Blue-sky It with ASTRA


If you haven’t seen the one-liners promoting ASTRA’s Royal Caribbean cruise/tradeshow, you’ve been missing the boat – particularly if you love puns. From “Connect with your PIERS” and “Empty shelves? HULL no!” to “No big OARdeal” and “Oh SHIP! Free hotel nights?” the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association has been joyfully plugging its new event scheduled for February 20 through 24 and embarking from Fort Lauderdale.

To recap: plans for the ocean-bound get-together began after ASTRA received the results of a survey it conducted. Toy professionals expressed their enthusiasm for a new ASTRA event in early 2023 to fill the void left by Toy Fair’s move to September. ASTRA stepped up with the cruise idea – something unique and exciting exclusively for Q1 – while keeping its annual tradeshow in its optimal June timeframe.

“The Toy Boat gives manufacturers, inventors, affiliates and reps the opportunity to present their newet products to retailers, take orders for existing products, and plan year-round programs,” says ASTRA President Sue Warfield. “Meanwhile, retailers have the chance to place orders and fill their empty shelves while they network and build strong relationships with their colleagues.

Product exhibits will be open Wednesday and Thursday, February 22 and 23. Exhibitors can reserve round tabletops in three different sizes, priced from $200 to $500.

Specialty toy professionals and their families are reserving their cabins now with final payments due November 15. Prices range from $5,947.48 for a two-bedroom grand suite to $1,843.48 for an interior cabin. Prices include food, port fees, taxes, gratuities, Wi-Fi and a deluxe beverage package that covers cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks like bottled water, fruit juice, soda and coffee.

In addition to exhibits, ASTRA has planned a family-style Toy Sync Battle and two game nights – one for ASTRA members only and a second to which passengers onboard the cruise will be invited. Manufacturers can rent a demo table for two nights for $200.


Like peanut butter and jelly

The idea of combining a business agenda with a pleasure cruise is not new. The earliest ones were effective but simple: cocktail parties were held around the ship’s swimming pool and formal meetings and presentations took place in the ship’s theater. It would have been hard to imagine then the extent to which cruise-ship lines would cater to the meeting and events market. Until recently, the general perceptions of meetings at sea were that they were too expensive, lacked space, and offered much less than hotels provide.

Instead, meeting planners have discovered just the opposite is true. Industry experts estimate cruise conferences are 25 to 40 percent less expensive than their land-based counterparts, and today’s big ships have dedicated conference facilities, multipurpose lounges, spacious theaters and state-of-the-art audio visual equipment – all complimentary, reports travel company Landry & Kling.

“Cruises offer incredible value over land programs with inclusive pricing for accommodations, meals, entertainment, transportation, beverages, etc.,” said Dan Meister, CMP, owner of Meister Meetings & Travel Corp. In an article for Corporate & Incentive Travel, he explained that his company always adds the same kind of packages that ASTRA has added “so guests receive more value and do not have to spend out-of-pocket.”

“With more traditional meeting locations you are working with a blank canvas and you build from the bottom up,” said Eldon Gale, in the same article. The director of events for Scentsy, a distributor of scent-based products, recently planned a successful onboard incentive event for 2,000 people. “Cruise ships offer you an incredibly diverse amount of options for dining, entertainment and activities that are already created and are generally included in the base cost of your cruise fare.”


High Standards of safety

Before COVID 19, the cruise industry was the fastest growing segment in travel and tourism with demand outstripping supply across all sectors. It was hard-hit by the turbulence of the global pandemic, and according to the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), was handed a bad rap by the CDC. (One travel planner pointed out that ships are the only category of the travel industry required to report to the CDC.) In the last eight months, the industry has made a comeback by winning back customer trust.

“No setting can be immune from this virus,” said a statement by CLIA. “However, it is also the case that a cruise provides one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus. Cruise ships offer a highly controlled environment with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccination levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incident rates than land.”


Event planners listed a host of other benefits of conferences at sea.

• The self-contained environment encourages networking and increases attendance at functions. “You don’t have guests going ‘off-property’ when the ship is sailing,” said Shari Wallack, president of travel agency Buy the Sea. “And consider that for evening events, dine-arounds and entertainment, guests never need to leave for offsite venues.”

• Passengers travel to multiple destinations with the convenience of unpacking/packing only once.

• Since the staff-to-guest ratio is typically about three times that of most hotels and resorts, attendees receive more personal service.

• Security is greater onboard a ship than at a land-based facility.

• The environment is fun and stimulating. It sparks creative ideas and fosters camaraderie.

• A cruise is perfect for attendees who want to bring their families with them. That’s particularly important to ASTRA members. “Toy Boat is a family affair with programs for kids included,” explains the association. “Bring your kids along and get your work done.” Daily programs for kids are available from about 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and are geared toward these age groups.

Royal Babies – 6 to 18 months

Royal Tots – 18 to 36 months

Aquanauts – 3 to 5 years

Explorers – 6 to 8 years

Voyagers – 9 to 11 years

Teens – 12 to 17 years

For more information about ASTRA Toy Boat, visit


Then Saddle Up for ToyFest February 27 through March 3

The annual show of the Western States Toy & Hobby Representatives Association (WTHRA) gets underway in Las Vegas just a few days after ASTRA’s cruise returns to port. People who sail on Toy Boat and attend ToyFest will receive a free hotel night in Las Vegas between February 27 and March 3, 2023, and a free hotel night at ASTRA Marketplace & Academy in Columbus, Ohio, which takes place June 11 through 14.

Now in its 10th year in Las Vegas, ToyFest presents products from more than 500 manufacturers. In addition to toys, categories on display include gifts, infant and toddler, education & books, STEM, museum, hobby, costume, beauty, and novelty. Buyers can take advantage of fabulous first-quarter specials, unique industry events, and a chance to work with vendors and reps – all in the laid-back and friendly environment ToyFest has become known for.


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