in amongst gift exhibitors. Something for the show organizers to ponder over the coming year.

Meanwhile, over in the US, it has emerged that the Toy Association is in the process of evaluating the future of its event programme, and specifically assessing the future of the New York Toy Fair. The grandly titled Toy Fair Reimagination Project is said to be “looking at every aspect of Toy Fair, from timing and location to in-show experiences and content, to the Toy Fair brand itself.” So, in effect, there are numerous potential outcomes – so many, in fact, that I am loathe to speculate on what conclusion they might come to ahead of an announcement on the findings, which is expected in a few weeks’ time.

An article in the New York Post posits the theory that the show could shift its timing – from February to the autumn – and could also shift to an entirely different location, thousands of miles away from New York. Or it could stay exactly where it is. Everything is up in the air. I don’t envy the Toy Association: it has hundreds (or even thousands) of views, both from individuals and companies, to take into consideration. If my LinkedIn feed is anything to go by, there are many, many different opinions – all strongly held – and no one obvious solution that will make everyone happy. The massive retailers have different buying calendars to the rest of the retail channel, while the larger toy companies will have different timescales to SMEs. Then there is the fundamental question of the show’s central premise: it is a predominantly retail buying show, or has it evolved into an event that is equally aimed at media and analysts? And is the calendar for media coverage and analyst reaction the same as for retail buyers?

There are a lot of potentially conflicting views to factor into the decision-making process, along with some powerful vested interests, especially when you bring the LA Show into the equation – it’s far easier for that ‘group’ of toy companies (and I use the term ‘group’ loosely) to reach a decision, as it is driven by a couple of the biggest suppliers, with other companies located nearby tagging along for the ride. It will be fascinating to see which way the Toy Association leans – and what the consequences are for other global toy shows as a result. If the show does move to the autumn, that would represent a seismic change to the Q1 Toy Fair Season, especially as many US-based companies traditionally hold launches and announcements back until the New York show in the middle of February, which doesn’t always help their European operations to make the most of the London and Nuremberg shows.

Another big Toy Fair Season change could come from the other side of the world, with events in Hong Kong this week exacerbating an already contentious situation. Essentially, the zero-Covid strategy aggressively pursued by the Hong Kong government has hit a massive bump in the road – there has been a huge surge in cases, over 1000 a day for the first time since the pandemic began. Basically, zero-Covid hasn’t worked – prompting the government to…double down on the zero-Covid strategy. No, I don’t quite get it either. One Hong Kong lawmaker allegedly said that anyone advocating a ‘live with Covid’ approach should be charged under the controversial national security law, likening it to “starting biological warfare.” Contrast that with the announcement that here in the UK, it may not even be a legal requirement to isolate if you test positive from next month.

So, what is the upshot for international visitors? Well, given that the toughest social distancing rules yet were brought in this week, the opening of the Hong Kong border and the lifting of quarantine restrictions for international travellers seems further away than ever. Hong Kong companies are apparently finding it impossible to recruit international staff, while expats are said to be leaving in their droves (with limits on more than two people meeting in a pub, you can see why…). Several toy people who live and work in Hong Kong took to social media to say that these latest developments make the October trip highly unlikely, and even wonder whether the January ’23 trip will be feasible.

There is, however, a counter-argument – namely that this surge in cases might finally encourage more locals to get vaccinated. You can’t even get into some shops without a Covid pass now, so this might be the push the territory has needed to boost vaccination numbers, which ultimately will drive when the territory can re-open to the world.

Let’s hang on to that hope – because if not, the first and possibly the last shows in Toy Fair Season may not actually take place next year. That would certainly make it a very different couple of months at the start of the year…a major recalibration. Indeed, there is even the possibility that the whole calendar undergoes a radical shift (more thoughts on that as and when we know what’s happening). As one toy show organiser said to me this week, “the future is wide open.” The fact that he also referenced a Tom Petty song that includes that line shows that people do actually pay attention to my attempts to shoehorn musical references into the Blog whenever possible. Keep the suggestions coming…

There’s just time to congratulate both Mattel and Hasbro on a stellar set of Q4 and full year ’21 results, which were unveiled this week. It’s good news for the toy industry that the big guns had a strong ’21, despite all the challenges – let’s hope that continues this year.