Hog Wild Virtual Showroom | Source: Hog Wild

by CHRISTOPHER BYRNE, The Toy Guy, president, Byrne Communications

In the weeks just after Toy Fair New York 2020, when people were following up on leads, catching up on rest, and getting over the two months’ worth of jet lag that characterize the beginning of every year, the unthinkable happened. COVID-19 swept the globe, creating an unforeseen and almost unimaginable pandemic — and everything shut down.

As is well known by this point, trade shows were canceled, manufacturing was disrupted, and shipping was upended, all with no end in sight. Even the 2021 Toy Fair New York was canceled — only the second time that has happened in 118 years. The only other time was in 1945 at the request of the War Department to minimize travel during WWII.

Yet, after the initial shock wore off, the toy industry did what the toy industry always does: innovated. Over the past year, people in all parts and functions of the business have learned to pivot, keeping creativity, sales, and play not merely surviving, but in many cases, thriving. As work became home-centered and schools and other public gathering stopped, play filled a void.

Along the way, new practices were initiated that may become a permanent part of a reimagined toy industry. There’s a proverb that says, “It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” and while the past year has certainly been a time of anxiety and uncertainty, the response of the industry has been nothing short of impressive.

Who’s Zooming Who?

Would anything have been possible without videoconferencing and, particularly, Zoom in the past year? It’s become the dominant platform, most widely accepted and used since March. “The power of a live demonstration and putting the product in a buyer’s hand, cannot be rivaled by any virtual experience we create with technology,” says Steve Totzke, chief commercial officer at Mattel. “We can come close, but the experience is not easily replaced.”

For most, the ease and prevalence of videoconferencing has also transformed ongoing communication. “The cool thing about what has happened is we’ve now moved from follow-up being by phone and email to being able to get on video and do a face-to-face,” notes Scott Flynn, vice president of sales and marketing at PlayMonster.

It’s not a perfect solution, of course. Jay Foreman, president and CEO of Basic Fun!, notes that there is a certain level of “Zoom fatigue” that sets in, though he adds that from the early days in the spring and summer to now, presentations have gotten more sophisticated.

Even with the sophistication, companies still face hurdles, largely with getting attention and interacting. Several sales executives who did not want to be identified noted that they found themselves presenting to buyers who didn’t turn on their cameras, so they had no idea who they were presenting to.

Yet one idea that most industry players agree upon is that videoconferencing has expanded reach and engagement, with more people at more companies able to take part than in the past. “Going virtual has allowed us to spread the joy of the toy industry to people who would not traditionally have traveled to a toy fair, such as planners,” Totzke says. “There is undoubtedly a huge benefit to being able to invite more decision-makers into the room, even virtually, to showcase and demo our products.”

Virtually There

Without question, Toy Fairs are the lifeblood of the industry. “We are a mature industry; it’s part of our life and our lifestyle. Going to shows, going to Hong Kong — [there are] not a lot of us who want to give that up,” Foreman says.

Still in this “pause” year, that’s exactly what had to happen. The latest news to come out of The Toy Association, which puts on Toy Fair New York, is that the postponed May show is also canceled. The focus will be on Toy Fair Everywhere digitally and Toy Fair Dallas, which is set to take place from Oct. 5-7.

“Our goal is to put buyers and sellers together,” says Marian Bossard, executive vice president, global market events for The Toy Association. She adds that there is no way that an in-person fair can be replicated online, but the Toy Fair Everywhere market weeks last fall were considered successful.

Ralph Chow, regional director of the Americas for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), says that the organization has expanded its webinar program. Originally hoping to reschedule the January Toys & Games Fair to April, it has since been moved out to July. However, HKTDC maintains close contact with more than 3,000 buyers and exhibitors, and its business matching program has been working overtime since the pandemic began to ensure potential business partners find one another.

There’s no question that trade fairs are a huge expense, and most companies have staff who specifically handle them. This is not so much the case for a new, tech-driven showcase. Still, toys are sold most successfully when they can be seen in action, and many companies have invested in creating showrooms that come as close as possible to recreating that in-person feeling.

