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by AZHELLE WADE, founder, Toy Creators Academy

I’m in a mastermind group of entrepreneurial women and we recently discussed how this past year of staying at home has affected us all socially. Some have become more appreciative of social interactions because they’re fewer and farther between. Others have noticed that we’re losing our in-person social skills altogether.

So what does that mean when we get back to normal(-ish) in the toy industry? How are we all going to interact once again? Will the digital platforms we’ve now adopted be fully abandoned or integrated into our in-person events?

Trade shows are back on the calendar for real this time and you may feel foolish for planning to attend them so far in advance, just like the pre-pandemic days. Why? Because we have spent a year taking things day by day instead of planning things strategically.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced government-mandated shutdowns, toy fairs, trade shows, and in-person events were the key to making new connections and nurturing warm leads.

At first, many thought the switch to virtual events would decrease our opportunities, reduce our impact, and hurt our bottom line. But, in many cases, it did the opposite. We swapped email for Slack channels, webinars became more interactive, and virtual meetings saved time. Once we got a hang of working from home, our days became infinitely more productive, as we had the ability to jump into meetings with people from all over the world, without wasting time on commuting or traveling.

Connecting remotely changed the way we’ll connect moving forward because virtual meetings — especially pitch meetings — are here to stay.

Apps like Calendly and Accuity have made it easy to build out meeting links with specific availability dates, terms of use, and even fees, freeing up our time and mind to focus on the next big toy trends hitting respective categories. Second to ease of use, meeting virtually actually gave us more time to meet.

The third and most valuable benefit of virtual meetings is an increase in the patience of both meeting attendees. Yup, patience. Think about it: If you travel for five hours on a crowded plane and spend one hour sitting in traffic, only to walk several football fields to get to a small meeting room at a toy trade show, you’re going to have lost quite a bit of patience on your journey. When you cut out the stress and variables of travel, both meeting attendees have a higher chance of arriving in good spirits, with their full patience intact.

The adaptability and acceptance of virtual meetings integrating with in-person events as we move forward gives companies of all sizes the opportunity to multiply their business opportunities and expand their network beyond the reach of those who attend numerous in-person trade shows year after year. A hybrid approach with a virtual component opens doors to the world.

Related: ‘The Toy Coach’ Azhelle Wade Appears on the ‘Power Kid Podcast’

Running Toy Creators Academy and the Toy Creators Academy Virtual Pitch Event, it has become abundantly clear to me that there is a wealth of innovation sitting just outside of the toy industry. It’s lurking in the minds of aspiring toy inventors who today are bakers, animators, and accountants, but who could be the toy creators of tomorrow. Without incorporating virtual meetings into future in-person events, the industry will miss out on an opportunity to connect with this global resource of new innovators.

With minimal time and effort, “first-look” virtual pitch events can give retail buyers time to review, comment, and guide the development of new products before a toy company makes final plans for shows like ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy or The Toy Association’s Toy Fair New York. The benefit is being able to respond immediately to feedback and pivot so that the product is ready sooner and better.

The future of panels and educational programming at live events in the toy industry is bound to integrate virtual and in-person speakers as well. Virtual speaker fees — for now — are typically lower than in-person fees, and that may give toy shows the opportunity to book highly notable speakers for events that may have not been an option in the past.

The next leap in the quality of in-person speaking events will be one that utilizes graphics, video placement, and in-person guests in a creative and interactive way. Platforms like Bash and Blue Jeans and apps like House Party have successfully built tools to reduce webinar fatigue by incorporating games and play into their virtual meeting platforms.

Ideally, we will see events shaped in a way that virtual and in-person speakers can seamlessly interact live on stage and with the audience. The benefit is that you can have guests from all over the world participating in events they normally could never fit into their schedule.

Over the past 18 months, the toy industry has become more patient, more flexible, and better at communicating together while being apart. If we are wise, we will continue to take the lessons learned during the pandemic and apply them going forward. If we continue to offer virtual tickets for our in-person events, we’re likely to see a spike in trade show revenue because there are a lot of aspiring toy creators in the world who would love to see the inside of our toy box.

This article was originally published in the August 2021 edition of the Toy BookClick here to read the full issue!

About the author

Azhelle Wade

Azhelle Wade

Azhelle Wade has been having way too much fun in the toy industry over the past 10 years, working for companies including Toys “R” Us, Party City, and Madame Alexander Doll Co., just to name a few. She’s climbed up and across the ladder in the toy world, starting out as a designer, later gaining three toy patents, and eventually becoming a vice president at a toy company. Wade created Toy Creators Academy, an online course to teach aspiring toy people how to develop and sell their ideas.