Very early on in the process, it became clear to almost everyone that simply sharing a PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t be enough, and that became a challenge for companies with large products. According to Susan Russo, KidKraft’s vice president of product marketing and branding, one of the biggest problems the company had to solve was how to show the scale of the product in an image on a screen. The key was bringing the toys to life with videos and showing their interactive elements.

The Show Must Go On

CEO of Far Out Toys Keith Meggs says that fortuitously, the company was already in the process of expanding its permanent showroom in El Segundo when the pandemic hit. With a few tweaks and some added technology, the showroom became a studio, and the company is continuing to refine its presentations. Meggs says the company has benefited from this setup in many ways. “It actually creates a more ‘equal footing’ in this competitive environment,” he says. “We’re still a small company, but through video, we can be as big as we want to be, so we’re looking at that as a major opportunity.”

The perception of size made a difference for Adventerra Games. The company enlisted friends and neighbors to make videos of its games to share as part of its sales process. “It didn’t matter that the light or background wasn’t perfect — the children were laughing and wiggling and yelling,” says Sue Mundell, U.S. CEO of Adventerra Games. “It’s clear they’re having a blast! So, I think those videos helped make our case. Instead of just telling everyone at the trade shows that our games are fun, we were able to really show them.”

As companies had to scramble, the urgency to “put on a show” was high. “While we might be saving money on trade shows, we were losing opportunity,” says Josh Loerzel, vice president of sales and marketing for Hog Wild. So, in the best showbiz tradition, the company built out an area of its warehouse that could become a virtual showroom.

In addition to full-on, virtual buyer meetings, Hog Wild created 1-to-2-minute video pitches of many of their items, essentially turning their catalog into an interactive experience that could be shared as an initial contact or follow up to a meeting. For a company that stresses active play, this was an important pivot. “It worked better than we thought it would, and made us look more polished,” Loerzel says.

And it wasn’t just manufacturers that were innovating during the pandemic. Canada’s Mastermind Toys created a virtual “Play Preview” to be able to continue the process of reviewing and curating products. “We have modeled the format of the Play Preview to be a similar experience to attending a toy fair and going booth to booth,” CEO Sarah Jordan says. “We scheduled virtual meetings with vendors with the understanding that they need to be efficient with their proposal, just as they would if we were stopping by their booth to see what they have to offer. The Play Preview is the first step in having more regular, virtual touch points throughout the year and continuing the momentum we are seeing by bringing vendors on as our partners.”

When Will I See You Again?

There are many innovations that have emerged from the pandemic. Using virtual tools for enhanced collaboration within companies, and specifically in sales and marketing initiatives, is likely here to stay. Some kind of hybrid experience is the general consensus moving forward. After all, there’s been a lot of adaptation, learning, and experimentation in a very short amount of time; why walk away from something that’s proven effective?

KidKraft’s Russo summed up what many said in observing that the pandemic had accelerated changes in the industry that were happening anyway, and that the industry will thrive because of these advances. Richard Gottlieb of Global Toy Experts estimates that by the end of 2021, the industry will be where it might have been by 2025.

Still, everyone is eager to get back to trade shows and in-person meetings. Meggs of Far Out Toys says that in-person meetings at retailers during the year are “the working meetings that drive the most response from the buyers.”

Trade shows provide the opportunity to show the breadth of the industry, feel the buzz, and put on a show. As of print time, it’s unknown when shows or travel will resume. Some are hopeful for Toy Fair Dallas in October, but the greater consensus is that the industry will be able to gather in person again in Hong Kong in January 2022.

And, happily, the show must (and will) go on.

This article was originally published in the February 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!

About the author

Christopher Byrne

Christopher Byrne

Christopher Byrne is a toy industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience working at toy companies, writing, and studying the business. In addition to writing for major trade magazines, he has published seven books on toy-related themes, comments regularly on the business and child development as it relates to play, and co-hosts "The Playground Podcast." Follow him on Instagram: @thetoyguy.